Documentary History of American Water-works

Introduction Historical Background Chronology Geography Biography Technology Ownership and Financing General Bibliography
South Central States
Alabama Birmingham

Birmingham, Alabama

Birmingham was founded in 1871 by the Elyton Land Company and incorporated as a city that same year.

The Elyton Land Company built the first water works, which began operation in May, 1873.

The Birmingham Water Works Company was incorporated in February, 1885 by M.T. Porter, Jos. F. Johnston, J.W. Sloss, A.T. Jones, E.W. Rucker and Jas. E. Webb "to establish and construct water works."  The Elyton Land Company bought out this company in July 1885 and transferred their water works to it. 

The American Water Works and Guarantee Company bought the company in 1899.

A separate industrial water system was built in 1938 to serve local manufacturers.

The Birmingham Water Works Board acquired the Birmingham Water Works Company on July 9, 1951, and took over the industrial water system in 1994.

Water is provided by the Birmingham Water Works Board, which has a history page.

Thanks to John Cheney, a graduate student in history at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama, who is researching and writing a masterís thesis entitled ďA Brief History of the Birmingham, Alabama Water Works,Ē for providing information about this system. 

1874 "Birmingham Water Works," Birmingham Iron Age, May 21, 1874, Page 2.

1881 "New Water Works," Birmingham Iron Age, September 22, 1881, Page 3.
The Birmingham Water Company incorporated with a capital stock of $60,000..

1881 Birmingham, from Engineering News 8:393  (October 1, 1881)

1882 "The New Reservoir," Birmingham Iron Age, July 6, 1882, Page 3.
The Birmingham Water Company has a force of twenty-five convicts working on their new reservoir.

1882 Birmingham, from "The Water-Supply of Certain Cities and Towns of the United States," by Walter G. Elliot, C. E., Ph. D.

1885 An act to incorporate "The Birmingham Water Works Company" for the city of Birmingham, and to confer upon it certain corporate powers.  February 13, 1885.

1887 An act to incorporate the Birmingham and Cahaba River Water Works Company for the city of Birmingham, and to confer upon it certain corporate powers.  February 28, 1887.

1887 Jefferson County and Birmingham, Alabama: Historical and Biographical, by John Witherspoon DuBose
Pages 183-185:  The Birmingham Water Works

1888 "Birmingham," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 1.

1890 An act to amend the charter of the Birmingham Water Works Company.  December 9, 1890.

1890 "Birmingham," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 2.

1891 "Birmingham," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 3.

1892 "The Water-Works of Birmingham, Ala.," by W.J. Milner, Superintendent, Engineering News 27:368-371 (April 16, 1892)

1892 History of the Elyton Land Company and Birmingham, Ala,, by Henry Martin Caldwell
Page 7:  Early in the year 1872 it became apparent that the water supply would soon be insufficient to supply the wants of the town and Colonel Powell immediately began the agitation of the question of building water works. Being unable to induce parties having the necessary capital to undertake the work, he decided that the Elyton Land Company would have to do it. On the 25th of September, 1872, the directors of the Company adopted a resolution authorizing the President to build water works. Work was immediately commenced and in the month of May, 1873, the water was turned on the town.
Pages 18-21:  The Birmingham Water Works Company
In the year 1884, forseeing that the works then in operation by the Elyton Land Company would ere long be inadequate to supply the rapidly increasing needs of the city, and having ascertained by surveys that the water from the springs forming the headwaters of Five Mile Creek could be brought by gravity to the pumping station at North Birmingham, the land on which these springs were located was purchased. In the year 1885 citizens of Birmingham obtained from the legislature a charter and afterwards organized a corporation called "The Birmingham Water Works Company," for the avowed purpose of supplying the city of Birmingham with water. Some surveys were made and suits instituted in the courts for the purpose of condemning the waters of Five Mile Creek. In the month of June, 1885, the Elyton Land Company bought out this corporation and transferred their works to it, taking payment therefor in stock of the Birmingham Water Works Company, which stock was then transferred to the stockholders of the Elyton Land Company as a dividend.
In the early part of the year 1886 the Company, as an experiment, bored a well on the south side of Red Mountain, and at a depth of 600 feet obtained a flowing well of excellent water, but not sufficient in quantity to be of any considerable service in supplying the city. Immediately after this experiment work was commenced on the canal or aqueduct extending from the springs forming the headwaters of Five Mile Creek, about six miles, to the pumping station at North Birmingham. In the year 1887 the consumption had increased to such an extent that the pump was taking about all the water afforded by Village. Creek, up to that time the exclusive source of supply for the city of Birmingham. Toward the latter part of the summer of 1887 a well was bored near the pumping station, which afforded about 150,000 gallons daily, which amount was added to the supply. Finding this was not sufficient, an additional pump was placed further down the creek to force back into the pump well the water from several springs below the pumping station. Much anxiety was felt by the officials of the water company during this period, and the stroke of the fire bell was heard by them with fear and trembling, as they alone knew that any considerable conflagration in Birmingham would result in the entire exhaustion of the water supply, which meant untold damage to the city and its great iron industries. In the meantime every effort was made to push the work on the canal, and men were kept at work both day and night. Notwithstanding all these efforts to supplement the supply and every effort to economize the consumption by shutting off the supply from elevators and street sprinklers, there was not enough water. Every drop which could be obtained was pumped into the reservoir. The engine was kept going night and day, but by each Saturday night the water in the reservoir was greatly lowered. The reduced consumption in consequence of the shutting down of manufacturing plants on Sunday, permitted the refilling of the reservoir only to be lowered again by the Saturday night following, showing that the consumption was gaining on the supply.
About this time the company was threatened with an injunction to restrain them from using the waters of Five Mile Creek by the owners of an old saw mill, situated on the creek some twenty-five miles below the source, and in order to prevent delay by this injunction suit, which might be prosecuted an injunction had been served the company would have been with some semblance of justice, the company was forced to pay $5000 for the mill and forty acres of land, which they have never been able to sell for half that amount. Finally, when they believed that they would be able to turn on the water from Five Mile Creek in two or three days, but fearing that they would be delayed and harrassed by other injunction suits, they caused it to be announced in the papers that it would be at least two weeks before the water would be turned on. Notwithstanding this announcement, on the day after, the 17th of November, 1887, the president of the company received information, about 8 o'clock at night, that attorneys of the city who had been employed by the riparian owners along the creek were preparing to sue out an injunction to restrain the company from turning on the water. Here was a dilemma; if compelled to pay whatever amount was demanded or delay turning on the water until the courts could act on the question, a delay, which the officials of the company knew meant ruin to Birmingham and her great industries. Within one hour from the time this information was received, a special messenger was speeding with all haste to the headwaters of Five Mile Creek, seven miles away, with positive instructions to the foreman in charge of the work to cut the dam and turn the water into the canal without a moment's delay. The next morning the sparkling waters of Five Mile Creek were pouring into the reservoir at the pumping station, at the rate of 4,000,000 gallons daily, and the attorneys, who were preparing to spring a trap on the company, were unconsciously drinking the water at their breakfast tables before going to their offices to prepare their injunction papers.
Pages 29-30:  In the year 1887 the Birmingham Water Works Company, fearing that the project of obtaining a sufficient supply of water for the future needs of the city from storage reservoirs at the head of Five Mile Creek was not feasible, determined to bring the waters of Cahaba River through Red Mountain to Birmingham. This stupendous work, which took two years to complete, has been accomplished at a cost of above a half million dollars, and on the first day of January, 1891, the waters of Cahaba River were flowing into the supply mains of the city. Birmingham has now two separate and distinct sources of water supply, one on the north and the other on the south. In case of accident to the pumps or supply mains of one system the other is ready to furnish water until the repairs can be made. No city in the South has such a perfect and complete system of water works as Birmingham now enjoys.
Recently the Water Works Company employed Col. J. T. Fanning, of Mineapolis, a hydraulic engineer of national reputation, to make an examination and report on the works and sources of supply. After a very thorough examination he submitted to the Company a report, from which the following extracts are taken:
"We have evidences of the favorable sanitary and physical qualities of these waters, when the streams are low, in the analyses made of them by Alfred F. Brainard, Analytical Chemist, about the 1st of August, 1888.
"Very few American cities are supplied with waters showing more slight impregnation of mineral matters, or with such slight traces of ammonia and chlorine as we have reported here for the main branch.
"The available mean annual flow of both streams, with such storage as is easily possible, is sufficient to supply the City of Birmingham with an abundance of water until its population exceeds one third of a million, and it is possible to procure a good and adequate supply of water from the two branches of the Cahaba for five hundred thousand people.
"Replying to the first inquiry: "What is the estimated daily quantity of water required for the city during the next decade?' Were it not true that most cities grow in accordance with laws having but moderate flexibility, as do races, nations and individuals, as does commerce, the arts and manufactures, a prediction of a future magnitude of a city or of a city's future necessities would be of little value. We may learn useful lessons and to predict with a moderately useful certainty by a careful study of statistics that have bearing on the line in which we search.
"The statistics of the past populations and of water consumptions in Birmingham lead most directly to the facts on which must be based the answer to your first inquiry. The existence of Birmnigham as a city is short compared with any other city of its size and stability, and its annual statistics are few for the establishment of laws of growth, yet we shall find its several increases such as population, of children in schools, of trade, of municipal valuations, consumptions of public water supply, to follow in as uniform ratios, though in greater ratios, than in the older cities of America.
"A compilation of the statistics of population of the city and of those suburbs closely adjoining the municipal limits, and which share in its water supply, gives us the approximate past populations since the incorporation in 1871, when the population was 800.
"When the above data of populations and water consumptions are plotted to a true scale as in the accompanying diagram, their uniformity of increase, as if according to a well defined law is apparent, and it is also apparent with what fairness the curves of their increase may be extended as in the diagram to indicate the probable populations and probable uses of water during the next one and a half decade. The estimates as shown in the diagram are tabled as follows:


1893 Smith v. Birmingham Water Works Co., 104 Ala. 315, November term, 1893, Supreme Court of Alabama, includes 1888 contract with city and water rates.

1893 "Birmingham. Making War on a War Works Company," The Montgomery Advertiser, December 21, 1893, Page 2.

1894 "Birmingham. The City Council Purchases a Waterworks Plant," The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), February 22, 1894, Page 12.
Price agreed upon $1,400,000, subject to ratification of the people.

1897 "Birmingham," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 4.

1899 Birmingham Water Works Co. vs. Mayor and Aldermen of Birmingham, Ala., January 9, 1899, Chancery Court, Birmingham,   Decision by Chancellor John C. Carmichael.

1899 "Water Works Sold," Mountain Eagle (Jasper, Alabama), May 3, 1899, Page 2.
A controlling interest in the Birmingham Water Works company has been sold to the American Water Works and Guarantee company, of Pittsburgh.

1899 "Some difficulties in obtaining a water supply," by Willis J. Milner, Birmingham, Ala., Report of Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the American Water Works Association, May 26-29, 1899, Pages 20-41.

1905 Report on the City of Birmingham, Ala., National Board of Fire Underwriters, Number 20, April, 1905.  Includes information on the water works.

1909 Birmingham Water Works Co. v. The State, 159 Ala. 118, February 4, 1909, Supreme Court of Alabama.

1909 Birmingham Water Works Co. v. Ferguson, 164 Ala. 494, June 30, 1909, Supreme Court of Alabama.

1911 "Birmingham, Ala.: Water - Quality of - To Be Supplied to Tenants," Public Health Reports 26(41):1571 (October 13, 1911)  City ordinance adopted June 15, 1910.

1911 Birmingham Water Works Co. v. Martini, 2 Ala. App. 652, November 21, 1911, Alabama Court of Appeals

1912 Birmingham Water Works Company v. City of Birmingham, 176 Ala. 301, April 4, 1912, Supreme Court of Alabama

1913 Birmingham Water Works Co. vs. City of Birmingham, 211 Fed. 497, January 9, 1913, District Court, N.D. Alabama, S.D.

1913 State, ex rel. Weatherly, et al. v. Birmingham Water Works Co., 185 Ala. 388, November 25, 1913, Supreme Court of Alabama.

1914 Birmingham Water Works Co. v. Windham, 190 Ala. 634, December 17, 1914, Supreme Court of Alabama.

1915 Proposition of the Birmingham Water Works Co. to the City of Birmingham, Ala.  February 20, 1915.

1920 A History of Birmingham and Its Environs: A Narrative Account of Their Historical Progress, Their People, and Their Principal Interests, Volume 1, George M. Cruikshank
Page 121:  Among the leading events which came up also during Mayor George B. Ward's administration were the ... issue of $4,500,000 bonds for the proposed municipal water works.
Pages 141-144: Founding of the Water Works

1920 A History of Birmingham and Its Environs: A Narrative Account of Their Historical Progress, Their People, and Their Principal Interests, Volume 2, George M. Cruikshank
Page 17:  The Jefferson County Sanitary Commission not only had the sewer system constructed, but was responsible for the construction of the filtration plants by the Birmingham Water Works Company.
Pages 257-259:  Henry Key Milner.
Pages 259-260:  National Cast Iron Pipe Company.
Pages 323-325:  Major Willis Julian Milner, through the water works board (the water works having become a separate corporation, with him as superintendent in January, 1887).

1921 "Water Works News," Fire and Water Engineering 69(4):177 (January 26, 1921) | also here |
The water service commission of Alabama has granted permission to the Birmingham Water Works Company of that city for the issuing of $700,000 worth of bonds for use in making improvements in the water system. According to the plan outlined by the company, quite extensive improvements are to be made in its system and in connection with the petition for the selling of the bonds the company has asked for an increase in water rates, which will net a return of 7.3 per cent, on the present investment. This petition has been granted.

1927 Fourteenth Annual Report of the American Water Works & Electric Company Incorporated for the year ending December 31, 1927.
Page 6: The City of Birmingham, Alabama, owned the distribution system in a portion of that city known as North Birmingham and supplied its consumers through the purchase of water from The Birmingham Water Works Company. An offer was made by The Birmingham Water Works Company to the city for the purchase of their distribution mains and other property in North Birmingham, which ofier was accepted and the purchase ratified by the citizens of Birmingham, the property being taken over on December 31, 1927.

1933 Birmingham Water Works Co. v. Barksdale, 227 Ala, 354, 150 So. 139, October 12, 1933, Supreme Court of Alabama

1934 Birmingham Water Works Co. v. Williams, 228 Ala. 288, March 22, 1934, Supreme Court of Alabama.

1950 Birmingham Slag Co. v. Birmingham Water Works Co., 955 Ala. 696, October 12, 1950, Supreme Court of Alabama

1951 "The Birmingham Industrial Water Supply," by A. Clinton Decker, Journal of the American Water Works Association 30(1):56-66 (January, 1938)

1953 Water Supply of the Birmingham Area, Alabama, by W. H. Robinson, J. B. Ivey, and Granville Alton Billingsley, U.S. Geological Survey Circular 254

1998 Ex Parte The WATER WORKS AND SEWER BOARD OF THE CITY OF BIRMINGHAM. Re Larry Wallace et al. v. The Water Works and Sewer Board of the City of Birmingham et al. Ex Parte The Water Works and Sewer Board of the City of Birmingham et al. Re John C. Rockett, Jr., et al. v. The Water Works And Sewer Board of the City of Birmingham et al., 738 So. 2d 783, December 4, 1998, Supreme Court of Alabama

2016 The Water Works Board of the City of Birmingham, Preliminary Official Statement Dated August, 2016.  Includes details on history of company.

"An epidemic in Birmingham, Alabama almost wiped out the city," by Donna R Causey, Alabama Pioneers

© 2019 Morris A. Pierce