Historic Detroit

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Water Works Park Tower

Mayor John C. Lodge once proclaimed it "the Empire State Building of its day," and it was the city's unquestioned tourist attraction for half a century.

And it was just a water tower.

Water, water everywhere …

In a city on a freshwater river surrounded by freshwater lakes, there was no shortage of the stuff, and Detroiters didn’t feel the need for a water treatment facility. Water came out of wells or from the river – and sewage was put into the river. It was a simple though ultimately unacceptable solution.

Few cities in the United States had waterworks systems in the early 1800s. A growing city had growing thirst, and eventually the city made moves toward a waterworks system, opening its first distribution system at Jefferson and Randolph Street, which served the city from 1827 until 1850. The system had "two horse-driven pumps, which raised water into a 40-gallon cask on top of the pump house. Water flowed by gravity into Detroit's first reservoir – a four-by-four structure filled to a depth of six feet, with a capacity of 9,580 imperial gallons. … Water was then distributed to residents through the city's first water mains," according to "Detroit Water and Sewerage Department: The First 300 Years."

The growing city built a replacement in 1854 in "the extreme outskirts" of Detroit, near present-day Eastern Market. It opened three years later, but the regionalization of the area's water system coupled with the city's growing population and status as a manufacturing center put the plant under incredible strain.

The City Waterworks bought 56 acres of land off owner Robert P. Toms for $35,000 (about $678,000 today, when adjusted for inflation). Located off East Jefferson Avenue near Cadillac Boulevard, east of Belle Isle and even farther from downtown that the last facility, water flowed through the plant for the first time on Dec. 15, 1877, and was fully operational by 1879.

Plant and playground

While the area's main focus was supplying drinking water to the city, this swath of land was much more than just the site of another plant. The water commissioners decided to open the grounds to the public as a park.

This park -- which still exists today but is no longer open to the public -- would eventually encompass 110 acres with swimming and picnic areas, play equipment like swings and teeter-totters, baseball diamonds, even a library. It also was a popular place for fishermen. At the turn of the 20th Century, the park also had two islands, three bridges, a small wading lagoon and a winding canal where rowboats could enter the park," "The First 300 Years" says. "Visitors strolled along pathways lined with chestnut trees, intricately landscaped shrubbery and floral displays," it continues. Another beloved attraction was a clock near the entrance that was made of flowers and run off water pressure.

But hands down, the biggest draw was the minaret-like Water Works Park Tower that dominated the skyline, a landmark jutting 185 feet into the air with an observation deck offering unparalleled views of miles around.

A design competition was held to draft the centerpiece water tower, and the submissions came in from all over, including one by prominent architect George D. Mason, the man responsible for such landmarks as the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, the original Hotel Pontchartrain and the Detroit Yacht Club. The winner was Detroit architect Joseph E. Sparks, who came up with a brick-and-stone Victorian tower inspired by Oriental minarets. Built in 1876, the spire was actually a glorified water tower, or surge tower, helping to provide water pressure to the growing city's residents. A 124-foot vertical stand-pipe was encased in the tower and helped to equalize the pressure in the mains delivering water to the city's residents. It was described at the time as "an architectural exclamation point" in the park and grew to become "synonymous with Detroit, not unlike the Renaissance Center" today, the water department's "First 300 Years" says.

Sparks' design doubled as an observation tower, where visitors could climb the spire's winding 202 iron steps to a balcony at the top, where they could look out on the Detroit River, Windsor, Water Works Park below and even see the city's downtown. It stood near a grove of 12 pear trees believed to have been planted by the city's French settlers in the 1700s. They were known as the Twelve Apostles. The base of the tower was covered in ivy during warmer months.

One of the most often captured views of the tower in postcards and photographs is of its reflection casting a mirror image along a lake in the park. Among old postcards from 1900 to 1920, there is perhaps no card more common than one featuring the tower. Families would flock to the park to beat the heat on summer days and frolic in the water beneath the massive spire.

Sparks did make one oversight in his creation: He didn't take into account that the water inside would freeze during Detroit's bitter winters.

"I made the acquaintance of the tower in the early days of its career. It had been up only 11 years when fate assigned me the task of seeing that the water did not freeze in the pipe and interfere with its use as a safety valve for the water mains," William R. Carnegie of Grosse Pointe Park recalled in a letter published in the Detroit News on March 11, 1945. "The architect hadn't thought of that and made no provision for heating the tower. A coal-burning stove was installed, but, as there was no chimney, the gas fumes had to find their way up the staircase and vents wherever they could find them. So, filling my lungs with good fresh air, I would dash up the spiral stairs as fast as I could, make sure that the pipe was free of ice and then get down as quickly as I could to avoid asphyxiation."

The man most responsible for the park blossoming into this water wonderland was Chauncey Hurlbut, the longtime president of the Board of Water Commissioners. He "spent the last 11 years of his life improving the Waterworks system and left almost all of his estate for maintenance of the grounds" when he died on Sept. 9, 1885, the Detroit News wrote in 2000. He is memorialized with the massive Beaux Arts-style Hurlbut Memorial Gate -- built per his wishes at a cost of $30,000 (about $766,000 today) that still stands at the entrance of the park.


The tower's use as a pressure equalizer stopped in 1895, when technology allowed the water pressure to be controlled by the pumps themselves. It was taken off the lines connected to the pump discharge mains and served as only an architectural marvel.

In 1910, the city's Common Council decided that Water Works Park was too ordinary a name and, "for reasons known only to them" changed the name to Gladwin Park to honor Maj. Henry Gladwin, the British commander of Fort Detroit during the 1763 siege of Detroit by Chief Pontiac and his Ottawa warriors, "The First 300 Years" says. Why would the council members honor such an obscure Briton nearly 150 years after the attack with one of the city's most popular and biggest parks? Most likely it was to mark the anniversary of the siege, but it seems an unusual event to mark. No matter, however, as the new name didn't stick, and Detroiters still called their play land Water Works Park.

The park closed to the public over national security reasons during World War I and World War II over concern that the city's water supply could be compromised. The same threat barred the gates at the start of World War II, and the park didn't reopen until Aug. 15, 1945, V-J Day.

Nothing but memories

The closing of the park meant the tower didn't see the regular maintenance and care needed of a structure now pushing 70 years in age. A steeplejack found the tower "unsafe and ... prohibitively expensive to repair," and the Buildings and Safety Engineering Department issued a violation in 1945 that saw the attraction shut down for good.

There was some outrage over the move, but the public unrest was nothing compared with that of the decision to close the entire park for good in January 1951 during the Korean War. In 1957, after years of protest, a mere seven acres of the park were reopened along the riverfront. In 1961, another six acres were reopened along Jefferson after the old Pumping Station No. 1 was put out of commission. But these 13 divided acres were nothing compared with the 110 acres generations of Detroiters had enjoyed. In the 1960s, the city Health Department condemned the lagoon as being unsanitary and had it filled in. In the era of terrorism, the park is once again sealed off to the public. But it would not be the only loss of a bygone era.

In 1945, the City Council approved a $17,000 appropriation to have the landmark brought down.

Today, with the park closed to the public, the only reminder of what was is the Hurlbut Memorial Gate, though there have been rumblings that the park may one day reopen.