Dodge City's Water History
by Carol Jenkner
Turn a valve and water gushes forth! Or better yet, press a lever on a refrigerator door and ice-cold water fills a glass. The number of people who remember what it was like to go outside and pump for household water is diminishing. Today's youth are accustomed to daily bathing, swimming pools, refrigerated water and lawn sprinklers that come on automatically. We have acquired a conditioned response to thirst - turn a tap, fill a glass, easy and done without a thought.
But what if every glass of water had to be rationed? What if a choice had to be made between bathing and watering a garden? What if it had to be drawn from a well in town, blocks from home and shared by many others? What if there was a communal dipper beside the well that everyone used to drink from on a hot day? My teenaged students would say, "Eeewww! That's gross!"
It was a fact of frontier life when Dodge City was young. Many town sites were chosen because of their proximity to a river or other water source. Water was - and still is - a precious commodity, a driving force that dictated the plotting of roads, town developments and types of crops grown. If the Arkansas River had been the dry bed it is today, Dodge City may not have come to exist.
Once established as a town with wood frame buildings and a growing population, wells were dug. Early photographs of Dodge City, during the period from 1874 into the early 1880s, show the Front Street well, a replica of which sits at the Boot Hill Museum complex. As the town grew so did the number of wells. These were hand-dug wells with sides held in place by wooden barrels or stonework, usually dug to a depth of no more than 50 feet.
In 1886 the city contracted with an outside company to put in a modern water system. The J. A. Jance Company of Wichita began putting in a system of iron pipes through which water from the river was pumped. The water was filtered through a half mile of sand and gravel. Although the city had the option to purchase the water system after ten years, they were going through rough financial times and it was not until 1910 that Dodge City owned its water system. At that time the red brick Utilities building on Trail Street was built.
Newspaper editorials in the Dodge City Journal from January and February 1903 titled "Our Lame Waterworks" show that people were sick and tired of the city's outdated water system. One writer was indignant and explained that in the course of a house fire one of the old mains burst, leaving much of the town without water for days. He asked, "What if another fire had occurred during this time?" He went on to complain that the water system was using old engines, pumps and pipes and that it had an insufficient boiler capacity so that it would not stand up to the pressure of a large fire. But in spite of weeks of editorializing, nearly six more years went by before the city could afford to buy out the existing owner/operator of the water company.
The familiar landmark water tower east of the Civic Center was built in 1949. It replaced an adjacent standpipe that sat on a concrete circle directly west of it; the circle is all that remains of the old standpipe that was removed in 1951. Central Steel Tank Company of Wichita dismantled the old standpipe from the top down. A photograph that appeared in the Dodge City Daily Globe was taken from the new water tower looking west as the standpipe was in the early stages of being taken down.
The old standpipe was erected in 1919 replacing an earlier one that stood near the intersection of Central and Comanche. In service for forty years, this tall cylinder underwent extensive repairs in 1936 when people noticed that it had begun to lean at an angle "that was considered dangerous." Repairs to the 1919 standpipe cost $20,000; a new one would have cost $30,000. The foundation was in such poor repair that the tank had to be raised and a new foundation built to support it. Furthermore, as the tower began to lean, it was pulled out of round and two "spiders" had to be installed to bring it back to its proper shape. J. H. McCormick of Texas performed the repairs noting that all of the 13,935 rivets needed replacing, some having been "sheared virtually in two."
Water fountains were once common fixtures in downtown Dodge City. In 1936 twenty-six people signed a petition to have an additional water fountain placed at the southwest corner of Chestnut Street and Third Avenue. During this time the area was in the grip of the Great Depression; conditions were hot and dry with temperatures hovering in the 100-degree range for days on end. The City Commissioners agreed and added the fountain bringing the total to seven. The existing fountains were located at the library corner, at the Fidelity State Bank corner, in the 200 block on Walnut, at Second and Front Street, the 400 block on West Trail Street and west of the Hoover Pavilion.
Today wells and outdoor water fountains in the downtown area have all disappeared; instead we carry plastic water bottles filled with purified water. The iconic water tower of Dodge City now has two new companions sharing the skyline. No more "Lame Waterworks!"