Saluting veterans

By Jay Ferguson, Louisville Water Museum Specialist

Veterans Day is observed each year on November 11, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the World War I. In honor of this, we are looking back at our history to see how the nation’s wars have impacted Louisville Water’s operations and its personnel. From the Civil War to the war on terrorism, nearly all armed conflicts have affected business operations to some extent, whether projects were put on hold or costs in materials and labor soared. But most importantly, employees volunteered to join the armed forces, creating labor shortages. Today, numerous veterans help swell the ranks of our employees.

Civil War

Louisville Water first supplied water to the city on October 16, 1860. Barely six months later on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces bombarded Fort Sumter – the first shots of America’s deadliest war. Kentucky, though a slave holding state, remained loyal to the Union. Commercial opportunities once available in the South were closed to Louisville manufacturers. While Confederate forces roamed through the state, the emotional climate in Louisville was described as “one of unprecedented gloom and apprehension…”. There was a “general distrust for the future.” Businesses wanted only to pay for the most necessary expenses and paying for a water service was not included in that. The company’s income was much less than originally planned. In an effort to make water available to as many people as possible and to increase fire protection, small extensions of the distribution system were made throughout the war.

While no battles were fought in Louisville, the threat of a Confederate invasion was great. Union forces were housed in and around the city. A string of forts and other earthen fortifications ringed the city. The two closest forts to our operations were Fort Elstner on the bluffs overlooking Brownsboro near the intersection with Coral Avenue, and Fort Engle between Frankfort Avenue and Spring Street, approximately on the site of Clifton Park. Union soldiers in their quest for wood found a readily available source – the company’s fencing along Reservoir Avenue. Louisville Water’s annual reports, from 1862 and again at the end of the war in 1865, expressly stated soldiers tore down and damaged the fencing along Reservoir Avenue. Repairs were expensed both years. In 1865, it took 16,378 feet of lumber and 205 cedar posts at a cost of $899.73 to make the needed repairs.

Having veterans in Louisville Water’s work force possibly goes back to its early years. One of the company’s most famous and celebrated employees, John Wiest, was a veteran of the Civil War. Wiest, a longtime station engineer at the River Pumping Station, enlisted in 1861, serving in the Third Kentucky Cavalry. He participated in Sherman’s March to the Sea and saw battle at Shiloh and Stone’s River. After the war, he worked as an engineer on the steamboat Robert E. Lee. Then in 1873, he began his 47-year career at Louisville Water that ended with his death in 1920.

World War I

The next major war to impact Louisville Water’s operations was World War I. As the United States geared up for entry into the war, the search began for sites to build training camps. When Louisville was chosen for Camp Zachary Taylor, the Secretary of War called upon Louisville Water’s Chief Engineer, James B. Wilson, to be the consulting engineer in planning and construction of the camp. The camp was built to train 52,000 troops, which needed water and lots of it. Louisville Water extended a pipeline from Shelby Street to the camp, first using 600 feet of 24-inch cast iron pipe, which lead into 6,600 feet of 12-inch cast iron pipe. That connected to 5,400 feet of 12-inch redwood pipe that in turn connected into the camp’s distribution system.

The World War I increased water usage, which was good for the company’s bottom line, but the war effort caused the prices of much needed material and labor to increase dramatically. One example is the price of coal: in 1917 the price jumped 20 percent from the previous year. Construction of Pumping Station No. 3 began prior to the United States entry in to the war. It needed to be completed in order to keep up with the increasing demand for water. The war effort halted all but the most necessary construction projects. Louisville Water requested and was issued “priority orders” giving permission to continue working on the pumping station. Because of the increase in prices for both labor and materials, the extra money was spent to have the pumping station and its new 30 MGD pumping engine completed and installed.

World War II

Except for the Civil War, World War II had the most profound impact on Louisville Water than any other war. Not only were materials hard to come by, they were gathered in scrap drives. On top of that, many employees volunteered for military service, forcing changes in the company’s operations. Across the country, people chipped in to help as best they could, and Louisville Water was no exception.

In August 1941, four months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, L. S. Vance, Chief Engineer and Superintendent for Louisville Water, was called into active service. He was a major in the Army Air Force Reserve. Louisville Water gave him an indefinite leave of absence, and Louisville Water President Henry Gerber said his job would be “open for him when he gets back.” By 1942, Vance was a Lt. Colonel and the supply officer for the Southeast Army Air Force Training Center at Maxwell Field in Alabama. Vance did return, but only briefly, to Louisville Water. In 1946, he went over to the newly formed Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District.

At the end of 1942, there were 31 Louisville Water employees in service. The last full year of the war, 1944, saw 41 Louisville Water employees, including one woman, Loretta L. Becker, in service. As employees signed up for military service, Louisville Water was forced to change its billing operations. Before the war, meters were read monthly, keeping several two-man crews constantly busy. When the labor shortage struck, and to save money, monthly meter reading and billing was changed to every two months. Women began to take on work responsibilities that were once male dominated. Blanche Quinn became Louisville Water’s first female cashier. After the war, most of those who left for service returned to Louisville Water and staff was reassigned to accommodate the returning veterans. Quinn returned to her duties as a telephone operator.

World War II saw other operational changes. These temporary changes were to improve the safety of operations, such as fencing installed around the production facilities. The closure of public spaces around Crescent Hill affected the most people in the community. The swimming pool was closed during the war years. Families had to look elsewhere to cool off during the hot summer months. For several years, the pool was used for training and recreational purposes by flyers stationed at Bowman Field. The closure of the public spaces prevented children from taking their normal route to school. Articles in the Courier-Journal showed a back and forth argument on this topic. Parents suggested a guard could be used to accompany children on their way both to and from school, but Louisville Water’s board refused. Afraid of the potential of sabotage, it appears that the company issued photo identification badges for the first time, which allowed official Louisville Water employees to be easily identified.

Scrap drives to collect materials for the war effort were held across the country. Louisville was no exception. Newspaper stories reported on the first big scrap drive took place in 1942 when Louisville Water donated 60 tons of scrap. The company staged a “parade” of 13 trucks that went through the city to the scrap yard. For the scrap drives, the water tower yielded overflow pipes (which were added as a modification in 1875 then rebuilt after the 1890 Tornado), a gilded copper ball and a lightning rod. A set of spiral stairs was also included, but it is not identified from where they came.

Victory Gardens

Beginning in 1942, food, along with many other products, was rationed so the government started the Victory Gardens campaign. Victory Gardens were voluntary, but the food from these local gardens added much needed fresh fruits and vegetables to a family’s diet. Going into the second full year of war, 1943 began with more advertisements urging people to begin planning for their own Victory Garden. One full-page newspaper ad, run in February 1943, was sponsored by more than 200 local businesses, including Louisville Water. Later Louisville Water announced that people could rent out part of its land adjacent to the Crescent Hill Water Treatment Plant for Victory Gardens. The 50-square-foot plots were rented out to “V-gardeners” for $5.00. The reason for not letting people use the land for free was to attract only those who were serious about having their own garden. In April, Louisville Water offered a 50 percent reduction in water rates on the extra water used in Victory Gardens. This proved to be a popular offer — by June 1943, 3,599 gardeners had signed up for the rate reduction.

In February 1944, the Victory Garden Committee announced that in 1943 there were 15,000 Victory Gardens. The goal for 1944 was 18,000. On April 30, 1944, numerous businesses offered Victory Garden supplies, and Louisville Water again advertised for gardeners to register for a water rate reduction by giving the size, location and ownership of the garden. A high demand was expected for this offer, and applicants were asked to register early.

The next year, Louisville Water again offered the same rate reduction. By 1946, the war was over, and Louisville Water offered a rate reduction for water used in Victory Gardens one last time. During the war years, these gardens helped fight for victory, but in 1946, the term “Victory Garden” took on a new meaning. Victory had been achieved, and food was needed to maintain the peace. Victory gardeners were urged to “Garden in 1946 to keep the Victory!”

Korean War (1950 – 1953)

Throughout the United States, there seemed to be much confusion and anxiety over the beginning of hostilities in Korea. There was great concern this might escalate into another world war. At Louisville Water, there were the same concerns. The 1950 Annual Report included mention of the “international situation” and “the dire peril that threatens our peace and welfare.” It was reported that Louisville Water was preparing for an emergency and suspended all capital projects “for the duration unless necessary for national or local defense.”

By 1951, the situation was not nearly as disruptive as first thought. Gerber mentioned that not many of Louisville Water’s staff was called into service, but reiterated company preparedness: “Our staff continues on the alert to meet emergencies as the may arise from the menacing international state of affairs.” Capital projects, if affected, were only slightly curtailed. For the remainder of the Korean War, company business proceeded without disruption.

Wars and conflicts to present day

Moving into the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, armed conflicts continued to affect business operations and preparedness, but nothing to the extent of the World War II. The Communist Scare of the 1950s lead to a Cold War and a nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The possibility of a nuclear attack was a very real fear. Similar to today’s active shooter drills, schools across the country conducted drills having children hide under their desks in case of an attack, and designated fall-out shelter signs dotted the city.

Many organizations, including Louisville Water, made business plans in the case of a nuclear attack. The scenario, in 1958, was what would happen if a 5-megaton bomb was dropped at the intersection of Second and Chestnut Streets, right in the middle of downtown. The estimates showed there would be minor damage to underground pipes. However, the electrical grid would be knocked out, and the steam pumps would need to be used. The biggest concern was the utter destruction of the Third Street offices. In an effort to minimize that damage, a vault was built at the Cardinal Hill Reservoir for the safekeeping of company records on microfilm. The vault was built, and the microfilming was begun, but it is not known if this project was ever completed.

Neither the Vietnam War nor the Gulf War seem to have impacted company operations, or if they did they were minimal. Company employees stepped up to show their support for soldiers in the Gulf War. Collections were made, and care packages sent to relatives of Louisville Water employees serving in Desert Shield.

The War on Terror, beginning with the attacks on 9/11, had more of an operational impact at Louisville Water. The Crescent Hill facilities, the walk around the reservoir, and the green space were again temporarily closed to the public. Until these attacks, the grounds were not enclosed. After the attacks, fences were built around the reservoir and green spaces to control access points. The sidewalk around the reservoir did not reopen to the public until 2004. Changes were also made to mail handling and security was enhanced at the downtown office. Articles in the employee newsletter highlighted the children of the employees who were then serving in the armed forces.

During the Iraq War, Louisville Water asked employees to help with Military Pets Foster Project, a program to take care of pets while military personnel on active duty. And in 2003, the Cardinal Hill Reservoir was used as a training site for a day by the 41st Civil Support Team “to sharpen their responsiveness to terrorism” including weapons of mass destruction.

Another connection between Louisville Water and our country’s veterans is that the Robley Rex VA Medical Center is on the site of Louisville Water’s original reservoir. Back in 1946, President Harry Truman signed the VA request to purchase land outside the city limits of Louisville. By 1949, the land that the reservoir was on was deeded over to the VA, and the 494-bed hospital opened in 1952.

Throughout the years, many of America’s wars affected Louisville Water and its employees. Louisville Water’s employees have stepped up to the challenge by volunteering for the armed services or helping others who have. Thanks to all who have served our country, many sacrificing their lives. May all be remembered, and their service honored.