Spavinaw Waterline Part II – Tulsa 1920s: Ingenuity, Integrity, Innovation Were Hallmarks of W.R. Holway and the 20s

Associate Editor

TOLL BRIDGE ON THE ARKANSAS-CIRCA 1919: One way to make a living in a rapidly growing city by a big river is to build a bridge across that river and charge a fee to cross it. Enterprising Tulsans did just that as pictured above and did quite well until the floodwaters of the Arkansas River washed it away.

Courtesy of the Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Historical Society.

Editor’s Note: This is the second 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 and Museum for research assistance, help in factual verification and the use of many of the marvelous photos accompanying these articles.

The images that come to mind at the mention of the so-called “roaring twenties” are those of flimsy flapper dresses shimmering just above the knees of newly liberated young women dancing the Charleston, prohibition-defying bathtub gin served up in sequined shoes, or gangsters gunning one another down, using surplus World War I Tommy Guns, riding on the running boards of Model T Fords in the city streets of Chicago, Detroit, New York and Atlanta. The wealth of the nation was in the process of doubling between 1920 and 1929, largely due to a stock market that appeared to know of no such thing as a ceiling. Cities swelled and family farms dwindled, a trend that would continue accelerating through the decade, turning the nation from a primarily agrarian to an industrial economy at a breathtaking pace.

Meeting the challenges of the fever pitch of economic and cultural evolution required countless innovations, both large and small. Every day in every corner of the nation, ingenuity was being applied by a generation of citizenry apparently convinced they were infallible and capable of achieving anything they set their minds to. History records weren’t all that wrong, and nowhere was that more apparent than in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

When W. R. Holway arrived in Tulsa during the bitter cold winter of 1918, water pipes and toilets were frozen solid all across the city, a vivid metaphor for the city’s progress towards a viable potable water source. City leaders believed Holway’s arrival was to bring a welcomed thaw.

It wasn’t Holway who convinced desperate city leaders he had the answer to the vexing problem of salty-tasting Arkansas River drinking water. It was another M.I.T. graduate and classmate of Holway’s older brother, Alvah S. Holway. Alvah recommended his younger brother, W.R. to C. Arthur Brown. Brown held the position of chief engineer of the Akron, Ohio, water plant and had been awarded the contract to design Tulsa’s new water treatment plant still under construction. According to W. R. Holway’s journal, Brown wanted to send “someone he could trust” to Tulsa to bring the plant on line and assure the stellar results he had promised city leaders. After interviewing Holway, Brown recommended him to Tulsa city leaders and they agreed.

Brown had worked hard to secure the contract for the water plant. He’d convinced city leaders and Tulsans in general to pass the bond issue necessary to fund the construction of a new plant to replace the existing, inadequate plant by launching an aggressive public relations effort proclaiming the new treatment plant would produce clean, clear water void of salt taste. To make sure they understood, he handed out hundreds of bottles of free, clear, tasteless water to Tulsans to demonstrate the promise of the new plant. It’s important to note the water didn’t come from the Arkansas River.

W.R. went to work helping complete the water treatment plant that featured Brown’s innovative use of ferric sulphates, a cheap by-product from the making of steel, to filter the water rather than the customary and more expensive aluminum sulphates. Unfortunately, once the water treatment plant was up and running Holway began to realize Brown’s cutting-edge filtering system and state-of-the-art treatment plant wasn’t answering the salt problem. The problem was the Arkansas River.

The seesawing nature of the river’s water levels caused a corresponding but opposite effect on the salt content of the untreated water and subsequently the treated water. As water levels dropped, salt concentration rose and vise versa, varying from 50 parts per million to 2,300 parts per million. It’s important to note here that humans taste salt in water when concentration reaches between 250 and 300 parts per million. The rising salt concentration of the dropping water level overwhelmed Brown’s filter system, once again sending salty water out to Tulsans. This resulted in rising complaint calls to City Hall. Thus City Hall and Holway were on the hot seat. Brown was summoned to come fix the problem.

Brown arrived full of doubt as to the validity of the salt content readings Holway had reported to him, but further tests verified the problem. Now Brown was on the hot seat.

Two days after his arrival Brown told newspaper reporters the water treatment plant had to be shut down due to equipment failure and that Tulsans would have to once again put up with the salty water “for the time being,” implying it was all a temporary set back. It was discovered by Holway the sudden and mysterious “equipment failure” was caused by a sledgehammer striking a cast iron component of the plant’s system at a very high speed. It happened sometime in the middle of the night, so nobody knew for sure, but Holway records it had to be Brown, or someone hired by him, since he was the only one who stood to gain from the misfortune. But all Brown had really gained was a little time.

Brown explained the broken part would have to be ordered and would take several weeks, even though, according to Holway’s journal, there were numerous foundries in Tulsa at the time capable of producing the part in a matter of days. Little more is known of Brown after that and it can be assumed he left town, leaving behind forever his innovative water treatment plant and essentially leaving Holway and Tulsa holding a bag of salty water.

By the time city elections were held in April of 1918 bringing in a new mayor and commissioners, Holway had demonstrated he was a problem solver extraordinaire. He faced constant challenges to stay ahead of problems presented by the river. The water inlet to the treatment plant immediately began filling with sediment requiring Holway to design and build a makeshift dredging machine to clear the opening. Rapidly changing salt and gypsum levels in the river required constant adjustments in chemical and filtration treatments. Holway handpicked and trained a three-man crew to continually monitor the plant’s output and adjust accordingly. But, as is the nature of mature prairie rivers, the Arkansas was prone to swell with spring melt sometimes jumping its banks. For this, nobody, including an M.I.T. grad had an answer. The mighty Arkansas River had as many tricks up its sleeve as it had bends in its channel.

Holway, no doubt, fit well into the roaring twenties because he too believed as long as scientific analysis, hard work and ingenuity were applied, a solution could be found for any problem. As the years followed, Holway continued meeting the challenges of providing water for the city with appropriate and resourceful solutions that made the most of a persistently bad situation. He was gaining invaluable hands-on experience and confidence in dealing with logistical and structural issues relating to Tulsa’s water supply; but maybe more important, he was learning the ins and outs of city politics and gaining the respect of decision makers. Eventually, all these lessons would serve him well in the not-too-distant future when he will first sell to city leaders, design and engineer and finally oversee construction of a project at the time unprecedented in scope and cost for a city the size of Tulsa – the Spavinaw waterline.

Next Month: The building of the Spavinaw waterline will focus on the politics and the logistics inherent in this innovative project.

Updated 03-02-2015

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