Hidden History: Amid health crises, Osage County towns invested in public sanitation

A promotional graphic details the benefits of public waterworks, Burlingame Enterprise, Oct. 10, 1912.

Burlingame’s water supply started simply with water taken from a natural spring on the territorial claim of John Freele which serviced the local settlers. As the town grew, the main water source shifted to a well in the center of Santa Fe Avenue.

With the arrival of the railroads that eventually brought increasing number of residents, the call for modern conveniences arose. Larger towns built access to utilities prior to the turn of the century, but for small towns like Burlingame utilities came later. The outlay of funds for public projects was problematic for many, since some had spent considerable expense to entice the railroad to stop at their town, causing large debt.

Utilities were not only items of convenience, however; across the country increasing urbanization brought increasing concern for public health. In 1879, the short-lived National Board of Health was created in part to determine the cause of recent yellow fever and cholera outbreaks and to institute preventative measures to combat future occurrences in the country. The outcome of its sanitation programs along with its encouragement of filtration and better distribution of water in larger towns created a new industry market – city waterworks.

Wells and cisterns within city confines were becoming increasingly problematic with urban contaminants. This was countered in part by the use of waterworks, as well as regulations from the Kansas State Board of Health that was created in 1885, a time when many large cities started building public water projects.

Fire prevention was also a major consideration, and towns without a water system would see inflated insurance costs to their citizens. Burlingame had established a fire department in 1876, but would have to hand pump their water until mechanical means came along.

Discussions and votes on the possibility of Burlingame improvements started in 1902, centering around electricity and water. The push for modern conveniences was partially realized in 1903 by the creation of a city light plant. At the celebration of the light plant, J.T. Pringle stated that the lights came at a time “to be in harmony with other improvements and is simply a forecast of the future of our city.”

A water system seemed the next immediate step – for some. The first town in the county, one that at one time had dreams of being the state capital, could get its citizens to see the light for an electrical plant, but not dip a toe into the purchasing of waterworks.

With the lack of support for a water system as a whole, inquiries were made as to the possibility of putting in just a sewer system. This plan was discouraged however when the head of the engineering company Burns and McDonnell, of Kansas City, inspected the city. He stated that sewers without waterworks could only be used to drain cellars and therefore the costs involved were not sufficient enough to warrant the outlay of funds. And the water campaign stalled. The opposition to water was too significant to overcome for the next 10 years.

Town boosters, seeking to boost the town’s attractiveness to settlement voiced their opinions in the newspapers with cries of dismay: “What’s the matter with Burlingame? Is she dead or only sleeping? If she be dead let’s have a funeral and save the expense of embalming. If asleep let’s turn the hose on her and wake her up. But we have no system of waterworks.”

Or even waxed poetical with insertions of rejoicing from other towns like the St. Mary’s Eagle Journal:

“Oh ye who sigh with heavy cares

Who pump and cry for rain,

Forget your troubles now I pray.

Get busy, tap the main!

The world will seem much brighter then

its drouth and sadness o’er,

For things take on a lovlier line

When Pa don’t pump no more.”

As the battle raged for or against water in Burlingame, other Osage County towns conquered the issue. Progressive Osage City had no problem in voting for $80,000 in water bonds in 1909 by a 300-vote margin. The town celebrated by the ringing of church bells, blowing of whistles, a large bonfire and the town band playing “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”

Quenemo found a way around the prohibitive costs in 1911 as the town was moving forward with an electric project. The project’s construction agent reported that a deep well could be dug near the power house, that when attached to a force pump directing water to an elevated tank, it could supply running water to the town for at most $6,000.

Lyndon, like Burlingame, was hesitant at the thought of the process and would only narrowly pass a water bond  for $60,000 in 1912.

Towns like Burlingame and Overbrook that were still without running water in 1912 sought the assistance of the University of Kansas sanitary engineers. Professors from the college would inspect those towns and advise on the conditions to hopefully prompt action.

The results of the Burlingame survey were not good. Burlingame’s water was overall of questionable quality and one well in particular was found to be polluted and dangerous.

Examination of the death rate in Burlingame showed that the town rated a 12.4 per 1,000 against an average 10.5 for the state as a whole. But citizens still objected. Professor Haskins of K.U. further assured that a waterworks would reduce fire insurance rates by more than five percent. The results of Haskins’ survey eventually broke the dam of opposition against the waterworks, and in 1913 the bond issue was passed.

Fears of a costly debt dissipated when the final bill for the building contracts came in at under $50,000. A dam was constructed on the Dragoon Creek, along with an associated pump house. Nine miles of water mains went in throughout the city. The town could easily furnish water for the railroad engines, and citizens, both city and even country dwellers on the Dragoon, could take advantage of the new crystal clear water delivered to their homes.

“You pass his house now every day,

The garden’s fresh and green,

And Pa’s a sittin’ mid the flowers

All happy and serene,

Around him gleams the crystal spray

The cooling waters roar,

And Pa don’t pump no more.”

Poem promoting waterworks for Burlingame, He Knocked on Waterworks, by Bud Simpkins, published in the Burlingame Enterprise, July 31, 1913.

A promotional graphic details the benefits of public waterworks, Burlingame Enterprise, Oct. 10, 1912. Click to enlarge.


wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.


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