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How Dayton Was Saved from the Drought

This article appeared in the September 21, 1930 edition of the Dayton Daily News.



By  Howard Burba


     A Dayton motorist, approaching a small town in southern Ohio on a parching hot day in an August this nation is not soon to forget, encountered serious motor trouble.  By resorting to every trick know to automotives, he managed to limp into the edge of the village before the protesting motor “went dead.”

     Within a split second he had determined the cause of his grief.  He had neglected to keep the radiator supplied with water.  Ordinarily such a condition would have occasioned no more worry than if the cigar between his lips had burned out.

     But this was in August, the most distressing August in the history of the present generation.

     Proceeding to the general store in the village, where a group of farm hands had come to swap gossip until such time as the sun reached a point were it would be possible for man and beast to survive in the open fields, he asked where he would be most apt to find a few pints of water for the famished radiator.  Eyes met eyes in puzzled wonderment as each waited for the other to reply.  It was as though he had asked them to divulge their most intimate family secret.  And then one, more emboldened that the rest, pointed to the far end of the street where still another native of the community was engaged in filling a barrel with water from a well.

     “Go down there, mister, and ask for a bucket of water.  That’s the last well in all this section that ain’t gone dry.  God knows what we’re going to do when it fails.”

     In an instant water assumed a new and different significance for the Dayton motorist.  He realized for the first time the part it plays in the general scheme of things.  He saw it, for the first time, as the God-given elixir that alone stands between mankind and his maker.  Water became, in his opinion, the little stream of life that courses between the peake of two eternities.  He took barely enough to keep his motor functioning, yet he felt he had figuratively, filled that radiator with the life-blood of a distressed community.

     So accustomed has Dayton become to having an abundance of water at all times that nothing short of an experience similar to the one related by this motorist can create a belief in the mind of one of her citizens that there could possibly be a shortage anywhere else.  Water has come to be such a matter-of-fact part of our daily life, here in a city blessed beyond compare, that we have taken it for granted that it will be here every day, the same of the sun, and every night as steadily and abundantly as the stars.

     It is a comforting feeling.  It is the one thing for which Dayton should be far more thankful than she has yet been.  With the worst drought in history past, Dayton might very appropriately offer up a prayer of thankfulness for an abundance of water, from modern methods of drawing it from the earth, for a perfect system of distributing it.

     On the hottest day in the month of last July, when throats were parched over a wide area of surrounding territory, Dayton consumed 34,000,000 gallons of water.  And not for a single second was there a lowered pressure by reason of the heaviest drain ever made on the supply in a single day.  Not once throughout the entire period of sweltering and perspiring was it found necessary to halt this use of lawn sprinkling or factory consumption.

     Out on Keowee st., gigantic pumps, working as noiselessly as a clock and with equal precision, never faltered in their task of drawing a daily average of 24,454,000 gallons of pure, sparkling, life-giving elixir from the gravel beds far beneath the then parched grasses of the old Mad River terrain.  These gigantic pumps alone, stood between Dayton and the worst catastrophe that can befall any people—the total failure of their water supply.  Had these pumps failed, with drought conditions what they were all about us, no power could have prevented suffering as great from a lack of water as it was made great in 1913 by an over-abundance of it.

     Daytonians can never realize the debt they owe those pioneers who planned and made possible the modest little water system that has grown into one of the most perfect to be found anywhere in the civilized world.  In face, so accustomed have Daytonians become to taking their water supply as a matter-of-fact that most of them have not even taken the time to ascertain where it originated, and why it is to be had at all times in an apparently never-ending supply.  If ever there was a appropriate time for getting acquainted with this greatest of all public utilities it is at this moment---just as the curtain is descending on the final act of the worst drought, the most tragic drama, recorded within the memory of present-day Americans.

     Dayton’s water supply was really provided for away back in the glacial period, when all this part of the western hemisphere was coated with an unbroken sea of ice; when glaciers far larger than our present hills ground themselves together in an endless shifting struggle for a place out of the sun.  Four million square miles of this continent were buried beneath this glacial formation, this vast ocean of solid ice.  The depth of this sheet at its southern border, somewhere in the vicinity of Louisville, was several hundred feet.  In this particular region its thickness was sufficient to cover every elevated portion.  It was the eventful movement of this ice from climatic changes together with the waters contributed through a melting process, that formed the beginning of our present land surfaces.

     This valley in which Dayton is situated was, as near as scientists can compute, in almost the exact center of this glacial drift.  The deposit left by the melting of these glaciers, and that required thousands of years, consisted chiefly of what we know as gravel and sand, formed by the constant grinding together of the bowlder-filled glaciers.  The resultant condition was to leave vast terrains, or porus basins.  It has been thoroughly established that the Mad river valley, all the way from Dayton up to Cold Springs, just this side of Springfield, is one great bed of this glacial drift.

     It was in this stratum, or natural reservoir, that pioneer residents of Dayton found their first vast water supply.  It is from this great natural reservoir, formed when this continent was taking shape, that we now secure it, and probably will for all time to come.  The water is drained from the extended water sheds of the Mad river valley to the river, and over and through this drift deposit, including the great area of lowlands now largely occupied by the old and new portions of Wright Field.

     A half-century ago wells were sunk along the river near the present site of the waterworks plant, just off Keowee street.  In putting them down in the bed of the river the bottom of this drift was never reached.  In fact, in later years, when a attempt was being made to locate gas near Findlay st. and on the old “Huffman Prairie” to the east, wells were drilled to a depth of 500 feet without passing entirely through it.  This indicates that there is no break in the porous underground body of water-bearing strata between the present well-system and the territory running up Mad river to a point far beyond Riverside, once known as Harshmanville.

     Since the original trio of wells were sunk in the river bed near the present Keowee st. bridge the growth of the city has made additions necessary.  Today there is a total of 152 wells, extending as far east as Riverside.  At no time has it ever been found necessary to resort to all of these to meet the city’s demand for water.  The time will come, however, when still more wells will be needed.  But there is no reason to believe the vast natural reservoir formed by the glacial swirl will ever be exhausted.  Scientists who have made a sturdy of the Dayton water system agree that all that will be necessary, as more and more water is needed, will be to sink more wells and that this can be done on up the river beyond the Huffman dam.

     In sinking these wells it has been found that the first 15 feet were composed of loam mixed with clay and compacted gravel.  After leaving this, the water-bearing strata consists of loose, clean-polished gravel and sharp sand, which continues to the bottom of the wells.

      Under these conditions the water has been found to be very free in its flow, and the conclusion was long ago reached that there is a strong, underground flow, a combination of thousands of springs, beneath the  entire terrain.  Furthermore, in making deep cuts for suction mains in recent years, the upper part of this underground stream appeared to have been struck, as it was found necessary in several instances to do an enormous amount of pumping to free the trenches of water long enough to lay the water pipe.

     The purity of this vast water supply is unquestioned.  Dayton’s health statistics attest in a positive way to the pureness of her drinking water, while bacteriologists and chemists of high standing heave constantly added their praise.  They have offered interesting theories as to its extreme potability; First, from the fact that there has been little danger from pollution up to the time near or above the supply.  Second, that contamination, if any, is carried beyond the system by the strong undercurrent before it reaches the bottom of the wells.  Third, the splendid natural filtration, and last, the temperature is too low and the water too much agitated for bacterial propagation.

     These life-giving wells on which Dayton has learned to lean with unfaltering confidence for her water supply, are not the deep-drilled holes into the bowels of the earth that one would imagine.  In fact, they are only from 25 to 100 feet deep.  And yet there is a terrific flow of water into them.  One reason for varying their depth is that water may be pumped from different levels.  Into the new wells is sunk an eight-inch galvanized iron pipe, with a brass strainer eight to ten feet long at the bottom.  Each well is cut off at the proper elevation with the suction pipe, and a “T” casing fitted on the top.  The top branch of the “T” is threaded for taking the plugs and a nine-inch wrought-iron pipe casing, both of which extend to the surface of the ground.  By this means it is possible to get into one of the wells without excavating.  The horizontal branch of the “T” leads to the suction pipe.  Before reaching the suction pipe a valve is set in the branch in order to shut off each well independently.

     So perfect is the arrangement of Dayton’s water system that pumping may be regulated as desired.  Under ordinary conditions, a certain number of wells are drawn upon.  In case of a large down-town fire, when more water is needed, it is but the work of a second, much like switching on additional electric lights to cut in more wells.  And this is the procedure resorted to during the summer months, when the demand reaches its peak.  The water is there, in any desired quantity.  Once it is turned on, it is up to the pumps to place it in the mains for distribution to the more than 200,000consumers in the city.

     Dayton has spent many thousands of dollars within recent years in replacing machinery at her pumping station.  Like machinery of every kind, it wears out, it becomes inadequate to meet the growing demands of a constantly growing city.  Throughout the peak of the recent drought six mammoth motored pumps were kept in action almost constantly.  During the night season, of course, it was possible to reduce this number.  They have never failed to respond to the touch of the engineers.  Until four years ago the pumping and distribution was by steam-propelled machines.  To day these stand idle in the old building nearest Keowee st., which so long served faithfully and well the needs of all Dayton.  But they have outlived their usefulness; they have earned the rest to which they have been assigned.

     It is unnecessary to present figures to show Daytonians how successful has been the operation of their water system from a financial standpoint.  They may not know just where their water comes from, or how it gets to them.  But they do know that financially it is the one branch of their city government of which they will never grow tired of boasting.  And it might also be said, with all due respect to every privately owned utility in the community, that if the Dayton water works system was operated in any other manner than it is today and that it always has been water might be as plentiful but it would be a long way from being as reasonably priced.

     Just a few figures, however, may serve to give the average Daytonian a better idea of this utility of which every citizen is proud.  He might like to know, for instance, that his waterworks system is capable of pumping if it is absolutely necessary, a grand total of 60,000,000 gallons of water daily.  He should also be interested in knowing that the average daily consumption runs around 23,454,000 gallons.  The largest amount pumped in any one day during the drought was 34,000,000 gallons, and this water circulated through 250 miles of street mains before it finally found its way to the consumer.  Then, too, it might be well to know that there are now approximately 3000 fire hydrants in the city, and that while the average pressure maintained for domestic consumption is 60 pounds, this pressure can be stepped up to 130 pounds to give the fireman who use these hydrants all the water, and all the force behind it, that they need for successful fire-fighting.

     And there is the story of the “town pump.”  There is a picture of a utility without a peer in all America.  There is the reason why Dayton’s water supply never diminished at a time when throughout the nation men and women of other communities knelt in prayer for the life-giving liquid that Dayton possessed in abundance, and that she would gladly have shared with others had it been possible.

     Who is there to say that Dayton has not been smiled upon, even by the suns that melted the glaciers and made her present magnificent water supply possible?