An ornate iron balcony adds a decorative feature to Petrolia’s 18th century water tower
Historic water tower to be among the town’s heritage attractions
Petrolia’s historic water tower, an engineering marvel
of its day, has long stood silent and unused. Nevertheless, thanks to the work of the Petrolia Heritage Committee and the approval of town council, it will remain part of the local streetscape and be counted among the town’s many heritage attractions.
Two years ago, town council considered demolishing the century-old structure, which had been replaced many years ago with a more modern and efficient water system. However, while it was not widely recognized, the town’s
original water tower is not only integral to the area’s oil history and an important piece of the town’s industrial heritage, it is also a testament to 19th Century engineering and one of North America’s last remaining standpipe
Martin Dillon, chair of the Petrolia Heritage Committee, says the Petrolia water system was one of the engineering fetes of the late Victorian era and was one of the earliest inland water systems in
Canada. Consequently, he said last year he and his committee approached council with the notion of preserving the tower for posterity and to his great pleasure council agreed.
“Some wondered why we’d
save a water tower but like a lot of historical sites it was because of what it represented,” he said. “It was one of the engineering marvels of its day.”
He noted that most towns that had water
systems in the late 1800s did so because they were either close to water or had it hauled in to a cistern or some other means of storage. But in Petrolia’s case it had to run a pipe all the way to Brights Grove using technology that was brand new at
“It was one of the first, if not the first, examples of water brought many miles inland to supply a community,” he said. “We managed to save it from demolition and I think that has been
one of the Petrolia Heritage Committee’s crowning achievements.”
Built in 1896, the Petrolia Waterworks System was designed by Willis Chapman who was recognized as the one of the most brilliant civil
engineers of his day. The steel tower, measuring 25 feet in diameter by 85 feet high, is set upon a very heavy foundation of stone and Portland cement.
At the time of its construction, town council did not think
it could afford a roof for the structure but did commission the construction of an ornamental iron balcony at the top reached by a ladder.
Central Bridgeworks of Peterborough supplied the steel and the first shipment
of plating arrived in October of 1886. By Jan. 29, 1897, the tower, which had a capacity of 257,700 gallons, was filled with water and was providing 25 to 50 pounds of pressure at the town’s newly installed fire hydrants.
It’s interesting to note that the tower’s steel plates, which were set using forged blacksmith welds, have graduated thicknesses with the maximum thickness at the bottom, where the pressure would be greatest, and then decrease in thickness
as they elevate.
As early as 1871 the residents of Petrolia were clamouring for a safe water source, largely because nearly all of the local surface wells had been contaminated with oil and were spreading death
and disease throughout the town. It’s been suggested that many of the burials in Petrolia’s East End Pioneer’s Cemetery were the result of a diphtheria outbreak during that era, and polluted water was thought to have been the culprit.
In a town-wide referendum held in 1896, Petrolia’s residents voted overwhelmingly in favour of town council approving a by-law to raise $172,000 with which to finance a pipeline to Lake Huron and a water distribution
system within the town.
The decision wasn’t without its critics and it should be noted, that at a time when a man could be hired for $1 a day, $172,000 was indeed a tremendous amount of money.
When the water system was completed in Nov. 1897, Petrolia could boast one of the longest water pipelines in Ontario (24 miles) as well as a waterworks replete with a pump house powered by steam, a significant water tower, and 100
fire hydrants throughout the town.
Petrolia councillor Liz Welsh said this year the town intends to recognize the significance of the water tower by beautifying the grounds surrounding it with some landscaping and
possibly a bench. It will also be installing some interpretive signage at the site.
Martin Dillon added that it will be an interesting addition to the more than 30 historically designated buildings in town.