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Our Rich History: Newport once had the region’s healthiest water supply — and led to its growth


By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Part 67 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

“Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!” This old saying would have aptly described the water supply of Cincinnati and Covington for most of the 1800s, at least in terms of modern health standards.

Slaughterhouses and factories in the area dumped their waste products — including the blood of slaughtered animals — into the streams and rivers flowing into the Ohio River. Raw sewage would have added to the murky mix.

To make matters worse, the Ohio River navigational pool was much lower in the 1800s than currently. Therefore, the pollutants in the river were much less diluted than at present, exacerbating the situation, especially during droughts.

A section of an old wooden water main of the 1820s-era Cincinnati waterworks. Courtesy of the Greater Cincinnati Water Works

On July 3, 1821, Cincinnati’s first waterworks became operational. Water was pumped from Front Street up to a wooden reservoir on Third Street. Then, it made its way through log pipes to the residents of the city. Thankfully, residents no longer had to take buckets to the nearest well, stream, or to the Ohio River itself to retrieve water.

While area residents used water for cooking, bathing and other household functions in the 1800s, they certainly did not depend upon it solely for drinking. Indeed, residents of the 1800s drank a lot of “cleaner” beverages, including beer, whiskey, and wine. And of course, they boiled their water to make coffee, tea, and other hot beverages.

Covington and Newport residents, meanwhile, were still without a waterworks. Throughout the 1850s, there were attempts to rectify the matter, but to no avail.

Then, in 1867, a solution appeared at hand. In that year, Covington’s city council approved an agreement to buy water from the City of Cincinnati. However, pardon the pun, things seemed “fishy.” Murat Halstead, editor of the Cincinnati Commercial, claimed that his Covington reporter had obtained information that Covington officials had paid a Cincinnati attorney $5,000 to “influence” Cincinnati city council members to approve the measure. Although subsequent investigations by the city councils of both Cincinnati and Covington proved inconclusive, the general public smelled corruption. Not surprisingly, the deal was called off.

In the interim, in February 1868, the House of Representatives of the Kentucky General Assembly approved a charter re-incorporating an inactive corporation called the Newport and Covington Water Works Company. It held an organizational meeting in Newport on Wednesday, July 8, 1867, reporting that $104,000 in stock had already been taken. In addition, the stockholders elected seven directors of the company: William Ernst; T. G. Gaylord; D. Wolff; P. Walsh; H. D. Helm; T. W. Yardley; and George R. Fearons. Fearons, of Newport, was then elected president of the company (“Kentucky Legislature,” Covington Journal, March 7, 1868, p. 3; “Kentucky, An Act to amend an act to Incorporate the Newport and Covington Waterworks Company,” Kentucky Acts 1865-66, p. 14; “Water Works,” Covington Journal, July 11, 1868, p. 3; “Newport,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, July 10, 1868, p. 1).

On Thursday, June 25, 1868, T. Wrightson of Cincinnati conveyed a plan to the Covington city council, proposing a consolidated water system for the cities of Cincinnati, Covington and Newport. Mr. Wrightson’s suggestion was to place the intake valve and pump house of the water works on the Kentucky shore, “about one mile above the mouth of the Little Miami river, ‘and far away and above any possible contaminating influences from that stream, and beyond any prospective reach of city’ “ (“Pure Water,” Covington Journal, June 27, 1868, p. 2).

A consolidated water system elicited the interest of Mayor Wilstach of Cincinnati, as well as Amos Shinkle of Covington and Colonel Fearons of Newport, who, along with “other prominent citizens” and a group of engineers, visited the site of the proposed works above Dayton, Kentucky in June 1868 (“Newport,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, June 25, 1868, p. 1).

Meanwhile, negotiations between Covington and Newport officials were begun by June 1869. In July, George R. Fearons, president of the Newport and Covington Water Works Company, made a proposal to supply the city of Covington with a “Holly System” water works, at an estimated cost of $280,000, including “buildings, engine, pumps, wells and filters, with ten miles of street mains” (“Water Works,” Covington Journal, July 17, 1869, p. 3; “Covington,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, July 17, 1869, p. 1).

Fearons conditioned his plan, however, on the ability of Covington to raise $100,000 to subscribe to the stock of the water company. Intrigued by the proposition, the council agreed to submit a $100,000 bond issue to the voters in August (this was later postponed to September). In addition, council instructed the Committee on Water Works to spend up to $150 in digging a well to determine whether the system could be operable in Covington (“Covington. City Council—Regular Meeting Yesterday Afternoon—The Water Works Project,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, July 23, 1869, p. 1).

The Holly Water System was the rage of its day. It utilized Holly rotary pumps that provided a constant and dependable stream of water through the mains of a city, at a uniform water pressure. This differed from a stand-pipe or pulsation pipe system, where both the quantity and the pressure of the water varied. With a steady water pressure, the Holly plan’s fire plugs made steam fire pumping apparatus obsolete, and a reservoir redundant. Further, the Holly System filtered the water, insuring a cleaner and healthier supply (“Council Proceedings. Report of the Water-Works Committee,” Covington Journal, August 21, 1869, p. 3; “An Important Question. Shall We Have Water Works?” Covington Journal, September 18, 1869, p. 2).

The Holly system was based upon natural filtration of water. William Weir, a Holly company engineer, visited Covington and conducted “topographical and geographical” surveys. He concluded that within three blocks of the Ohio River, between the suspension bridge and Willow Run Creek, the river water seeped through the neighboring ground.

Reservoir of the Newport waterworks, circa 1910. (Courtesy of Northern Kentucky Views)

At a special election held on Monday, September 20, 1868, Covington voters decided overwhelmingly to support the $300,000 water works bond issue. Some 1,525 people voiced their support for the measure, while only 161 stood opposed to it. The vote, the Covington Journal jubilantly stated, signaled “a new impetus to the growth and prosperity of Covington” (“The Special Election. Splendid Majority for the Water-works Proposition,” Covington Journal, September 25, 1869, p. 3).

In late January 1879, Birdsill Holly (the inventor of the Holly System) and his secretary came to Covington, inspected the proposed site for the Holly Works, and signed the necessary contracts and legal papers. By mid-February, the site of the works, on the northwest corner of Main and Second Streets extending 150 feet to the Ohio River, was chosen. In March, the city council authorized the sale of $300,000 worth of water works bonds (“Water Works,” Covington Journal, January 29, 1870, p. 3; Covington Journal, February 12, 1870, p. 3; “Council Proceedings,” Covington Journal, March 19, 1870, p. 3).

The Covington waterworks was completed by February 1871, at a cost overrun of some $100,000, an additional bond issue of the same amount being authorized by the legislature. By May 1871, over 600 families were tied into the water mains (Covington Journal, February 18, 1871, p. 3; “The Water Supply,” Covington Journal, March 4, 1871, p. 3).

The public response to the water system ranged from satisfactory, with accompanying complaints of the unexpected “hardness” of the water, to enthusiastic. Even a bit of mischief surfaced, as adults gleefully squirted one another with fire hoses. The Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, as quoted in the Covington Journal, snickered at the hardness of the Covington water, claiming, “‘There, we are told, they can throw water hard enough to bore a two-inch hole through an eighteen-inch brick wall, and plaster it with limestone.’” Not so, retorted the editor of the Covington Journal, playfully using even greater exaggeration to insult his Enquirer colleague: “That is nothing to what it has done. In a recent test it bored a hole through a 20-inch steel armor plate in 19 minutes and 2 seconds. And yet we question whether it would have the slightest effect on the head of the Enquirer‘s correspondent” (Covington Journal, June 3, 1871, p. 3).

The “hardness” of the Covington water was due to the presence of other elements in it, principally lime, magnesia and silica. The water was palatable for drinking, but less useful for other domestic and industrial uses. In particular, the hard water was not particularly suited to the operation of “steam pipes or boilers” (“Local Affairs. The Water-Works. An Important Question for Consideration,” Covington Journal, February 3, 1872, p. 1).

Dissatisfaction with Covington’s water supply led Newporters to propose supplying Covington with water, once their own waterworks was finished. The city of Newport had obtained a charter for its own waterworks from the Kentucky General Assembly in 1871 (Covington Journal, November 25, 1871, p. 3).

In January 1872, the Covington City Council passed a resolution, upon the recommendations of the Water-works Commissioners, to employ an engineer to plan improvements to its water works, including a solution to the hard water problem. Some Covington residents, including Councilman Maloney, believed that the city would benefit from “joining hands with Newport, and obtaining a supply of pure water from the Ohio river above that city” (“Covington Water-works,” Covington Journal, February 3, 1872, p. 1).

As late as July 1872, some Covington city council members still entertained doubts as to the solution of the hard water problem. George Howell presented a resolution calling for the appointment of a new committee to discuss possible avenues with the Newport Water Works Committee. The proposal was “received with laughter, and laid on the table by a vote of eleven to seven” (“City Council,” Covington Journal, July 13, 1872, p. 3).

The editor of the Covington Journal found merit in Howell’s suggestion and urged that it be considered. It was a far better solution, he stated, than council’s other idea of building a new pipe to the channel of the Ohio River, with the resultant “mixture of river water, the drippings of Deer creek slaughter-houses, and the contents of Cincinnati sewers” (“The Water Supply,” Covington Journal, August 10, 1872, p. 3).

Nonetheless, the Covington City Council moved ahead with its plan to build an intake valve in the channel of the Ohio River. Completed by November 1873, the river water was then mixed with the well water, and the two were pumped together through the water mains of the city. This compromise produced a softer water, but one considerably less pure than the well water alone.

A chemist’s study confirmed the Covington Journal‘s worst fears, finding that the Ohio River water opposite the Newport Pumping Station, then under construction, was sixty parts pure, compared to only thirty-five parts pure opposite the Covington Water Works (Covington Journal, November 1, 1873, p. 3; “City Affairs. The Water-Works Improvement Plan Adopted,” Covington Journal, August 31, 1872, p. 1; “Council Proceedings,” Covington Journal, September 7, 1872, p. 3; “The Water We Are to Use,” Covington Journal, September 14, 1872, p. 3).

Newport’s Water Works was completed and tested by September 1873, and water flowed into the city’s mains on October 9, 1873. The total cost of the project was slightly more than $600,000, above the original 1870 estimate of the engineer, T. R. Scowden, who set the figure at $425,000 (“Newport Water-Works,” Covington Journal, September 13, 1873, p. 2; C. B. Truesdell, Seventy Years of Progress: A History of the Newport Waterworks. Ft. Thomas, Ky.: Privately Printed, 1943, p. 12; T. R. Scowden, Report on Water Works to the Common Council of the City of Newport. Cincinnati, Oh.: Times Steam Book and Job Printing Office, 1870, p. 17).

A complete success, Newport’s waterworks furnished the cleanest water in the Cincinnati area. As such, it added to the attractiveness of Newport as a suburb, and contributed to its distinction (throughout the late 1800s) of being the healthiest, most desirable city to live in the metropolitan area. Indeed, by 1886, the author of the Leading Manufacturers and Merchants of Cincinnati and Environs justly proclaimed that the water supply of Newport was “abundant, and the quality of the water” was “better for all purposes than that supplied to the people of either Cincinnati or Covington” (Leading Manufacturers and Merchants of Cincinnati and Environs. The Great Railroad Centre of the South and Southwest. An Epitome of the City’s History and Descriptive Review of the Industrial Enterprises that are making Cincinnati the source of supply for the New South. New York, NY: International Publishing Co., 1886, p. 251).

Parts of this article formerly appeared in Paul A. Tenkotte, Rival Cities to Suburbs: Covington and Newport, Kentucky, 1790-1890 (dissertation). Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1989.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.


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