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Manistee Water Company was formed in the 1880s

Mar 08, 2023

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From the Museum's Archives

Mark Fedder

With the historical society winding down its occupation of the Water Works building, it seems fitting to take a look back at the structure's origins, namely: why it was built, why it stopped being utilized as a water pumping station for the city and just how on earth it became a museum.

In this first part of a series of articles about the history of the Water Works, we will analyze what was happening in Manistee during the early 1880s which would lead to the building being constructed.

A decade after the Great Fire of 1871 decimated roughly two-thirds of the city, we find that while Manistee was in the midst of an economic renaissance — due to the discovery of salt — the area was still without many "modern" conveniences such as a sewer system, fire hydrants or street lighting.

With a population of roughly 7,000 people in 1880, one would imagine that without those aforementioned benefits, coupled with the pollution of about a dozen mills, the city was neither overly scenic nor did it provide a pleasing aroma for its inhabitants.

This issue was commented on in several editorials published by the Manistee Times in 1882 with one such editorial, published on May 18, 1882, painting a very unappealing scene:

"We have so far seen no movement on the part of our common council in the direction of sewerage. The city is literally covered with mud holes and slop recesses where disease is daily nursed and cultivated. In every residence there must be a certain amount of dish water and slops of various kinds, and there is no possible way to get rid of it except to throw it upon the ground in the yard or put it on the street.

In 1881, local lumber magnate and businessman, A.O. Wheeler, instigated plans for a water works system in Manistee. One year later, he became the president of the Manistee Water Company and along with several other local businessmen invested money to ensure an adequate water system would not only provide residents with clean drinking water but also the tools needed to fight fires.

"This practice is filling the soil with refuse and rotting material that finds its way into the wells and renders the water unfit to drink. How in the world our city has escaped so well we are unable to imagine.

"(The) back of every house and store are cesspools of filth and nastiness, which in warm weather fill the air with putrid smells, and really makes one sigh for a few days sojourn in the deep dense forests or upon the tops of sand hills.

"In the Fourth Ward (southeastern portion of the city) is this especially noticeable. The houses and yards are close together and the streets are narrow and close. Everything in and about the city calls for better drainage. Let us have a move in this direction, or we will soon find that our city will be one vast repository of disease from one end to the other."

With new "comforts" becoming necessities for a growing municipality, a plan was put together by a group of local businessmen to form a company that would supply the city with the "tools" needed to not only perpetuate a system of clean drinking water but to also adequately fight fires.

An article published in the Manistee Times on June 16, 1881 explains the ideas being conceptualized by this group of businessmen:

"During the past two weeks Mr. A.O. Wheeler and other capitalists have been making an effort to raise a stock company for the purpose of supplying this city with a system of water works by which we will be able to not only get pure water from Lake Michigan to drink but by which we can also have a supply of fire engines at every street corner if we like and do away with the old style of dragging an engine through the streets every time a fire alarm is given.

"Mr. Wheeler has already succeeded in raising $75,000 toward a stock company and as only $25,000 more are needed to make it a success the enterprise is almost wholly dependent upon the action of the city government. A proposition has been made or will be made to the city asking a charter for the company and permission to put the pipe into our streets. The plan is to get the city to agree to pay for hydrants at certain convenient places in the city.

"These hydrants will be supplied continually with a pressure from the water works that will allow water to be thrown from them to the top of any building in the city. All that will have to be done then when we have a fire is to attach pipe to a hydrant and fire away with your water.

"The revenue of the company will come from the water supplied to private houses mostly, but of course the city will be willing to pay for the use of the public hydrants the same as they now have to pay for the fire department."

As 1881 gave way to the following year, plans for a water works were continued by the aforementioned group of capitalists whose initial $75,000 estimate would grow to a cost of $200,000.

Nevertheless, 22 stockholders invested their money and The Manistee Water Company was incorporated on May 8, 1882 with a board of directors made up of: Simeon Babcock, T.J. Ramsdell (treasurer), Gersham Wiborn, A.O. Wheeler (president), John Mee, George A. Hart (secretary), and E.E. Benedict.

After some back and forth with the City Council, terms between the company and the city were "ironed out."

An article published in the Manistee Times Standard on June 17, 1882 provides details, as well as some commentary, pertaining to what those terms were:

"The company has contracted with the city to lay pipe in the principal streets, and they have contracted to rent to the city to place 50 hydrants at the annual rental of $100 each, per year, and at any time the city desires, to sell the property to the city at actual cost with ten percent interest added less the amount of cost.

"The city are to pay quarterly and if payments are not made within 30 days, 5% is to be added, and $30 and upwards is to be charged for double hydrants.

"Fifty hydrants, with the extras, means from $5,000-$8,000 a year to taxpayers. And the proposition to sell at cost … means nothing because the company can pay the officers such amounts and make the accounts to suit the interests of the owners.

"While other cities larger than Manistee are supplied with water at about half this cost. The arrangement received the vote of every member of the common council, while very few would agree to pay 5% extra on his personal account if it ran one day longer than the time fixed. If it is not too late these terms should be changed."

However, others thought that the investors plan, which was later tweaked, was somewhat fair as an article published in the Manistee Advocate on Dec. 21, 1883 — roughly six months after the water system commenced, makes mention that:

"The consumer participates in the company's prosperity — the greater the demand, the cheaper the rates. The stockholders have absolute security for their money and expect to receive a fair interest.

"The intention is to lower the rates as the business increases. The whole arrangement is decidedly advantageous to the city."

Looking at the names of board members and investors —lumberman, lawyers and a few businessmen— who made up the Manistee Water Company, one can suppose that while there is no doubt that all involved sincerely cared about the well-being of the community, that they also probably had other matters on their minds when becoming involved with this new venture. Matters such as:

Fire loss — Whether in the form of another Great Fire akin to 1871, or any fire, they had a lot to lose if their business interests were destroyed and a fire hydrant system meant that their investments would have a better chance to be protected.

Financial gain — With their investment in the water company and a deal set-up with the city, they would presumably gain financially.

As the next few months went by, plans would proceed for the construction of an engine house that would employ men operating various machineries thus forcing water to all portions of the city via a series of pipes.

Yet in order to get the purest water, either from the lake or from a significantly large well, it was disclosed that this structure would have to be built somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Michigan.In July of 1882, three lots located near the northeast corner of Tamarack and First Street were purchased by the water company from local lumber magnate John Canfield for the purpose of constructing a home for Manistee's Water Works and next week we will examine the construction of that building.

Mark Fedder is the executive director of the Manistee County Historical Museum. He can be reached by email at [email protected], or by phone at 231-723-5531.