Akron Water Treatment Plant, 1915
August 15, 1915: Akron Water System Begins Operation. “A century ago, Akron was a very unhealthy community. In 1915, 126 people came down with typhoid fever — with 25 deaths. The deaths and illnesses in Akron and other American cities were caused by contaminated drinking water. Akron’s problem started to disappear in 1915 when the city opened its new reservoir and new water-treatment plant in Portage County — plus lines to bring that water into Akron. The new system went into operation Aug. 15, 1915 — 100 years ago this Saturday. And before long, typhoid cases diminished. In 1920, Akron had eight typhoid deaths. By 1925, the death toll had dropped to two.
Today, Akron’s water system remains one of the city’s biggest assets. The city has invested $3 billion in the water system in the last 100 years, says Jeffrey Bronowski, Akron’s Water Supply Bureau manager. Akron’s efforts to overhaul its water system began in 1910. That’s when Mayor William T. Sawyer and City Council decided to create a whole new water system. On Aug. 28, 1911, an engineering team recommended that Akron buy land and build a reservoir north of Kent on the Cuyahoga River. That would serve as Akron’s main water source, with large pipelines running from the reservoir’s water-treatment plant to Akron. It was a costly $30 million step, but a major typhoid outbreak in 1911 resulted in 40 deaths in Akron that summer.
The recommendation came from two consulting engineers: Frank A. Barbour of Boston and E.G. Bradbury of Columbus, who played a key role in developing Akron’s new system. They were paid $10,000 by the city. They analyzed the city’s options, including the Cuyahoga River, the Portage Lakes, the Tuscarawas River, the Little Cuyahoga River and the Congress Lake area. They told Akron that the best water came from the Cuyahoga River watershed. There were fewer people there and less pollution. The watershed was also bigger and capable of producing more water. What they envisioned was a series of reservoirs away from the city, much like what New York City was planning.
Before the report was released, Akron Mayor William Sawyer and Service Director John Gauthier began buying options on more than 2,000 acres of land in the Cuyahoga River watershed for about $150 an acre. The two consultants were then hired by Akron to oversee building the new water system. Work began in 1913. A dam 280 feet long was built on the Cuyahoga River about three miles north of Kent. The 769-acre reservoir, called Lake Rockwell, was designed to provide Akron with 25 million gallons of drinking water per day. Steam shovels were used to dig the lake, but 18-horse teams with plows were used to cut through the heavy clay.
A parade of 200 vehicles traveling from Akron to Lake Rockwell celebrated the opening of the new $5 million water plant. Ex-Mayor Sawyer and current Mayor Frank W. Rockwell both claimed credit for the safe drinking water. Akron initially installed 70 miles of street mains to distribute the water. The city pumped about 12 million gallons that first year.”
Horses Hauling Cast Iron Pipe for Akron Distribution System
August 15, 1922: “In support of the National Coast Anti-Pollution League, the Philadelphia Ledger writes of a time, 20 years beforehand, when fish were common in the Delaware River: ‘How [can] any sane person deliberately go into such black and vile-looking water? … [Only twenty years ago] the haul of the shad net brings that thrilling moment when the encircled fish break water and the whole surface enclosed in the arc of bobbing corks suddenly bursts into silver flame as a hundred fine big fellows leap and churn in a last desperate effort … There’s a lot more than sentiment in such reminiscences as these… They mean happiness and health in an age when the tendency is to sleep away from the turmoil and the ‘twice breathed air’ of the city… The lack of such things means millions of dollars in good, hard cash, to say nothing of the less material considerations. Philadelphia, of all cities, should support the Anti-Pollution League and should welcome the election of Gifford Pinchot to its presidency.’”
Commentary: Four days prior to the Ledger article, the National Coast Anti Pollution League was formed by state and municipal officials at Atlantic City, New Jersey to stop oil dumping. The rampant industrialization of the late 1800s and early 1900s had terrible consequences for the water resources of the U.S. Philadelphia bore more than its share of contaminated water and vanished fisheries. It would be many decades before these trends were permanently reversed. Based on what I saw in China in May of 2013, they should form a National Coast Anti Pollution League immediately and tackle their severe air and water pollution problems.
Gifford Pinchot, Forest Service head, Pennsylvania governor and president of the National Coast Anti-Pollution League