Holway Family Brought Water to the Oil Capital
By CHARLES CANTRELL
THE BIG DIG: In 1923 construction was well underway for the Spavinaw waterline of reinforced concrete pipe carefully laid across two rivers and several creeks, through a two-mile tunnel, under the ground and over low wetlands.
Photo Courtesy of Burl Ford Collection
Editor’s Note: This article is the fifth in a Centennial year-long series saluting families who were in Oklahoma about the time of statehood and have contributed to the state’s well-being since.
On November 7,1924 a mighty cheer rang out from the crowd of Tulsa businessmen, civic leaders and press gathered at the newly completed Mohawk Reservoir just north of the rapidly growing boomtown as clear, soft water began to pour out of the outlet. It took all of four days for the water to find its way from the new Spavinaw Reservoir, 55 miles northeast in the Ozark Hills courtesy of gravity and a 60 and 54-inch reinforced concrete pipeline carefully laid across two rivers and several creeks, through a two-mile tunnel, under the ground and over low wetlands. The total drop from inlet to outlet was just 75 feet, a grade averaging 1.36 feet per mile. It was an engineering marvel that essentially saved a city drowning in oil from dying of thirst.
The chief engineer from New England and a graduate of MIT envisioned how it could be done. He helped sell the concept to skeptical city leaders and then masterfully oversaw the project to bring it in on time and on budget. His name was William Rea Holway also known as W.R., or just Bill, as he preferred.
Holway was first summoned to Tulsa in 1918 by civic leaders to solve the issue of how to purify the silt-laden, brackish Arkansas River into potable water to meet the growing demand of an oil boomtown. Early testament to a lifetime of unwavering integrity came when Holway advised against further pursuit of the goal of making the river the city’s water source because it contained more salt per volume of water than the ocean—in effect consulting himself out of a job. It was a gesture that rightly earned him the trust of many city leaders. He added his voice to those who were looking to the bountiful fresh water springs and creeks feeding pristine rivers in the rolling hills of Northeast Oklahoma. It was only after the City employed the famous General Goethals, builder of the Panama Canal, along with other engineers who agreed to go north for water, that the decision was made to use water from Spavinaw Creek. The trust he had engendered with city leaders, Tulsa’s compelling need for a reliable water source and Holway’s uncanny engineering ability to appraise a situation and determine not only a feasible, but often an innovative solution, got Holway the job of engineering the historic Spavinaw water project in 1921. This would pave the way for two generations of Holways to become the city’s premier developers of water resources.
After Holway completed Tulsa’s water system, he went on to design water projects around the world in places such as Santiago, Cuba and Moscow, Russia. In addition he and his team of accomplished consulting engineers designed effective water systems for many rural communities in Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, New Jersey and Oklahoma. But his tour de force came in 1937 with President Roosevelt’s signing of the Public Works Administrations appropriation for the Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA) Pensacola Dam Project. His firm landed the job and proved once and for all that Holway & Associates was the region’s premier engineering firm for water resource development.
The next generation of Holways joined the firm as contracts were being awarded for Pensacola Dam, the longest multiple arch dam in the world creating Grand Lake ‘O the Cherokees, which eventually became Tulsa’s favorite recreational playground. Donal Kerr and William Nye Holway were recent graduates of their father’s alma mater, MIT, and were able to hit the ground running after having worked summer jobs for the company while in school.
Donal K. brought an electrical engineering degree to the table, something previously missing from the Holway management team. It was an invaluable asset as the firm took on the hydroelectric aspects of the Pensacola Dam project. D.K. proved himself from the start to be as competent and resourceful as his father.
William N, or “Little Bill” was also a quick study and the “Little” was soon dropped as just “Bill” also grew to be every bit the engineer his father was.
Increasingly the sons took over the reins. Among the many engineering accomplishments of the Holway family team were the second Spavinaw water line project, once again guaranteeing Tulsa’s continued growth and prosperity, the Mingo Creek flood control improvements, Tulsa’s A.B. Jewel water treatment plan, GRDA’s coal fired generation plant, Markham Ferry Dam (aka: Robert S Kerr Dam) and the very innovative Salina Pump Storage Project.
Every project taken on by the younger Holways displayed the same engineering expertise and fearless innovative spirit shown by their father and mentor. Together the father and son team did more to assure economic vitality for Tulsa and the region than any other comparable private entity in the state.
But the Holway’s contribution to the city didn’t stop at harnessing water for the common good. In the early ‘20s the senior Holway and wife Hope joined with Richard Lloyd and Georgia Jones to form Tulsa’s first liberal church, today known as All Souls Unitarian Church. The church grew into one of the nation’s largest Unitarian congregations prompting the younger Holway to charter a new church called Hope Unitarian Church located at the top of a South Tulsa hill. Today both churches serve a vibrant Unitarian community.
Oil brought much wealth to Tulsa, but water brought quality of life and economic development for everyone and to a large extent the city has the Holway family legacy to thank for that rich heritage.