Unassuming structures though they might be, most water tanks hold a lot of history along with the liquid of life. For something that most people take for granted – water towers serve many purposes. Not only do they store water for potable and fire protection, but water towers can also host vital communication antennas radio, television, and 911 emergency dispatch. Water towers can also be billboards -advertising a city, a school, or business – or navigational beacons for pilots. Drive through any small town or city in the United States, and it’s a good bet that the tallest structure is the water tower.

Water storage dates back at least a few thousand years. Ancient Rome had a sophisticated system of aqueducts and canals to transport water. Early American water systems helped hasten the spread of disease and fire. Much like water systems continue to do so in modern times. Having access to clean water means people can wash themselves and their clothes more frequently. That helps prevent the spread of disease, whether it’s cholera or COVID-19.

Early settlements in the United States often were established near springs, rivers, lakes, or other water resources. Early settlements didn’t have the infrastructure necessary to store large quantities of water or to carry it from longer distances. Farming was the occupation for most early Americans. Farmers relied on precipitation and what water could be found from nearby sources to grow their crops.

During the Second Industrial Revolution – which roughly spanned the last three decades of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th Century – many people moved away from farming communities to cities. Immigrants seeking employment and a better life also flocked to the cities. Urbanization caused the population to swell from 38.6 million in 1870 to 100.5 million by 1915, according to the U.S. Census. As the number of people rose, so did the water demand.

Water was needed for potable, fire protection, and process purposes. As water demands increased, so did the urgency to store and wooden water tank reliably transport it from a water source directly into homes and businesses. Water storage towers and tanks were designed and built to provide these functions.

wooden water tank

Chicago and New York are dotted with some of the oldest water tanks still in use. Wooden tanks for fire protection are perched atop many high-rise buildings in the two cities. Though their numbers are dwindling, these iconic structures are very much a part of New York’s and Chicago’s skylines.

Arc welding was introduced following WWI and had all but replaced the riveting process by WWII. Welding sped up the construction process considerably and allowed for more innovation when it came to shapes. Earlier elevated water towers were mostly standpipes or a variation of the “Tin Man” shape, so nicknamed because it resembles “The Wizard of Oz” character.

By the latter half of the 20th Century, enough technological advancements in welding had been made to spur the development of whimsically designed storage tanks. It’s hard to miss these roadside attractions shaped like a giant catsup bottle, Swedish coffee pots, a Dixie cup, or a giant peach.

Ubiquitous as water towers are across the United States, it should come as no surprise that many are deemed historical and as worthy of preservation as notable homes and buildings. The National Register of Historic Places includes buildings, sites, structures, districts, and objects. Dozens of water towers appear on the list – with most states choosing to seek historical status for some of their oldest water towers.

One hundred and twenty years after it was constructed in 1897, the Dothan Dixie Standpipe was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Even more amazing, the 150,000-gallon standpipe is still operational.

During the Great Depression, the newly formed Public Works Administration greenlit the construction of many elevated water tanks. The steel tanks were often built in areas with no water facilities before the construction of the tower. Instead, the areas relied on springs, wells, or even rainwater collection. That was the case for the Cotter Water Tower in Cotter, Arkansas.

The Highland Water Tower in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was designed by Clarence W. Wiginton, the country’s first African-American municipal architect. Built in 1928, the tower can hold 200,000 gallons of water.

Alcatraz Island has a rich history, not least because it’s home to the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, which housed some of America’s most notorious criminals. Before its transformation into a tourist attraction, Native Americans occupied the island to protest federal policies related to American Indians. The Native Americans cited the Sioux Treaty of 1868, which stated all abandoned federal lands return to the Native people who once occupied said lands. During the occupation, protestors painted the island’s water tower to say, “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian.” The steel tower and the words painted on them remain on the island, a history marker more than 50 years after the occupation.

Water tanks can sometimes become such a part of the community that people will take measures to preserve the structures, regardless of whether they are deemed historical. Travelers who find themselves in Freeport, Minnesota, are welcomed by a bright, friendly smile on one of their water towers. It is difficult to forget the giant smiley face on the riveted tank. When people heard that the century-old tank needed a paint job last year, money poured in. Out-of-town passersby contributed a sizeable portion of the donations, according to an SC Times article.

During the pandemic, hometown pride members in Cumming, Iowa, spent eight months sprucing up an old water tower, according to the Des Moines Register. Even though the water tower no longer held water and hadn’t been painted in more than 50 years, the townspeople saw the value in transforming the tower with a mural depicting the city’s history.

Water towers are a piece of Americana with an enduring legacy. Next time you’re on a long trip, it’s a good bet that the way you’ll know the name of a town is by glancing at the nearest water tower. Much like the friendly face found in Freeport, water towers have a way of reminding us of where we are and welcoming us to our next destination.

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