Question over the Water Company 2006

In recent years, this writer has been uncomfortable seeing our community firmly divided over the ownership of the water company. Having long‑time friends with serious differences is worrisome, and I've learned to avoid the issue just as I learned long ago to eschew debating religion. So I found both amusement and solace when I recently reread a local monograph, Rainfall Harvest, and found today's split is child's play compared to the divisive atmosphere water issues cast over Lexington in the 1800s. In her rare booklet, Frances L. S. Dugan, whose grandfather, Gilbert Hinds King, was the eventual hero of the story, retraces a decade of community discord as Lexington alternately addressed, delayed and readdressed creating a safe water system. Writing in his newspaper, The Lexington Press, in 1874, editor Henry T. Duncan lambasted city leaders: "Our corporate existence is a living monument to the disgraceful stupidity and shameful Rip van Winkleism of our community." Editor Duncan's angst was based on a host of related concerns -- escalating fire insurance rates, cholera, cisterns contaminated by sewage dumped in city gutters and business perception of a city "dead as a door nail for forty years."

On the other hand, a badly split and virtually penniless city council was confronted by more challenges than backing one of the amazing range of proposed solutions ‑including drilling thousands of feet down to the subterranean lake rumored to lie under the city. Water may have been the most divisive issue, but citizens' contemporary demands included sewers, telephone service, free mail delivery, a new courthouse, luring a major railroad and immediate protection against the ever‑threatening cholera. Moreover, elected officials had one very inescapable hesitancy to commit funds to almost anything -- the arcane city charter clearly demanded that "any indebtedness in excess of the city's income was held to be a debt against the councilmen as individuals." That law, which some would support with today's runaway government expenses and/or use of bonds, had a sobering effect when unfunded expenditures were proposed in city hall.

The eventual solution, Gilbert King's "catchment" plan that led to the reservoir on Richmond Road, was proposed in October 1874 but languished since the city and the nation were suffering a severe depression. But in 1879, as 16,600 citizens enjoyed the last days of a lavish celebration of the city's centennial, fires almost simultaneously destroyed the Pest House (as the public facility for the poor was called), William Tarr's distillery and the grand Phoenix Hotel. Empty cisterns, undependable springs and a lack of fire hoses were cited as contributing factors.

The town's three newspapers, The Press, Transcript and Gazette, immediately took varying positions regarding the creation and funding of a waterworks. Letters to the editors from semi‑anonymous writers like "Rex" and "Hydraulic" were classic epistles from dueling community leaders. The popular Dennis Mulligan of Maxwell Springs and his son James (who later introduced the classic phrase "politics the damnedest in Kentucky") led the fight against the reservoir, questioning the goals of the eastern investors who proposed to fund and own the venture. Younger businessmen, including King, Moses Kaufman, and Mayor Johnson, who had seen the positive impact of a municipal water system in eastern cities as well as Louisville and Cincinnati, which were suddenly outpacing Lexington in attracting manufacturing investments, worked hard to sell the plan to develop a reservoir on General William Preston's Richmond Road farm.

Debate lasted two years in often bitter chamber of commerce and city council meetings about granting a charter to the private Lexington Hydraulic and Manufacturing Company. Leaders even took what might have been the first chamber ""leadership trip"" to Atlanta but argued about what they had seen when they returned! A final council vote, impacted by a major fire the evening before and a threatened 40 percent increase in fire insurance rates, finally brought an 11‑1 approval. Although tremendously popular, Mulligan had mounted an unsuccessful mayoral campaign against Johnson based solely on the water issue.

This writer sees a special irony in two other issues that arose between that 1883 vote and the huge celebration on January 30, 1885, when the new system allowed firemen to amaze celebrants by sending a two‑inch stream of water over the courthouse cupola.

In the first instance, the construction contractor, Mason & Company, was widely condemned for its use of convicts and, even worse, "foreign" workers in building the dam that created the first of the present‑day four reservoirs known collectively as Lake Ellerslie.

The greater irony seems to me to be the sixth condition of the 18 major elements of the contract which obligated "the said company to give the city of Lexington the option of purchasing (the waterworks after five years) at a price to be fixed by three commissioners, one of whom is to be appointed by said city, one by said company, the third by these two."  What if that simple option had been exercised?



This article was originally published in Business Lexington on September 8, 2006, and is used with permission. Ed Houlihan, the author, was at the time President of the Lexington History Museum, Inc.

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