Spavinaw Waterline Part I Tulsa 1920s: Water, Water, Everywhere, Though Not Good Enough To Drink

Associate Editor

THE SPAVINAW CLUB: Pictured here are gentlemen hunters of the Spavinaw Club poised on the K. O. & G Railroad bridge over Spavinaw Creek in the winter of 1908. This group of prominent Tulsans is credited with bringing to the attention of city leaders the superb quality of the crystal-clear waters of the Spavinaw. Sixteen years later much of the water flowing below them will be channeled miles to the south to the rapidly growing city of Tulsa, becoming its primary source of water for decades to follow.

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a multi-part series focusing on monumental moments and events in the history of Tulsa, and the many unique individuals making up the city’s illustrious legacy. The editors of Newspapers wish to thank Tulsa Historical Society & Museum for research assistance, help in factual verification, and the use of many of the marvelous photos accompanying these articles.

On Nov. 7, 1924, a mighty cheer rang out from the crowd of Tulsa businessmen, civic leaders and press gathered to watch as sparkling water began trickling and then gushing out of a concrete pipe outlet located at the nearly completed Mohawk Reservoir construction site just north of a rapidly growing town on its way to becoming a metropolitan city known worldwide as “The Oil Capital of the World.”

It took all of four days for the first trickle of cool, clear water to find its way from the Reservoir, located 55 miles north in the limestone hills of northeastern Oklahoma. The water arrived courtesy of gravity, a 54-inch and sometimes 60-inch reinforced concrete pipeline carefully laid across several creeks, under two rivers, through a two-mile tunnel, and several miles of low wetlands. The total drop from inlet to outlet was 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.

Just like the trickle of water on that fateful day in November, so too did oil begin as a trickle in 1901 with the Red Fork strike southwest of Tulsa. This was followed four years later by an event that forever changed Tulsa and its relationship to the world. On a nine-mile strip of tall grass prairie on the Creek Indian Reservation in Oklahoma Territory, just an hour buggy ride south from town and less than 1,500 feet below ground, the bit of a cable tool drilling rig, operated by Robert Galbreath and Frank Chelsey, pierced a strata of sandstone later named Bartlesville Sand. The result was an oil gusher. It was the Glen Pool strike, soon be known as the richest oil reserve the world had ever seen. Oil flowed forth for the next five decades from the Glen Pool and other nearby strikes fueling much of the country and two world wars. The cumulative effect of these discoveries attracted a gusher of humanity to Tulsa.

As the 1920s began, Tulsa was poised for a golden decade of growth never again to be equaled due to an unparalleled output of energy, both literally and figuratively. The decade of boom was also helped by a flourishing industrialization around the world fueled mostly by petroleum.

In downtown Tulsa, ground was being broken for what was to become many of the city’s marvelous collection of iconic art deco skyscrapers. Oil barons built testaments to their wealth as magnificent mansions began gracing the neighborhoods of midtown. Wealth, innovation and entrepreneurship became the order of the day.

The decade brought experienced, young oilmen often from Pennsylvania where the petroleum industry was already well underway. It also brought greedy speculators, rowdy roughnecks, fearless wild-caters, savvy shysters, boring bankers, smart lawyers, carriage class merchants, essential doctors and sleazy conmen. Haves and have-nots, resourceful entrepreneurs, and unscrupulous crooks rubbed shoulders on the city’s bustling downtown streets. Wheeling and dealing nuevo rich tycoons held court in the swank lobby of the Tulsa Hotel. Many came to simply make a life for themselves. Most everyone came to snatch up any one of the countless opportunities the fast growing oil industry provided.

The influx of humanity fostered great opportunities, but also great challenges, forcing city leaders to be visionaries and problem solvers on the fly. Records show some were well suited to the tasks at hand, and others not so much. This was true when it came to providing water for the exploding population.

Natural springs in and around Tulsa provided much of the town’s water needs in the early years. But well water was a hit and miss proposition both in longevity and quality. A few nearby streams provided consumable water, and bottled water became a growth industry leading up to the 1920s. Records show Tulsans were consuming 50,000 5-gallon bottles of water a week in 1919, much of it coming from Sands Springs Bottling Company owned by Charles Page, founder of the town of Sands Springs and owner of one of Tulsa’s daily newspapers, the Tulsa Democrat, later named the Tulsa Tribune. Page’s water source was Shell Creek located on property he owned. But as the sleepy prairie town of Tulsa continued to blossom into a major urban center it became apparent to even the most cock-eyed optimist a new source of water was needed to satisfy the ballooning population.

Even tapping into the most obvious water source, the mighty Arkansas River with its ever changing, meandering channels and intermittent sandbars, proved futile. As early as 1904 a pump station was built to pull water out of the Arkansas and push it up to store in a standpipe atop a hill north of downtown. For nearly two decades Tulsans tried in vain to convert the briny, gypsum and silt laden flow of the river into water more suitable for domestic use. Water treatment technology at the time was hardly up to the challenge.

In 1918, in the coldest of winters, a young Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate with a recently acquired degree in civil and sanitary engineering moved from Ohio to Tulsa bringing his young family. His name was William Rea Holway, also known as W.R., or just Bill, as he preferred. He had accepted the position of water works engineer, a position paying a whoping $18 a month. In a few short years, W.R. would be instrumental in changing Tulsa forever.

It’s safe to assume some of the city leaders recruited Holway in the hopes a young man with such academic credentials might help solve the city’s water war. A fierce editorial battle had been underway for some time. On one side of the debate was Page’s Tulsa Democrat, favoring the use of Shell Creek as the city’s interim water source. On the other side, Eugene Lorton, owner of the Tulsa World, the morning paper, was writing daily editorials numbering well over 800 in favor of tapping Spavinaw River as the source. Page argued for postponing the Spavinaw source for consideration in the future due to the projected costs of such a venture. Apparently both men wielded enough power to create a stalemate over the issue with city commissioners.

However, Lorton’s position was supported by a report commissioned in 1918 to study and determine the best options for a viable water supply for the city. The study, done by Henry Pressey, concluded Spavinaw was the only option with enough watershed to supply the amount of water necessary. Granted it was fifty-plus miles to the northeast, but it was a perennial stream fed by a 400-square mile watershed of Ozark Mountain foothills.

In addition to his position as water works engineer, Holway was contracted by the city commission as a consultant on matters pertaining to water resourcing. In that capacity he had pointed out to city commissioners the folly in trying to purify the Arkansas River due in large part to the fact the salt content by volume of the brown silted liquid exceeded that of ocean water, and filtration was never going to remove the abundance of dissolved minerals. It must have taken lots of moxie for this young man, in his early twenties, to go before influential city leaders, all older, more experienced and wealthy, and not only convince them they were on the wrong track regarding purifying water from the river, but selling them on an idea that must have seemed to some as a far-fetched solution bordering on plain old crazy.

Nonetheless, Holway went before the City Commissioners and presented his plan to bring Spavinaw water to Tulsa for a mere $7.5 million. Keeping in mind the population at that time was a little more than 70,000; this meant he was asking the commissioners to embark on a project unprecedented in scoop for a city of Tulsa’s size. And it was probably not lost on any of them that the plan banked on the continued growth of the city to pay off the hefty bonds needed to finance the project. It was, as D. K. Holway, son of W. R. Holway, put it, “betting on the come,” only with taxpayer’s money.

“Fortunately for the Oil Capital Of The World, W.R. Holway had all the moxie required and, as history shows, plenty to spare going forward. City leaders, out of desperation and with ample moxie of their own, put their trust in W.R. Holway and agreed to the idea. It was a milestone moment that changed the course of Tulsa.
Next Month: The building of the Spavinaw waterline. Special thanks to the Holway family for the use of photos accompanying this article.

Updated 02-02-2015

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