For Immediate Release
Date: Apr 20th, 2010
Contact: Kelley Dearing Smith, LWC
KDA and Louisville Water Company Share 150th Birthday and Public Health Vision
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Kentucky Dental Association and Louisville Water Company share the same 150 year anniversary; after all, public health is at the core of each. Louisville was one of the first cities in the nation to add fluoride to a public drinking water supply and today Louisville Water is part of a state-wide effort to improve children’s oral health.
Throughout its 150 year history Louisville Water has been a leader in the water quality industry; its innovations have improved public health around the world.
Ironically public health was not the driving force in creating a water utility in the mid 1800’s even though a pure water supply probably could have saved hundreds of lives. As early as 1819 when Dr. Henry McMurtrie wrote a book about Louisville, he talked about Louisville’s reputation as “graveyard of the west.” Many settlers passing through the city on their way to the new frontier would often become ill. McMurtrie suspected it was the well water; but there was no scientific proof. It would be some 40 years before Louis Pasteur would stumble across the germ theory. Water was abundant in Louisville with the Ohio River and an aquifer soaked with water to sink wells. The problem was sewage, most often from outhouses, would seep into the ground and into the wells. The well water was filled with disease-causing agents; cholera and typhoid were prevalent.
As early as 1830, Louisville’s Common Council debated a “Water Works” but with no agreement. It took years of arguing and the Great Fire of 1840 to sway the city’s leaders. After a fire destroyed a large part of Main Street, people seemed to take note that a public water supply could help with fire protection. The state legislature granted Louisville a charter in 1854 to build “Louisville Water Works” (the company’s original name); and shortly after Louisville Mayor John Barbee declared a public water supply would promote cleanliness and the general health plus give the city an efficient economy.
Louisville Water Works began pumping operations on October 16, 1860. It took hundreds of men six years to build the original Engine House and Water Tower which still remain today. Newspaper accounts describe ladies in their “Sunday best” to see the Water Works begin. Louisville had a water supply but it wasn’t entirely clean. Giant steam engines pulled water from the Ohio River then mud would settle out in a reservoir and finally travel through wooden mains. Stories say one had a let a cup of water sit so the rest of the mud would settle!
The quest to bring a pure water supply to Louisville paved a path for safe drinking water around the world. Chief Engineer Charles Hermany embarked on a vision to remove the sediment and germs from the river supply and brought George Warren Fuller, who became known as the “father of sanitary engineering” to Louisville for research. In 1896, the two men conducted landmark experiments in filtration at Louisville Water. Their discovery of rapid sand filtration combined with coagulation to remove sediment and bacteria are used around the world today.
Also at the same time, William M. Jewell conducted some of the earliest experiments in disinfection at Louisville Water. Jewell experimented with electrolysis to produce chlorine gas from a brine solution. When Louisville Water began adding chlorine along with filtration in 1913, cases of Typhoid and Cholera plummeted by 80%. Today, disease associated is with drinking water is virtually non-existent.
Louisville was one of the first water utilities to embrace the idea of using tap water as an improvement for oral health. After successful applications of fluoride to the drinking water supplies in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Louisville began adding fluoride to the drinking water in 1951.
Throughout its history Louisville has been known for its outstanding water quality. In 1917 the U.S. Government called the quality “unexcelled in the country” and set up Camp Zachery Taylor in Louisville as a training ground for soldiers. In 1997, the company was the first to brand a municipal water supply; Louisville Water calls its product “Pure Tap” to promote the health benefits, value and convenience of tap water. Recently in 2008, the American Water Works Association named Louisville Water “best tasting tap water in America.”
Today that spirit of innovation and quality continues in projects that bear resemblance to those over 100 years ago. Louisville Water is once again at the forefront of a landmark drinking water project for a cleaner source of water. The process is called riverbank filtration. Crews have built a mile-and-a-half long tunnel, 150 feet into the ground, next to the Ohio River to collect ground water. Louisville Water is the first in the world to combine gravity wells with a tunnel as a source for drinking water. When the operation goes on line in the summer of 2010, up to 70 million gallons of water will pour into the tunnel each day. It’s still Ohio River water, but it’s naturally filtered by the sand and gravel in the aquifer.
When Louisville Water began in 1860 it had just 512 customers; it took several years for the public to understand that a public water supply was not only convenient but a necessity for good health. Today, Louisville Water is a lifeline to the region around Metro Louisville. Each day over 800,000 people in Jefferson, Bullitt, Shelby, Oldham and Nelson Counties depend on Louisville Water for a safe, reliable supply of drinking water. Projects are currently underway to extend the supply to the south in Hardin County and further east along Interstate 64.
As the founders built the Water Works, they strived for an image that would be community-orientated. In 1859, Chief Engineer Theodore Scowden wrote that the Engine House and Water Tower would be “regarded as the most elegant and commodious for water works purposes in the country.” Today the two original structures are National Historic Landmarks and the Water Tower is the oldest standing tower in the country.
The idea of “community” extends beyond providing water; Louisville Water is a partner in education efforts that improve public health. The most obvious example for the Kentucky Dental Association is “Smile Kentucky!” Created in 2002 as a partnership initially between Louisville Water, the Louisville Dental Society and the U of L School of Dentistry, the program provides dental education, screenings and treatment to school children in Louisville and surrounding counties. Smile Kentucky! now includes over a dozen partners and the Kentucky Dental Association Foundation has endorsed it as a state-wide model.
One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, the founders of Louisville Water were on a quest to provide something most of us take for granted today, a pure supply of drinking water. As the company marks its 150th anniversary of operations, pause for a moment the next time you turn on the faucet. It’s possible you’ll never look at a glass of water the same again!
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