Spavinaw Waterline Part III: Science And Leadership Trumped Politics And Greed

Associate Editor

GENERAL GEORGE WASHINGTON GOETHALS: Goethals was a famous United States Army officer and civil engineer revered for his exemplary service supervising the building of the Panama Canal. Tulsa has Goethals to thank in large part for finally resolving the water resource issue in 1921.

Photos courtesy Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library, Tulsa Historical Society.

Editor’s Note: This is the third 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.

In 1919, a great war was well underway in Tulsa over where the city would draw its future water supply. On one side was the Shell Creek forces headed by Charles Page, founder of the town of Sand Springs and owner of the evening daily newspaper, the Tulsa Democrat. He marshaled all his forces promoting the building of a dam on Shell Creek, a modestly consistent stream of relatively good water, at least when compared to the brackish, hard, silt laden water of the Arkansas River. A prominent city of Tulsa founder, Tate Brady, sided with Page on this issue.

Both Page and Brady were formidable opponents to the Spavinaw Creek forces headed primarily by Eugene Lorton, owner and editor of the Tulsa World morning newspaper. Two powerful advocates in their own right, Harry F. Sinclair and Herman Frederick Newblock sided with Lorton. The Spavinaw Creek proponents had long since given up on the Arkansas River as the city’s water source and had embraced the idea of bringing down soft, clear water from the Ozark Hills to the north.
The Shell Creek camp also had come to grips with the folly of potable water coming from the Arkansas but were convinced the winding little creek to the west of Tulsa (which, by the way, happened to run through Mr. Pages property) was the perfect solution to the city’s water dilemma. They proposed constructing a dam on the creek to create a reservoir.

Between the years 1912 and 1922, the Tulsa mayor’s office changed from Democrat to Republican five times. Although there were many issues at play during this period of rapid urban growth, it can be assumed in that span of years securing an adequate water supply to accommodate the city’s growth was a prominent issue.

It’s difficult to image the level of frustration Tulsans felt in 1919 when they were once again being asked to approve a bond issue to bring soft, clear water down from Spavinaw Creek to replace the hard, salty water of the Arkansas River. Barely over a year before, a bond issue was passed funding completion of a “modern” treatment plant that had proven to be no match for the big muddy Arkansas. But it’s easy to see how the desire for good water trumped voter frustration, because the bond issue passed five to one in favor of a plan proposed by Henry A Pressey of Ambursen Dam Company out of New York. Influential members of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce had recommended Pressey to Tulsa Mayor Hubbard, a Democrat.

After a few weeks studying typographic maps with city commissioners in the lobby of the Tulsa Hotel, Pressey proposed the city build a hydroelectric dam on Spavinaw creek and install five pumping stations capable of bringing ten million gallons of water daily directly into the water mains of Tulsa. Total cost of the project was $5 million.

At the request of Mayor Hubbard, Tulsa’s Water Works Engineer, W.R. Holway assessed Pressey’s plan. Although agreeing with Pressey that Spavinaw Creek was an excellent water source, Holway calculated the creek would not produce enough hydroelectric power to run the large pumps the plan called for, adding it was possible gravity alone could bring the water down to a low point just outside of Tulsa.

But alas, Holway’s report apparently fell on deaf ears or at least an ear held to the ground of local politics. Also, he had yet to establish the gravitas sufficient to influence high-level decision making at City Hall, and he refused to play the backroom games of partisan politics, kickbacks and bribery commonplace at the time when awarding contracts for public works projects. As a city employee Holway had already observed the introduction of political shenanigans in the decision making process and how that invariably brought disastrous results. For this reason he became skillful at avoiding the petty frays and on-going battles of City Hall. This steadfast commitment to professionalism, objectivity and integrity eventually became instrumental in not only Holway’s success, but also that of the City in securing water for its rapidly growing population.

A little bit of fate and a whole lot of city politics became a blessing in disguise for Holway when two prominent Tulsans, Tate Brady and Buck Lewis, opponents of the Spavinaw water plan, obtained an injunction preventing the City Commission from issuing the newly approved bonds. The lawsuit cited city charter restriction forbidding water sourcing beyond five miles of the city limits. The Brady and Lewis effort forced a subsequent election to amend the city charter.

The amendment was approved on October 21, 1920 releasing Tulsa from the water sourcing restriction. It also created a Water Board consisting of the Water Commissioner and four citizen members. This had the effect of providing more citizen oversight to the decision making process, thus moving decisions made regarding city water away from the political arena. Most importantly it delayed the final awarding of the contract on the Spavinaw project. This bought Holway time to better position himself for the battle ahead.

Holway resigned from his position with the city at the ripe old age of 27 and opened his own engineering consulting firm in November 1920 with offices in the Lynch Building at third and Cincinnati. In his journal he noted there was not an engineering consulting firm in the region and he wanted to fill that void. However, before giving up a steady paycheck, Holway secured a two-year consulting contract with the city for $300 a month.

Three events secured the contract for the Spavinaw waterline for Holway. The first being the election of T. D. Evans as mayor in November 1920, the same month Holway started his consulting business. The fact that Evans, a Republican represented a changing of the guard was not as important as his support of the Spavinaw plan and his open-minded, analytical approach to the issue. The election also gave the new mayor a mandate to pursue the Spavinaw Creek solution.

Next came the authorization by the Water Board for a hydrological study of Shell Creek to be conducted by Holway to determine if the creek’s dependable yield of water would be adequate for the city’s demand. It wasn’t even close. Holway calculated five million gallons per day () contradicting Page’s estimate of 15 million . In so doing Holway had made a significant point and a powerful new enemy in Page.

But the real tipping point came in March 1921 when General George Washington Goethals, world famous civil engineer who oversaw the building of the mighty Panama Canal, came to Tulsa at the request and expense of the Water Board to assess the two plans for city water. Goethals spent four days visiting both Shell Creek and Spavinaw Creek and assessing data provided him by Holway, who accompanied Goethals throughout his stay providing answers to what must have been a multitude of questions. Holway was there at his side when the preeminent civil engineer of the era told the Tulsa Water Board unequivocally that water from Spavinaw Creek was the answer to the city’s future.

As the meeting concluded Goethals was asked by a member of the Board who he would recommend as an engineer to oversee the project. He pointed straight at Holway and said, “There’s your engineer.”

Next Month: The actual building of the Spavinaw waterline, the logistical demands and engineering challenges involved and how they were addressed.

Updated 03-23-2015

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