Water filtration plant improved public health

Deaths from typhoid and diphtheria dropped almost immediately.

By Rod King for The News-Sentinel

Stoically guarding the confluence of our three rivers stands a massive gray structure as silent and imposing as it is fundamental to Fort Wayne's health and welfare.

But before the Three Rivers Filtration Plant was built in the early 1930s, the project was the focus of public debate and political haggling.

Just the thought of drinking water from the muddy St. Joseph River was enough to make some people's skin crawl. To others, the prospect of filtered, purified drinking water had to be better than the cloudy, sulfurous well water they'd depended on since the 1870s.

More importantly, the promise of reducing – maybe even eradicating – diphtheria and typhoid fever made the financial burden on the city and its residents seem worth the expense.

Engineering studies in 1930 confirmed what everyone already knew. Existing wells were dreadfully inadequate to handle the demands of a growing city, and drilling more wells probably would not produce enough water to justify the expense.

But the city had three rivers.

Of the Maumee, the St. Marys and the St. Joseph, the latter had the most to offer: a steady, dependable flow, better quality and few inhabitants in its watershed.

The rivers' confluence in the heart of the city made the spot a natural choice on which to build, and on March 19, 1931, city dignitaries broke ground for the 24-million-gallon-a-day plant and its 20-million-gallon filtered-water reservoir.

Construction also began on the St. Joseph River Dam and pumping station at the north end of Anthony Boulevard. Four pumps supplied water through a 42-inch diameter iron plate pipe to the filtration plant, where filters removed sediments, chlorine killed bacteria and other chemicals removed bad tastes and odors.

When the plant began operations in 1933, residents were thrilled with the crisp, clear water it produced. Its biggest contribution to the community, however, was an almost immediate drop in deaths due to typhoid and diphtheria.

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