Documentary History of American Water-works

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

Huntsville, Alabama

Huntsville was founded in 1805.

The first waterworks were built in 1823 by Hunter Peel.  Hollowed cedar logs were used as pipes, and a wooden storage tank served as a reservoir for water pumped from a local spring using water power..

In 1836 Dr. Thomas Fearn purchased and expanded the water system, installing iron pipes. 

Painting of Big Spring and water works in Huntsville ca. 1850 by Laura Bassett
(Alabama Department of Archives and History)

Dr. Fearn sold the system to the city in 1858 for $10,000.

The waterworks are currently owned by the City of Huntsville Utilities.  History of Huntsville Utilities

1883 Huntsville, from Engineering News 10:145  (March 31, 1883)

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

1888 Northern Alabama historical and biographical
Page 251:  Hunter Peel, who came to Huntsville in 1816, was a useful citizen. He was an Englishman, and had served in the British Army as an engineer.  He surveyed part of the public domain in 1818, and was an excellent draughtsman.  His admirable map of Medison County was lost or destroyed during the sectional war.  his map of the old Huntsville corporation is extent; and, in connection with J. Barklay, he constructed the Huntsville Water-Works, which have furnished pure, cold water, by iron pipes, throughout the town, for sixty-five years.

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

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

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

1916 Early History of Huntsville, Alabama, 1804 to 1870 by Edward Chambers Betts
Read by the light of other days, life in Huntsville, as with the old South was almost incredibly grand. In the then present there was little lacking to give it completeness. Those things which make for well proportioned and admirable sociological conditions in a community were abundant in Huntsville.
Things which we now term "modern conveniences" were not unknown to those times ; even ice could be had throughout the year.  The price of this commodity now, as compared with then, amounts to little less than a "modern inconvenience." So soon as 1833, there was a water works system. The reservoir was attached to the end of the court house. It would appear, from a reading of the newspapers of that day, that  human nature, in Huntsville, at least in so far as the use of hydrants not muzzled by meters is concerned, was the same as it is today. Frequent notices are to be found in the local papers, calling attention to the constant lack of water in the reservoir, due to the fact that people who had no hydrants used those of their neighbors. This system seems to have been somewhat inefficient, and entirely inadequate, for by
1837, the question of a new plant was actively agitated. In an attack upon the old system, which had come into pretty general disrepute, the editor of the Southern Advocate, in its issue of May 18, 1837, delves into the secrets of the past and reveals to us some ancient history, more interesting than edifying, which leads to the conclusion that, honesty of that uncertain kind, which sometimes attends municipal contracting in our day, is not the product of this age alone. We are informed in that editorial that the people of Huntsville were dreadfully cheated by the first contract; and furthermore, the contract was never completed to supply the town, and was under the control of a plotting, scheming, company, and lastly, the people paid too much for the contract. But there is one thing with regard to these works, that must forthwith be attended to.  That ill-shaped goose pen of a building attached to the end of the court house, called reservoir, is by the order of the commissioners, to be torn down and removed. The new system is under the supervision of Mr. Sam D. Morgan. A dam, engine house and machinery are to be installed and a new reservoir built, in the erection of which Mr. Morgan will liberally assist. This new system was planned by Hunter Peel and Thomas Barclay. Wooden pipes about eight feet long, made by boring a hole through the center of red cedar logs were used. These pipes were tapered at one end and hollowed at the other. Joints or connections after being made were held in place by iron hoops or bands. Sections of these old pipes are not infrequently unearthed even yet, in excavating beneath old buildings about the square.
Though the author cannot be certain, the use of wooden conduits in the second system would seem to justify the inference that such were also used with the first.
A water turbine and a nine-inch pump served to force the water into the reservoir, which had been constructed on Pope's Hill. This reservoir can yet be seen at the intersection of Williams and McClung streets.  It is not unlikely that this system installed in 1827, remained in use till after the war, as it was rendering satisfactory service in 1859. Fire plugs, in connection with this water system, were also installed in all parts of the town.

1971 "Dr. Thomas Fearn, Pioneer Builder of Huntsville," by Lynn Murray, from The Huntsville Historical Review, 1(1):3-17 (January 1971)
Page 11-13: Dr.  Fearn  was  not  only  the  builder  of  Alabama's first, and  the  nation's second city water works.  The land near Big Spring was purchased at the 1809 land sales by LeRoy Pope for ten dollars an acre, John Hunt having lost title to the land.  Hunter Peel, a skilled engineer who had emigrated to Huntsville from  England, acquired  rights  to  the property in 1823 and undertook to supply the town with water from the large spring by hydraulic machinery near the present First National  Bank.
A number of damaging fires in 1829 triggered a public controversy over the apparent mismanagement of the water works.  Peel and Thomas Barclay designed and installed a new system  with  an  engine house,  water  turbine,  pump,  and  dam.  The Southern Advocate urged the town to build a water reservoir to complete the system; shortly thereafter  one was duly constructed on Pope's Hill.
George and Thomas Fearn purchased the water works on June 15, 1835, for $2,530.30. On December 3, 1836, they made an agreement with the city of Huntsville to construct pumps to lead to the courthouse to extinguish fires.  Completion was to be within  five  years.  To do this, the brothers erected a large cistern in the rear of the Huntsville Branch of the State Bank of Alabama, which was under construction on the cliff overlooking the spring.  In 1841, Dr. Fearn, having become the sole owner of the water works, became involved in a controversy with the bank about his right to build the cistern.  Fortunately, the bank's $10,000 suit for damages was thrown out by the chancery court on  December 13, 1841, and the Fearns contract with the city was honored.
Fearn's water works, thereafter smoothly and efficiently run, were a source of pride to the city as evidenced by the following glowing [1859] description: "The  water  works  of  Huntsville have ever been a marked feature.  Water is forced up an elevation of ninety-six feet into a reservoir on a hill in the edge of the city, whence it is distributed  over town through the principal streets in five inch cast pipes.  The power used at the spring is a turbine wheel and a nine inch pump.  The water facilities of the city give to every family the opportunity of running a waterpipe into their yard, thus giving an inexhaustable supply of pure and fresh water at all times.  There are water plugs established at convenient distances all over the city, used in  case  of  fire.
The rates of water rents, as recorded in Dr. Fearn's 1834-7 account book, were not exorbitant, but enough to make his investment of over $4,000 worthwhile. Families of five persons and under were charged fifteen dollars per annum; families of six, sixteen dollars per annum; families of seven, seventeen dollars per annum, etc. The local tavern was assessed forty dollars plus three percent of rent or annual value.  A confectionary where liquor was sold paid twenty dollars, but only fifteen dollars was assessed against a confectionary where no liquor was sold.

1973 "History of Huntsville Water Works," by Frank Wilson from The Huntsville Historical Review, 3(3):23-32 (July 1973)

1976 "The Big Spring of Huntsville" by Sara Etheline Bounds from The Huntsville Historical Review, 6(1,2):3-15 (January-April, 1976)

Did you know that Huntsville, Alabama has the distinction of having the oldest public water system in the United States west of the Appalachians? by Donna R Causey

2015 Morris A. Pierce