“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” The Ancient Mariner’s complaint could have easily applied to Shreveport for a very long time after the city was founded by the Shreve Town Company in 1839. Despite being on the banks of a major river, the growing city did not have a source of good, clean water. The Red River itself was dirty, very hard with dissolved minerals, contaminated with salt and wasn’t considered fit to drink. There were some wells, but they were shallow and poor quality. If you were well-to-do, you could afford to buy clean, soft spring water from privately owned springs south of downtown, but it was expensive at a nickel a bucket or fifty cents a barrel.
So, what did most people do for a drink of water? They collected rain water off their roof and stored it in big wooden cisterns. Rain water is clean and pure, but how does your roof look? Mosquitoes that spread yellow fever and malaria loved the cisterns, as did various other little critters. Plus, the lack of running water meant there was no sewer system, so Shreveport was more or less continually unsanitary and beset by periodic fires and epidemics through much of its early history.
These problems did sporadically stir interest by city government officials in enforcing sanitary regulations and attempting to bore deep, free-flowing artesian wells, but such wells were impossible with the underground hydrology of Shreveport. With each failure, time would pass, memories would fade about the last epidemic, sanitary regulation enforcement would lag, and interest in a municipal water system would largely disappear.
One reason for the lack of interest was the objection of large property owners (who paid most of the city’s taxes) to the expense of building a system and the “exorbitant” tax that would be required to pay for it. However, this objection was just a matter of priorities, since these same property owners readily agreed to multiple bond issues and subsidies for various railroads to be built in the city that were several times more expensive than a water system. This attitude probably arose because local merchants didn’t see any benefit to themselves (many of whom were buying spring water) and from the belief (probably true) that railroads were vital to the economic survival of the city.
This view began to change as a result of a series of serious fires beginning in 1880 that did impact property owners either directly or through their insurance rates. By this time, the talented and long-serving Mayor Andrew Currie had tamed the railroad mania and resultant horrible city finances. Currie was not only mayor, but also a large property holder and an insurance agent who understood firsthand the need for better fire protection that a modern pressurized water system could provide.
The drive for a water system got underway in 1882 when Currie sought proposals from private companies, but then sputtered through as many as five more solicitations until 1886. Problems ranged from too few bidders to a company withdrawing from the completed contract at the last minute. Despite the difficulties, the city had little choice but to turn to private companies because it was still loaded with the debt incurred enticing railroads to come to town.
Finally, in 1886 the bidding specifications were rewritten using lessons learned, and on August 12, 1886 a franchise of 30 years duration was awarded to a new successful bidder, Samuel R. Bullock & Company from New York City. Bullock then incorporated the Shreveport Water Works Company in the State of Louisiana, and construction began on a new water plant at the head of McNeill Street adjacent to Cross Bayou and a sewer system was completed in July 1887. Shreveport had water at last!
The new water mains had arrived none too soon for most Shreveporters, who now numbered almost 11,000. Running water and indoor plumbing were well-known modern conveniences that had been available elsewhere for many years. Customers quickly began signing up for service to their homes and businesses. But, before long, problems surfaced and complaints began. Bullock’s design pumped in water from Cross Bayou that was allowed to settle in two large basins, then the “clean” water was pumped out to customers. Cross Bayou was even more muddy in 1887 than it is today, and customers soon told Bullock’s Shreveport Water Works Company that they weren’t going to pay for the muddy water coming out of their tap.
The Company had to do something to stay in business, so in 1890 four sand filters were added to further clean the water after its trip through the settling basins. Sand filters are virtually universal at water plants today, but in 1890 this was an evolving technology and the Hyatt sand filters in Shreveport were state-of-the-art at the time. In fact, fewer than 10% of all water systems in America filtered water, which may have contributed to the decision not to incorporate filtration into the design originally. But, as Bullock quickly learned, using water from a muddy, slow-moving southern stream is not the same as taking water from somewhere like Lake Michigan.
The filters did a good job, but this early episode got the Shreveport Water Works Company off to a contentious start with the city it was serving. As the years passed, ownership of the company changed hands several times, including seven years under Peter Youree, before passing to American Water Works and Guaranty (AWWG) in Pennsylvania in 1899. Under AWWG, the company was an early adopter of new technology like filtration. Alum pretreatment of water in the settling basins was added in 1900. Disinfection of municipal water with chlorine began in America in New Jersey in 1909, and AWWG was quick to incorporate this, as well. After adding chlorine disinfection with a powdered compound in 1911, they bought one of the very first liquid chlorine machines to be sold in America when this improvement became available in 1914.
The year 1917 was pivotal in the history of water for Shreveport. The original franchise awarded to the water company expired on January 1st, and the city council had refused to renew it. After the opening spat that was solved by filtration, periodic arguments over water rates, low pressure, and poor quality continued for the whole period of the franchise. (Does this sound like cable TV today!) Available information suggests that the Shreveport Water Works Company on the whole did a good job under the circumstances they found locally and that rates were competitive with other cities. Nevertheless, after acrimonious negotiations the city purchased the system and went into the water business in 1917. The era of private ownership ended.
The city was immediately faced with the need to replace worn out equipment and expand the capacity of the water plant since the population of the city was growing quickly and ballooned from 28,000 in 1910 to almost 44,000 in 1920. Water rates ultimately went up, not down, in the face of these expensive upgrades.
The city made a fortunate decision soon after buying the water system when they hired Thomas L. “Tom” Amiss to be superintendent in 1917. He was a former AWWG employee and a rising star with them who had worked in the Shreveport plant before being hired by the city. Amiss steered the water system through the early problems under city management and continued to capably lead the department until his retirement in 1962. During the Amiss era, and afterwards, Shreveport’s water system was recognized a number of times with awards from its peers for excellence.
In the late 1800’s, the Shreveport water plant was typical of steam powered water pumping and treatment systems found in many cities throughout America. As the years passed, the old steam equipment at most plants became obsolete and were replaced with new electric pumps. For several reasons, that didn’t happen in Shreveport, partially because a second water plant was built in 1931 that could be expanded as the city grew while the old plant was left in place.
In fact, the steam pumping equipment continued in service until 1980 before rising prices for the natural gas used as boiler fuel finally drove the city to retire the steam equipment. There was a sense even then that this was a historic moment, so there was a retirement ceremony organized on site that was attended by Robert Vogel, the curator of heavy machinery at the Smithsonian in Washington. While he was here, he told city officials that so far as he knew, this was the last operating steam powered municipal water works in America.
The McNeill Street Pumping Station was entered on the National Register of Historic Places and then named a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1983. Later, the American Society of Civil Engineers designated the plant a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1999. This is a rare honor indeed in the world of historic preservation as Shreveport’s water works is in the company of such well known places as the Brooklyn Bridge, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Mt. Vernon, and, in Louisiana, the Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral. There are literally only a handful of intact, steam powered water treatment facilities left anywhere in America, and one of them is here in Shreveport.
Upon retiring the steam pumps, the city replaced them with new electric pumps and continued to process raw water on site for delivery to the city until 1992, when the historic old plant that had served the city so faithfully for so long was finally retired.
Now we’ll turn to some latter day history. Despite all of the recognition, the historic pump house and the steam pumping equipment inside were abandoned and mostly forgotten after 1992 and decay inevitably set in. Finally, in 1998 some local citizens were startled and puzzled when they stumbled across the site for the first time. The main pump room (added in 1921) was filled with large, Gothic-looking steam pumping engines, which were covered with rust and draped with paint debris from the ceiling. The adjacent boiler room in the 1887 section of the building with its big Heine boilers was a little better, but the Heine trademark gold eagles on top were dull with dirt and age and festooned with heroic cobwebs. The old high-service pump room, also in the 1887 building, still held a Worthington steam pump from 1900 (very rare according to the Smithsonian) that looked ready to run again, just like its last day in August of 1980. The original sand filters from 1890, now rusty and littered with debris, were found in the filter room. In the laboratory building, along with other sections of the 16,000 square foot pump house the roof was falling in, making it easy to look up and see the sky. But everything—machinery, piping, tools, and spare parts—was still sitting there intact just about like it had been on the last day of operation.
Some research by the explorers quickly revealed what a historic jewel they had found. It seemed unthinkable to let things continue declining, so a nonprofit corporation, the McNeill Street Pumping Station Preservation Society, was soon formed and a cooperative effort with city government was begun to stop the decline of the old water plant. Since then, with the support of the city, the state, private foundations, and many, many donations from Preservation Society members there have been a number of preservation success stories that have rescued the water works from demolition by neglect. There’s still plenty of work to do, but the Pumping Station is no longer on the list of the state’s most endangered historic sites as it was in 1999.
In 2006 the city donated the site to the State of Louisiana to be taken into the museum system operated by the Secretary of State, currently Mr. Tom Schedler. Support from the state, with the active partnership of the McNeill Street Pumping Station Preservation Society, made it possible to create and operate the Shreveport Water Works Museum at the McNeill Street Pumping Station. Since the grand opening of the museum in 2007, thousands of visitors have toured the museum to admire the classic machinery and learn how it provided the clean water that Shreveport needed to protect public health, survive, and grow.
There’s a lot of stationary steam power at the Water Works Museum, and the story of steam for transportation and railroads seemed like a natural fit as an added attraction. The Red River Valley Railroad Historical Society had been looking for a place for years to exhibit their collection of railroad memorabilia ranging from lanterns to china to photographs, so the Water Works Museum offered the railroad society space in an unused auxiliary building. Remodeling was required, which the railroad society did at their expense, and then they designed and installed the exhibits. So, since the grand opening in 2013, the Shreveport Water Works Museum has also offered a nice exhibit of North Louisiana railroad history known as the Shreveport Railroad Museum.
Life as a state museum worked at first, but since 2011 the state has been struggling with chronic annual budget shortfalls that have severely impacted museums and are now threatening complete closure of the Shreveport Water Works Museum at the end of 2016. This is currently an ongoing story and the outcome, and the fate of the Shreveport Water Works Museum at the McNeill Street Pumping Station, remains to be seen.