Gazing at Riverside’s picturesque water tower, bathed in green and red lights for the holidays, it’s hard to picture it as it looked 100 years ago on Jan. 1, 1913.
As Riverside’s 1,700 residents greeted the New Year in 1913, the water tower was a smoldering shell of crumbling masonry and charred timbers. A fire in the early morning hours of Jan. 1 had destroyed the village’s most visible landmark, along with the Riverside’s water supply.
“Riverside residents’ New Year resolutions were jolted at the outset,” reported the Chicago Tribune on Jan. 2, 1913. “Just at the break of the first day of 1913, the 110-foot water tower, sole source of supply for the town, burned to the ground.”
How does a water tower catch fire, you ask? Well, when a good portion of the structure — including roof beams, an exterior balcony and the water tank itself — is made of wood, the possibility of a fire always exists.
In the case of the Riverside water tower, there were other factors at play. The tower was designed by William LeBaron Jenney and built in 1870. The 35-foot-diameter wooden water tank was supported by iron girders, and water was delivered to the tank from a 739-foot-deep artesian well by way of a pump powered by steam. By 1913, according to the Chicago Tribune article published after the fire, Riverside pumped water from two wells, each about 2,000 feet deep.
An engineer would tend to the pump, fueling a fire that provided enough steam to push the water aloft. A smokestack protruded from the top of the tower’s conical roof.
The village added a new pump house to the front of the water tower around 1900, and in 1901, the east well house (now the site of the Riverside Historical Museum) was rented out to the Chicago Telephone Company to house a telephone switchboard.
But by 1910, the village had let the condition of the water tower decline a bit. In “An Historical Review of the Riverside Waterworks 1869-1945” by Glen C. Dean, the waterworks plant operator between 1917 and 1945, he notes that the Sept. 5, 1910 village board minutes called attention to “the bad condition of the smokestack on the water tower.”
Dean noted later that “no record was made of anything having been done about it.”
So when night engineer August Beaver stoked up the boilers to generate more steam just after midnight on a cold Jan. 1, 1913, the result was disaster.
“When he stoked up his boilers, the flames roared up the old flue which was quite rusted through,” said Victor G. Beaver, the engineer’s grandson, in an interview that’s part of the Riverside Historical Museum’s collection. “The old wooden structure caught fire and destroyed most of the tower.”
The first person to see the flames was, according to Dean, the night operator at the train station just across the railroad tracks. It was “just as the whistles were blowing, welcoming in the New Year” that the operator looked up and saw a flame burst through the roof where it met the base of the smokestack.
He ran over to notify the waterworks engineer, and they notified the fire department. But August Beaver panicked and doused the fire beneath the boilers. That prevented the pumps from getting water up from the well.
Also, hampering the effort, according to the Tribune, was the citizenry itself. Hearing of the fire, residents “promptly filled bathtubs, buckets, pitchers and all other available receptacles. This exhausted the supply in the mains and the firemen found they had no pressure of water with which to fight the fire.”
As the roof caught fire, wrote Dean, the tower “had the appearance of a large candle.” But soon timbers began to fall onto the engine room and the whole works was consumed in flames.
“Most inhabitants of Riverside and nearby towns came to the blazing tower,” the Chicago Tribune reported. “The firemen found themselves helpless. In an hour, the chemical truck from Cicero arrived, but the fire had too big a start.”
From 5:30 to 10 a.m. on Jan. 1, Riverside had no water supply of its own. The village finally succeeded in getting an emergency connection — via hoses connected to fire hydrants in Berwyn. Residents also went to Berwyn and Lyons to get bottled water.
One enterprising grocer, A.R. Owens, obtained some wagons and automobiles and hauled in 2,000 gallons of water from a local bottling works, according to the Trib.
“At breakfast hour, automobiles were lined up in front of his store with customers waiting their turn to be served with water.”
The Riverside village board met in an emergency session that day and promised a temporary power plant within a week. By February, the planning had progressed even further. One of the first decisions was to ditch the steam heat power for electricity. A close second was the decision to enlarge the tank in the tower by 50 percent and construct it of steel instead of wood. The tower was also raised by 20 feet, increasing water pressure.
The board also called for a $35,000 bond referendum for that March to rebuild the tower, install new fire hydrants and other water system improvements. The resulting improvements, in particular the electric pumps, made the rebuilt waterworks “a showplace for a number of years,” according to Dean.