August 1, 527 CE: Emperor Justinian I and the Basilica Cister; 1889: Omaha, NE Gets a Waterworks

Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern

August 1, 527 CE: Beginning of the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, builder of the Basilica Cistern. “The Basilica Cistern (Turkish: Yerebatan Sarayı – Sunken Palace, or Yerebatan Sarnıcı – Sunken Cistern), is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), Turkey. The cistern, located 500 feet southwest of the Hagia Sophia on the historical peninsula of Sarayburnu, was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. This cathedral-size cistern is an underground chamber approximately 453 by 212 feet – about 105,000 square feet in area – capable of holding 2,800,000 cubic feet [or 21 million gallons] of water. The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 30 feet high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each spaced 16 feet apart. The capitals of the columns are mainly Ionic and Corinthian styles, with the exception of a few Doric style with no engravings.” (edited by MJM)

Istanbul has always had limited water resources. Water supplies had to be transported to the city through long canals and aqueducts. Istanbul has also been the target of invading armies and has had to rely on stored water during long sieges. For these reasons, underground and open-air cisterns have always been a part of the city fabric. Sometimes stored water in local cisterns had to last the city’s population for months. There is no official count of the number of cisterns that had been built in ancient times, but dozens have survived and many can be visited. The Basilica Cistern is the grandest of them all.

Commentary: I recently read a novel entitled Inferno by Dan Brown. A significant part of the book takes place in this cistern. Great location of a movie shoot.

Minne Lusa Pumping Plant

Minne Lusa Pumping Plant

August 1, 1889: Florence Waterworks opens in Omaha, NE. The system at that time consisted of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station and several miles of pipe. The history of water development in Omaha before the Florence Waterworks was open was colorful and rocky. “For thirteen years after Omaha was founded there were no street cars, water mains, gas, or electric lights in the new but growing town….For several years after being founded Omaha was a town without a bath tub. [In later years,] Saturday night ablutions in the old wooden tub in the center of the kitchen floor were no uncommon thing. Or the hardy seekers after cleanliness took a dip in the river. The Saturday bath was an institution not lightly given over to modern changes.

Women carried water from well or cistern, except when they could induce their husbands to carry it for them, and the old wood cook stove…were to be found in every home. The first agitation for a city water works system was started as early as 1857. Several times in the following 20 years the question of a water system was brought up without any action being taken. An artesian well system was the favorite with the early settlers. They looked askance at the Missouri river water.

Before the water plant was built, large cisterns were constructed in the middle of the street intersections in the business district. Water was pumped from those cisterns when a business building caught fire. They proved better than nothing, but at that were far from satisfactory….

The [first water] system was opened in 1881 with 17 miles of pipe. Omaha’s first big municipal scandal developed in connection with the waterworks agitation. A prominent citizen was charged with bribing a councilman, but the charge was not substantiated. On August 1, 1889, the Florence waterworks was opened and a big day it was. Speeches were made and a banquet was served at what is still called the Minne Lusa pumping station.”

 

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