Documentary History of American Water-works

Introduction Historical Background Chronology Geography Biography Technology Ownership and Financing General Bibliography

Technology Artesian Wells

Artesian Wells in American Water Works

Public water systems in the United States are categorized as either surface water or ground water systems.  Surface water is water that collects on the ground or in a stream, river, lake, reservoir, or ocean. Surface water is constantly replenished through precipitation, and lost through evaporation and seepage into ground water supplies. According to the EPA, 68% of community water system users received their water from a surface water source, such as a lake.   Ground water, which is obtained by drilling wells, is water located below the ground surface in pores and spaces in the rock, and is used by approximately 78% of community water systems in the United States, supplying drinking water to 32% of community water system users. EPA also estimates that approximately 15% of the U.S. population relies on private ground water wells.

Water Source for Community Water Systems in the United States

# of Systems 40,646
% of Systems 78%
Population served 90,549,995
% of Population 32%
Source:  "Factoids:  Drinking Water and Ground Water Statistics for 2007," United States Environmental Protection Agency (2007)

Artesian water wells were widely known in antiquity, and are named after a region in northern France where a well has been flowing since 1126.  Artesian wells in America were derived from salt-boring operations in the Kanawha Valley of what is now West Virginia. 

First Water Works Supplied by Artesian Wells
Frederick MD 1856
Marysville CA 1859
San Jose CA 1865
Prairie du Chien WI 1876
Charleston SC 1880
Madison WI 1882

Improvements in well-drilling machinery and techniques resulted in wide use in water-works in the last two decades of the 19th Century.  The 1888 Manual of American Water Works, Volume 1, page lxxx, states that 25.7% of water works used artesian wells for some or all of their supply.

1824 "Boring for Water," National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), August 7, 1824, Page 2.
Levi Disbrow, a mechanic at New Brunswick, (N.J.) has succeeded in bringing up a stream of pure soft water, by perforating the earth to a depth of one hundred and sixty feet.

1824 "Important Discovery," Trenton Federalist, August 16, 1824, Page 2.
New-Brunswick, August 4.  Levi Disbrow, an ingenious and enterprising mechanic of this city, being impressed with the belief, that by boring into the earth a sufficient depth, a stream of water might be cause to flow therefrom, any where in this region of country; some time since determined to try the experiment, he commenced the operation of boring about a mile north west of New-Brunswick, where he had performed through various strata of red shell, slate silex, and granite, to the depth of 160 feet, and has brought up a stream of pure soft water, which now discharges 1600 gallons in 24 hours, and keep increasing as his augur descends deeper.

1825 U.S. Patent, Boring for Water, March 25, 1825, Levi Disbrow, New Brunswick, N.J.

1826 An essay on the art of boring the earth for the obtainment of a spontaneous flow of water : with hints towards forming a new theory for the rise of waters, November 21, 1826, [by Levi Disbrow]
Levi Disbrow, the first professional well driller, moved from the salt industry in West Virginia and Ohio to start his new profession just north of the Potomac River in 1823.

1828 "The Springs," The National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), June 21, 1828, Page 2.
Ballston, (N.Y.) June 17. In addition to the Springs which were discovered the past season, another new onehas been added to the list:  This Spring is situated in the year of the Village Hotel, a short distance from the San Souci.  It was discovered by boring the earth of a depth of 260 feet.

1828 Republican Farmer (Bridgeport, Connecticut), July 9, 1828, Page 3.
A subterranean river has been struck by the persons engaged in boring an artesian well at Henderson, Ky., from which a jet of water is forced up through the bore and thrown to the height of fifty feet above the surface of the ground.

1828 "Boring for Water," Rochester Daily Advertiser, October 7, 1828, Page 2.
An agent of Mr. Disbrow has been boring for water at Providence, R.I. with complete success.

1830 U.S. Patent, Boring for Water, November 1, 1830, Levi Disbrow, New York, Reissued #RE57, October 20, 1843.

1831 Disbrow's Expose of Water Boring, March 28, 1831.

1832 Report of Colonel De Witt Clinton on potential water supplies for the City of New York, December 22, 1832 | also here |
11. The Manhattan Company since 1823, have employed Mr. Dinsbrow to construct a Well, near the corner of Bleecker-street and Broadway; its diameter is eight inches, and its depth is four hundred and forty-two feet.

1832 U.S. Patent, Raising Water, August 28, 1832, Levi Disbrow & John Sullivan, New York

1832 Advertisement of a proposition for ward companies to supply the city of New York with rock water, etc, by Levi Disbrow and J.L. Sullivan

1832 To the mechanics of New-York : on the subject of supplying the city with pure water, August, 1832, by John L Sullivan, also, in behalf of Levi Disbrow, Mechanician.

1833 An address to the Mayor, the Aldermen, and inhabitants of New York, supplemental to Col. Clinton's report, on water: demonstrating ... the advantages of a rock-water company, with banking privileges, appropriating the surplus to public baths, and cleansing streets, also, a proposition to the Manhattan Company, to fill their aqueduct with rock-water, March 4, 1833, John Langdon Sullivan

1833 "Descriptive account of, and remarks upon, a patent for an improvement in the art of raising water from the interior of the earth. - Granted to Lewis Disbrow, Mechanician, and John L. Sullivan, Civil Engineer, city of New York, August 28, 1832."  Journal of the Franklin Institute 11(3):176-77 (March 1833)

1833 "Observations on the art of obtaining water by boring the earth; with some animadversions on the Editor's notice of a patent for certain improvements therein obtained, by Levi Disbrow and John L. Sullivan, in August last," by John L. Sullivan, Civil Engineer, May 14, 1833, and "Remarks by the Editor."  Journal of the Franklin Institute  12(1):12-16 (July, 1833)

1847 "Charleston Artesian Wells," Scientific American 3(11):85 (December 4, 1847)

1848 "The Artesian Well at New Haven," Scientific American 4(5):34 (October 21, 1848)

1858 "Artesian Wells in California," Scientific American 13(25):193 (February 27, 1858)
A San Jose correspondent of the Alta Californian, writes as follows : "I learn that there are in Santa Clara county over four hundred artesian wells, of an average depth of 150 feet. Ten or twelve of these are from 230 to 400 feet deep. These throw up jets some five feet in height. From a pipe seven inches in diameter, one thousand gallons per minute are discharged. The deposits found in these wells are significant of the antiquity of the country. At a depth of 200 feet a gravelly cement is found, after which is discovered a gray yellow sand, in which water is generally encountered. At this depth have also been struck wood, coal, coral, bones, and in one well a piece of deer's horn was brought up at a distance of 140 feet below the surface of the ground. A redwood log was also bored into at a depth of 400 feet; and as far down as this in the bowels of the earth have been found the partial remains of animals."

1854 The Baltimore Sun, March 30, 1854, Page 2.
The Artesian Well, at Frederick, Md. has obtained a depth of 490 feet.  The Examiner says that on Friday a week the augur suddenly fell about a foot, and the water rose to within 90 feet of the surface.  It now overflows the surface of the rock, and ascends the wooden pipes to the height of three feet three inches.

1854 Report on the agriculture and geology of Mississippi: Embracing a sketch of the social and natural history of the state, by Benjamin Leonard Covington Wailes, Mississippi State Geologist
Pages 260-268:  Artesian wells

1858 "The Deepest Well in the World," Southern Vineyard, April 24, 1858, Page 3.
The St. Louis Democrat says:  We publish a statement made by the Louisville Courier, a few days ago, that the deepest well in the world was the artesian well of Messrs. Dupont, in that city - 1,900 feet in depth.  We beg leave to inform the Courier that the artesian well of Belcher & Bros., in this city, [St. Louis,] is now 2,200 feet deep, being 300 feet deeper than that of Messrs. Dupont.  It will be carried to a still greater depth, until such water as can be used for refining purposes in the Belcher & Bros. sugar refinery, shall have been reached.

1859 The Marysville Water Company was incorporated in 1858 and built a system that pumped water from an artesian well into a tank located on top of the company's building.  The system began operating in September, 1859,

1863 Levi P Disbrow, March 8, 1785, New Fairfield, Fairfield County, Connecticut, United States, Death: March 23, 1863 Oswego, Oswego County, New York

1876 "Salt and Petroleum Salt," by Dr. J.P. Hale, of Charleston, from Resources of West Virginia, by By Matthew Fontaine Maury, Jr., and  William Morris Fontaine

1876 The Prairie du Chien Artesian Well Company was incorporated in 1876 and supplied a number of customers from an artesian well.  The City of Prairie du Chien purchased the Prairie du Chien Artesian Well Company in 1912 for $2,500.  At the time it only had five customers.

1884 The Requisites and Qualifying Conditions of Artesian Wells, by Thomas C. Chamberlain, extract from ,Fifth Annual report of the United States Geological Survey to the Secretary of the Interior, 1883-1884by John Wesley Powell

1882 "The Report of the Scientific Committee appointed by the City Council, on 5th July, 1876, consisting of the Rev. P. N. Lynch, D. JJ., Prof. C. U. Shepard, Jr., and J. F. M. Geddings, M. D., embracing an historical sketch of the several attempts, from 1823 to the present time, to bore Artesian Wells in this City. Also an elaborate analytical investigation of the waters, and the strata penetrated, in the Artesian Wells, and other analyses of Cistern waters, and of waters from many of the large Fire Wells of this City," from Year Book - 1881, City of Charleston, So. Ca.

1893 "Deep Artesian Wells as a Source of Water Supply," by Erastus G. Smith, Beloit, Wisconsin, from Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the America Water Works Association 13:27-43 (September,1893)

1896 Cook Well Company, Catalog Number 8

1896 The Water Supply of the City of New York, 1658-1895  by Edward Wegmann
Page 15:  About this time Levi Disbrow had been very successful in sinking artesian wells, for which work he had invented and patented improved tools. One boring, made by him for the Manhattan Company at the corner of Broadway and Bleecker Street (eight inches in diameter and 442 feet deep, lined with pipes from the top to the bottom in order to exclude impure water near the surface), is said to have yielded 120,000 gallons per 24 hours, but in some other cases the results were not so satisfactory.

1897 "Artesian wells of Iowa," by William Harmon Norton, Iowa Geological Survey 6:115-427 (1897)
Pages 122-123:  The Definition and Theory of Artesian Wells.
Definition.  In its etymology the term artesian carries no definition.  It is derived from Artesium, the Latin equivalent of Artois, the name of the ancient province of France which, with Picardy on the west and French Flanders on the east, held the northern salient of the national territory: In this province, now included in the department of Pas de Calais, it was discovered very early in the history of the civilization of western Europe that artificial springs could be obtained by boring deeply into the earth.  Within the walls of an old Carthusian convent at Lillers, there has steadily flowed since the year 1126 the most ancient, perhaps, of these wells of Artois.

1899 "Drilling Machinery and Methods invented in the Great Kanawha Valley," from West Virginia Geological Survey, Volume 1
Page 123:  It is not generally known that all of the essential elements of the petroleum industry of the United States really originated in what is now West Virginia, but such is the truth of history.  These boring operations were begun by the Ruffner Brothers (David and Joseph) in 1806, and their efforts were crowned with success on the 15th day of January 1808.

1900 "Henry F. Cook's Death," St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 19, 1900, Page 11.
Had gained a wide reputation in hydraulic work.

1900 "Artesian Water Supply, City of Madison, Wisconsin," by John B. Heim, Superintendent Water Works, Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the American Water Works Association 20:41-54 (May, 1900)

1901 Cook Well Company, Catalog Number 10,  Illustrated and Descriptive Catalogue of Tubular Well Supplies | also here |

1906 Underground-water Papers, 1906, by Myron L. Fuller, Water-Supply Paper 160, U.S. Geological Survey | also here |

1911 Well-Drilling Methods, by Isaiah Bowman, Water-Supply Paper 257, U.S. Geological Survey | also here |

1940 "Specifications for Construction of Deep Wells," by James C. Harding, Journal of the American Water Works Association 32(1):65-71 (January, 1940)
Page 65:  There are almost 13,000 public water supplies in this country, of which about 8,400 or 65 per cent are derived from ground water. It is true that all of the supplies classified as ground water are not obtained from deep wells, as particularly in the rural areas, quite a number of communities are furnished with water from shallow wells, springs and infiltration galleries. Deep wells do, however, represent the majority.

1943 "Notes on the early history of water-well drilling in the United States," by Charles William Carlston, Economic Geology 38(2):119-136 (March, 1943)
Page 121:  The discovery of salt licks on the Kanawha River were largely responsible for opening up the territory west of the Virginia Alleghany Mountains for immigration, and by late in the 18th century the Kanawha River salt llicks were being extensively worked by white settlers.
Pages 123-124:  Levi Disbrow - The First Water-Well Driller 1823-1832.
Some time previous to 1823 a man named Levi Disbrow as an interested observer of salt well drilling west of the Alleghany
Mountains. Disbrow recognized the practicability of these well drilling methods as means of obtaining fresh water for domestic and industrial use in the east and determined to apply the methods in that area. He drilled his first well in May, 1824, for Mr. John H. Bostwick at a distillery in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The well was located at an elevation of 40 feet above the Raritan River, and after drilling 137 feet into the Triassic sandstone and shale, a small stream of water overflowed at the surface. The drilling was continued to 175 feet, where an aquifer was reached that yielded one and one-half gallons of water a minute at three feet above the ground. The cost of this well was $425.00
The success of this well ensured Disbrow's career as a well driller. By 1832 he had drilled wells at such places as Sommerville, Princeton, Jersey City, and Perth Amboy, New Jersey; New Hope and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland; Alexandria, D.C. (now Virginia); Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia); Albany, Troy, and Watertown, New York; Springfield and Boston, Massachusetts (30 wells at Boston); Providence, Rhode Island (8 or 10 wells at Providence);
and at least five wells in New York City.

1947 Ground Water:  Its Development, Uses and Conservation, by E. W. Bennison | full text available here |

2004 Encyclopedia of New Jersey
Page 210:  Levi Disbrow, bored the first successful artesian well in the United States in May 1824 in New Brunswick.

2007  "Factoids:  Drinking Water and Ground Water Statistics for 2007," United States Environmental Protection Agency

Public Water Systems. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Artesian well drillers

Wareham H. Gray. Chicago September 20, 1845, June 7, 1911
John Gray, Chicago (John F. Gray?)
Frank M. Gray, Gray Brothers, Milwaukee
William A. Gray, Gray Brothers, Milwaukee

2018 Morris A. Pierce