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Water woes in old Bloomington

December 28, 2013

Bloomington relies on surface water, not aquifers. Until the 1920s the growth of the city was severely challenged by the lack of water. Unlike Indianapolis, Chicago, Louisville or Nashville, there is no river to provide a steady source of drinking water.

Bloomington never could have grown to its current size without a good source of water. This image of Lake Griffy's dam is courtesy Wikimedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Griffy_Lake_-_dam_drain_-_DSCF4386.JPG

This image of Lake Griffy’s dam is courtesy Wikimedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Griffy_Lake_-_dam_drain_-_DSCF4386.JPG

Bloomington sits on a rolling plain almost twenty miles from the White River. Its early years were marked by a chronic lack of water. Springs and creeks dry up during the late summer, and we are subject to periodic drought. This is not due to climate change, for during research for my book on the Showers family I discovered historic records of many droughts going back into the 1880s. The average seemed to be about one drought every seven years.

The Showers family was particularly interested in obtaining a stable and abundant source of water for the city, not only out of civic altruism but also because their steam-powered furniture factory required large amounts of water. Beginning in the 1880s the Showers brothers, James and William, began advocating the construction of a reservoir to meet the needs of the growing city. During each bad drought the factory had to shut down, leaving its employees unpaid. This affected the community at large since the factory was the largest employer in town.

The city’s first reservoir was created when a stream was dammed and the waters captured in a pond atop the bluff southwest of town past Landmark Drive, some distance south of where Bloomfield Road runs up the steep hill. The water from that small pond was gravity-fed to the city below. The second reservoir was located at what later became known as Twin Lakes. The first lake there did not furnish enough water and so the second was constructed.

A vehicle backs up on the hill overlooking the brand-new Lake Griffy reservoir. This image, reprinted in my Showers book, is the property of the Monroe County History Center and may not be reproduced.

A vehicle backs up on the hill overlooking the brand-new Lake Griffy reservoir. This image, reprinted in my Showers book, is the property of the Monroe County History Center and may not be reproduced.

But none of these three small reservoirs was sufficient for the needs of the city and its industries. So Weimer Lake was built, followed by the Leonard Springs reservoir. The problem with all of these reservoirs is that they overlaid porous karst limestone,  riddled with sinkholes and crevices. Most of the water  percolated down through the porous lakebeds and was lost.

The city suffered. Although plumbed-in city water began to be available to expensive neighborhooods in the early 1900s, it was never enough. During droughts there was not enough water for working-class housewives to wash dishes or launder the family’s clothes. Every house built before 1915 has an underground brick or limestone cistern fed by gutter downspouts. These cisterns were often located just outside the back door, half of the unseen cistern protruding beyond the home’s footprint to receive the downspout, and half underneath the back room of the house, where the housewife used an old-fashioned long-handled iron pump to draw the water up for domestic use. Today the old cisterns are generally capped off with a slab of limestone or concrete, but in the old days they appear to have been open, and I found several tragic items in the newspaper about toddlers who fell into the family’s cistern and drowned.

The Showers Inn, located in the former mansion built for W. Edward Showers, has original shower fixtures that were fed by the home's own independent plumbing system. Cistern water was heated by boilers, pumped to holding tanks beneath the roof, and gravity-fed to the faucets in the house below. The flat round boss on the back wall of the tub is actually a spout through which the water pours.

The Showers Inn, located in the former mansion built for W. Edward Showers, has original shower fixtures that were fed by the home’s own independent plumbing system. Cistern water was heated by boilers, pumped to holding tanks beneath the roof, and gravity-fed to the faucets in the house below. The flat round boss on the back wall of the tub is actually a spout through which the water pours.

Fed up by the city’s inability to provide enough water, the University built its own reservoir in the upper Griffy watershed around 1910. But even that reservoir dipped dangerously low in drought. There were times during which students were instructed not to take more than one shower a week.  By the late 1910s, when the city began offering sewage services to the first few  neighborhoods, the water problem became acute because the act of flushing used so much additional water.

The Showers brothers lent support and money to the construction of the West Side reservoirs but lost patience when it became obvious that the struggle was useless. By around 1920 the Showers family and city residents were fed up with the situation. They demanded that a new reservoir be built on the stable limestone layer that characterizes the eastern half of the county. The mayor blocked their efforts, insisting that the city had invested too much money and infrastructure on the city’s west side to consider moving and starting over. Proponents of change orchestrated a sizeable demonstration at the Courthouse, and the Showers family stepped forward and took matters into their own hands. They announced that a new city reservoir would be built on Griffy Creek north of town. Members of the family personally donated 25 percent of the cost of building the new reservoir, and the three banks controlled by the family provided loans for the remainder of the money. Construction began on the lake in 1923.

As readers know, even the water from Griffy Lake was not sufficient, and Lake Lemon was built in the 1950s followed by Lake Monroe in the 1960s. Lake Monroe displaced an entire small town and its cemetery and historic farmsteads. If it silts up as quickly as all the other lakes, then Bloomington’s water supply will be challenged again within our lifetimes. Where could another reservoir be constructed? The landscape is far more densely settled than it was in the middle of the last century. Securing a permanent water supply, as opposed to one that works for a half-century or so before becoming compromised, will be a challenge not easily solved.

Griffy Lake shortly after being drained in 2012 for dredging and dam repairs.

Griffy Lake shortly after being drained in 2012 for dredging and dam repairs.

A suggestion: it would add very little the the cost of construction if all new houses came with five- or ten-thousand-gallon subterranean cisterns made of concrete and fed by downspouts. When water is so inherently scarce, it makes no sense to allow rainwater to run off without being used.

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7 Comments
  1. Thanks for this excellent article. I’m not sure how I found it so quickly, but I am glad I did.

  2. David Parsons permalink

    Carol, I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate and value the online articles that I receive through the housesandbooks. This one is a good example of thoughtful reporting that sheds light on a current issue. Did you notice that the state has formed a commission to look at water issues, including Lake Monroe. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more talk of other municipalities getting a share of Lake Monroe’s water.
    Best to you, I’ll look for the next installment.

    • Thanks so much for writing, David. I will be very interested in what the commission finds about Lake Monroe. Thanks for reading, and I wish you a happy New Year!

  3. My family home on N. Park had a disused cistern in our garage – a latter addition to the house. One face protruded from the surrounding dirt and a doorway cut into the exposed side making it unusable for its intended purpose. As children we would look into the darkness of the enclosed space and think that it fell away to forever, (actually more like a foot below the floor.) The sides were concrete grey and the cut-away showed a brick layer in between. Later on, a sink hole opened up in the yard about twelve feet from the housed cistern, the irony being that if the water had been trapped and channeled for use the sink hole probably wouldn’t have developed.

    • Because the doorway had been cut into it afterward, I wonder whether the cistern might have dated to the construction of the house, before the garage was constructed. They weren’t always located directly next to the back door. But yet, if the cistern was at some distance from the house, how could it have been fed with rainwater? If it was only a foot deep, could it have been the remnants of a decorative pool or water feature? The cisterns I’ve seen were all at least five or six feet deep. Curious. —Thanks for reading and commenting, Chessley.

  4. No, the distance to the bottom was from floor level, the height above the floor was about five and a half feet. The garage was a later addition, as you suggest, the dirt removed up to the cistern and a concert floor laid up against the rough limestone wall that comprised the original foundation of a basement. the outside wall of the garage/addition was cinderblock. The house was a real piece of sh@#t as it relied upon coal for heat and neglected insulation in favor of abundant, cheap coal which my brother and I had to both shovel as well as pull out the slag “Clinkers”, as my mother called them, which were picked up with the trash. Trouble came when the furnace blew in the middle of winter and there was no money to fix it.
    As for the cistern, we filled it up with junk, occasionally emptied it of junk and the cycle went on. After the house was sold, gutted by the new owner and renovated I have no idea if he left it in place, I would assume that he did as I can see no resin to remove it.

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