Home News History unearthed: wooden water main found

History unearthed: wooden water main found

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An original wooden water main pipe covered in bark was unearthed by the City of New Buffalo and Abonmarche crews near the intersection of Merchant and Barton streets during the ongoing street and infrastructure renovation project the morning of Tuesday, April 24.

The crews found what is likely a pre-1900 era water pipe buried three and a half feet below the road bed. The water line had long been abandoned, having been replaced in the early part of the 20th century with a cast iron pipe line. Water Superintendent Ken Anderson said that the water department replaced lines in the early 1940s along Mechanic Street at Smith, Barker and Barton streets with cast iron pipe. At that time, they discovered fire hydrants dated back to 1929, which were connected to older lead pipes. He said no historical data exists for early water line installations in the City; however, in his estimation, the wooden pipe is from the 1800s.

The pipe is 10 inches in diameter, with a 3 ¼-inch hole bored through the middle for water service. The bark covered logs were tapered at one end and fitted together, similar to a tongue and groove type of installation. Water Distribution and Filtration Operator Rob Gruener said that his research shows that that particular type of wooden pipe was used in Michigan beginning in the 1830s and 1840s. He added that during WW I, it was used again due to the limited availability of iron.

Matt Blanton, road inspector and engineer with Abonmarche, and the City water department crews said this was a first for everyone on the scene. Gruener said that the department has more than 70 years of combined water department service; however, no one has ever seen an old wooden pipe in all of the water main breaks and streets they have dug into over the years.

“It was the last thing I expected to find,” he said.

Blanton said in his 10 years of inspecting road projects and installations, he has never seen a wooden water pipe.
Anderson said the current City water plant came online in July 1970 to provide purified water to City customers. Prior to that time, he said there were three pump houses in the City that pumped ground well water to consumers. The pump houses were located at Willard and West Mechanic streets and Water and North Townsend streets. The only existing pump house structure remaining holds the lighthouse at the City beach.

According the book, New Buffalo Story, Captain Wessel Whittaker erected the first log cabin on the northwest corner of Whittaker and Merchant streets. He then laid out the block bounded by Whittaker, Buffalo, Barton and Merchant streets, calling it Seaman Square. From the original 1935 pioneers, growth in the Village was very slow, however; by 1947, many small businesses were thriving. In 1849, the railroad came to town, bringing passengers to stay overnight in new hotels and inns. While there is no mention in the history book of water mains being installed throughout this time, with the community finally seeing growth, that might be a possible timeframe for the installation of a water main.

Originally, New Buffalo was settled and homesteaded west of Whittaker Street in the vicinity of the unearthed wooden pipe. The early homesteads, schoolhouse and businesses were built in the area north of Buffalo Street, to approximately Mechanic Street from Whittaker Street, west to Willard Street. Hotels, inns and taverns were built near Barton and Mechanic streets within walking distance of the steamship docks and the eventual train depot. Trains began arriving from the east to New Buffalo in 1849, bringing with them the first wave of tourists, who then boarded steamships to Chicago and Milwaukee ports.

Anderson said that old-timers told him they remembered men hand digging trenches to install piping. He said the wooden pipe represents at least three generations of water service throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries: the wooden pipe; the four-inch cast iron pipe installed in the 1940s and the 2017 Ductile, eight-inch iron pipe lines that are currently being installed. He said the new lines are more malleable and less rigid than old cast iron lines, with a concrete liner to prevent corrosion.

The Water Department crews cut a portion of the pipe out to be used for a future display. The remainder of the pipe remains underground, running south toward Buffalo Street under Barton Street.

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Linda Henderson

Correspondent Linda Henderson, AKA Lois Lane, has been passionate about staying on top of late breaking news, ongoing municipal projects and local social events for the past eighteen years. Prior to joining New Buffalo Times, she was a Realtor in Bucktown and Lincoln Park in Chicago, Il. She says, “Waking up and seeing the beauty of Lake Michigan everyday keeps me going, along with my labradoodle and sidekick, Scruffy.”