In 1894, just over a month after the gates at Skaneateles Lake were opened and water flowed into the city, Syracuse was faced with its first major water main break. Streets were flooded, paving was damaged and the entire city was left without water for four hours. In fact, the Sunday Herald described the scene suggesting that water “poured in a torrent down South Avenue”. The final damage was a hole in the roadway measuring five feet deep, sixteen feet long and ten feet wide. For some perspective, that is a hole capable of holding nearly 6,000 gallons of water.
"Only five years after fresh water flowed through the mains, the health benefits of a cleaner and more “wholesome” water supply were evident..."
This year, Syracuse has experienced about 300 water main breaks so far. But despite problems with an aging infrastructure, the City of Syracuse’s water supply is actually quite remarkable. Prior to the construction of our current water supply, which simply uses gravity to transport water the 19.25 miles from Skaneateles to Syracuse, the city depended on a series of springs and reservoirs.
These sources however, were highly prone to pollution and consequently spread diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever. Only five years after fresh water flowed through the mains, the health benefits of a cleaner and more “wholesome” water supply were evident – the death rate fell from 20 per thousand to 12 per thousand. Additionally, after its first nine years in operation it is estimated that 4,000 lives were saved. Clearly, the springs could not support a growing and industrializing Syracuse.
"One section of the conduit even had to descend a steep rocky hillside known as the Alps."
After several searches for a more suitable water supply, Skaneateles Lake was chosen due to its chemical and bacteria analyses, its cost effectiveness, and the favorable vote for a municipal water supply. Although Skaneateles was unanimously chosen as the best water supply, it was not an easy road to construction.
For almost two years, the city battled members of the Erie Canal Board who were reluctant to provide consent because of concerns that the proposed plan may adversely affect the water level requirements for the canal. But, in Albany on May 9, 1890 the resolution was unexpectedly passed and with flying banners and 76 rounds of cannon fire, construction of Syracuse’s water system began.
It took just over three years to build. Led by Superintendent William Hill, described as “efficient and energetic”, the water system which included intake pipes, a gate house, and a conduit and reservoir was ready to be used. On June 29, 1894, after a two hour train journey to Skaneateles, a party of city officials, all with a hand on the crank made for one, opened the gates and the water began to flow.
"They wanted an infrastructure that could support the future of the city..."
Of course, the water mains had their flaws. The break described above was the result of a crack in a pipe that was unable to withstand the pressure of the water flow. One section of the conduit even had to descend a steep rocky hillside known as the “Alps”. Although remarkable, it is not a perfect system. Yet, there is perhaps one take away from the past. Fresh, clean water is vital to our city.
Water infrastructure is necessary for a vibrant, healthy and sustainable city. All those years ago, the water commission and city residents wanted a water source that could support an expanding population. They wanted an infrastructure that could support the future of the city, and so they built an elaborate system that brings fresh water into the city. Our task today is to maintain the integrity of that system.
Blog Post Co-Authored By: Jonnell Robinson