Picks, shovels, and 25 kegs of gunpowder

The history of the Frankfort Avenue water main

In 1877, the first edition of The Washington Post was published. Rutherford B. Hayes became president. Thomas Edison demonstrated his new invention: the phonograph. And a new cast-iron water main — 36 inches in diameter and 12,234 feet long — was installed along Frankfort Avenue in Louisville.

Actually, Frankfort Avenue was then called the Louisville & Shelbyville Turnpike. The main that Louisville Water Company is now replacing in the area was first installed because Louisville started growing dramatically after the Civil War.

Existing businesses expanded and new ones were established. The population grew from 68,033 in 1860 to 100,753 in 1870. More businesses and more people used more water, lowering pressure throughout the entire system. It was so low that firefighters couldn’t fight fires above the ground floor of a building.

Louisville Water officials began planning for a new reservoir in Crescent Hill with a larger capacity and a  higher elevation so gravity would increase the pressure. In fact, the new reservoir would be more than 10 times larger and 31 feet higher than the original 1860 reservoir, but building it was a massive three-part undertaking: building the reservoir itself, putting in a pump main, and adding a third supply main connecting the reservoir to the city.

Digging difficulties

The supply main was planned to run along the turnpike and connect with the distribution system at Reservoir Avenue (now Mellwood Avenue). In June 1877, just one month into the work, the head of the company that won the contract to dig the supply main trench, George W. Grable, reported to the Louisville Water Board of Directors that progress was slow, costs were higher than expected, and payments were not covering expenses. For example, Grable noted that the cost for sharpening tools was $363 but reimbursement was only $298.08. The Board voted to annul the contract.

Two days later, it was awarded to another firm, Shanks & Hyde, but by September they asked to be released from the contract. They said they worked day and night, including Sundays, but progress was still slow and they also were running into unexpected problems and costs. The Board annulled that contract, too, and then authorized Charles Hermany, Louisville Water’s Chief Engineer, to hire men to build the trench “as economically as possible.”

Louisville’s geology probably caused many of the problems the diggers faced. The end of the 36-inch pipe at the intersection of Frankfort and Mellwood is located in the old Ohio River bed. This would have been dug fairly easily, but heading east toward the reservoir, a limestone ledge begins rather abruptly and continues under the Clifton and Crescent Hill areas.

Louisville Water records reveal some of the difficulty of trenching through limestone. Expenditures on the pipe system, which presumably included work on both the 30-inch pump main and the 36-inch supply main, show the types of heavy tools needed: picks, shovels, sledgehammers, heavy quarry picks, stone sledges, crow bars, steel wedges, and splitting chisels. Records also show that 25 kegs of gunpowder and 3,300 feet of fuse were purchased for the work — and that Louisville Water paid $10.50 in “damage to roofs by blasting rock.”

Laying pipe

This one photo shows several different types of work involved in laying the 36-inch main. A surveyor stands in the background as a section of pipe is being lowered into the trench. The men standing above it are holding onto a wooden lever and using the heavier beam across the trench as a fulcrum to maneuver each pipe section into position.

The man leaning over near the middle of the image is pouring molten lead into a joint. In the foreground, caulkers are pounding cooled lead into another joint. A pot of molten lead simmers on the right.

Louisville Water records show that trench diggers were paid $1.20 a day. The more skilled pipe layers earned $1.28 a day. The skilled caulkers were paid $2.00 a day.

Helping the city grow

After the main was completed in 1879, pressure in the distribution system increased from 35 to 48 lbs. per square inch. Louisville residents were warned to check for loose faucets and leaks that might be damaged by the higher water pressure, which was now high enough to adequately fight fires, serve new customers, and help Louisville continue to grow.

To document the installation of the new mains, 20 stereoscopic photographs were taken at a cost of $5. Eight of these images remain and are preserved in acid-free boxes in Louisville Water archives.

The current Frankfort Avenue Main Replacement Project will again help Louisville prosper by installing larger mains and valves that will provide more system resilience as well as more flexibility to move water when and where it’s needed.