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Early water works primitive to today's standards

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An early photo of Connersville's first water plantnext to the Whitewater Canal. Several factories can be seen in the background.
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When Finly Gray was mayor frm 1904-1911, the city drilled wells for a cleaner water supply and built a new water plant.

As the calendar counts us down to 2019, two important milestones are approaching: The 150th anniversary of Connersville becoming a city and the same number of years for the beginning of Connersville Utilities.

In the year of 1869, Connersville was finally chartered as a city. This year was important in another way to local citizens. In September 1869 the City Council contracted with the Holly Manufacturing Company of Lockport, New York, for the erection of a city water works. The 1860s had been a great period of growth for the village and 52 buildings had been erected in 1868 alone. The railroads had been built and the city streets were lit by coal oil.

A Fire Department of six men had been commissioned the year of 1869 and the original water works was principally for the purpose of fire protection more than domestic use. The cost of this new plant was $47,000. The location of the new plant is almost exactly the office area of the present city street department on Illinois Avenue.

The pumps were driven with water power from the Whitewater Canal. Water for the distribution system was also supplied by the canal. The area of the present street department parking lot contained something of a settling pond fed by the canal. The pond allowed for the settling of solids, and clean water was then pumped from the top of the pond and distributed to customers for consumption.

A normal water pressure of 25 pounds was maintained except in the case of a fire, when extra power was supplied to bring pressure to 75 to 100 pounds. The original distribution system began on 13th Street to the north and to south Eastern Avenue at the old Roots plant. Lincoln Avenue was the west boundary and the river stopped the water supply to the east. Water was not supplied to East Connersville until it joined the city in 1923.

The earliest method of charging for water services was dramatically different than today. The charge was $4 per year for one water spigot in a one-family dwelling; $1 for each additional spigot; $1 for a private bathtub; and $6 for a public bath.

An upgrade of the pumps to coal driven was made in the 1890s to supply more water and pressure. Several men shoveled the coal around the clock at wages less than 25 cents an hour.

This system operated nearly 40 years before cries for a cleaner, more pure water supply won the day. Mayor Finly Gray, who was mayor from 1904-1911, before being elected to Congress for a total of 12 years, led the charge to upgrade the system shortly after entering office in early 1905. Finly lived in the country where clean water was plentiful and couldn’t stomach local residents drinking the filthy canal water. Legend has it that he called a special session of the Council, meeting at 9th Street bridge overlooking the canal. As Mayor Gray lectured the Council about the deplorable condition of the drinking water, three bloated hogs floated under the bridge and the mayor got his new water plant.

In 1910, the new waterworks plant was built near 9th and Fayette streets. The cost was to be $30,000 but at least another $20,000 was needed to finish it. New wells were drilled near the river to the east of the new plant and a new maintenance garage was also on the grounds. This plant is still operational over 100 years later and is used as a backup for fire protection. It could be used for a time if the main plant were to fail.

Many upgrades have been made over the years since, including a new water plant and transmission system in 1966. Expansions and upgrades have been done also, but the original water systems and mains are still largely used and are in decent condition considering their age.

This investment has served Connersville well. Many thanks to those early leaders for their vision and accomplishments.

Brad Colter is superintendent at Connersville utilities. He writes Looking Back for the Connersville News-Examiner.