The heights and depths of water infrastructure

By Ian McKechnie

As April showers turn to May flowers, and as we begin to unwind our garden hoses in anticipation of another season of fresh vegetables and verdant lawns rivalling that of the best-kept golf course, it’s hard to ignore water — even though we do tend to take it for granted.

We know there is an elaborate labyrinth of pipes and culverts beneath our feet, and we may be vaguely aware that these are connected to imposing water towers that let us know that we have arrived in Lindsay (or Fenelon Falls, or Bobcaygeon.)

But how does water get from there to here? How does it all work? And if you live in a rural area and are not connected to the municipal water system, how do you find water — the world’s most precious natural resource — and extract it?

Prior to 1892, Lindsay residents had to make do with wells on private property. Construction began in June of that year on what would become the town’s first water system. As reported in the Canadian Post on Oct. 21, 1892, the newly completed system consisted of seven miles’ worth of cast-iron pipes all linked back to a water tower — properly called a standpipe — at the corner of Jane and Henry streets beside the future location of Ross Memorial Hospital. Fabricated by the Phoenix Manufacturing Company, this 105-foot-high steel structure was, at full capacity, capable of supplying Lindsay with water for a period of 12 hours before filling up again.

By 1931, this standpipe had been replaced with a new tower at the same location. This tower, dubbed by long-time residents as the “old water tower,” was built by the Dominion Bridge Co., and had a capacity of just over a million litres. It lasted until the autumn of 2006, when a new underground reservoir was built at the west end of Thornhill Road, behind the current Loblaws, to serve the same function. During the demolition process, a Grade 10 history class at LCVI was led outside during the demolition process to watch a massive crane remove the old tower’s tank — a landmark that Royal Canadian Air Force pilots relied on as a landmark during the Second World War while flying between CFB Borden and Trenton.

A second standpipe (known as “the Verulam Tower”) was completed east of the Scugog River in 1955. Nearly 40 metres in height and holding more than two million litres of water, it was most recently upgraded in 2017. Lindsay’s famously intrepid adventurer Rick Harding worked for the local water board in the summer of 1968. After cutting the grass beneath the tower one warm August day, a curious Harding scaled the structure — and was promptly fired for doing so. (It was not the first time Harding had tried this stunt; in 1966, on a bet, he slept the night on the catwalk encircling the Henry Street tank. “It was fabulous, looking over the town of Lindsay after plunking down my sleeping bag,” he recalls.)

The physics of hydrostatic pressure enabled these elevated towers to supply townsfolk with enough water to do dishes and fight fires in an emergency. But what if you lived in the countryside?

A landowner looking to drill a well first had to find water, sometimes through a traditional process called dowsing (or “witching”). A Y-shaped chokecherry or willow branch was extended over the ground, and if water lurked beneath the surface, the stick would quiver and point down. (According to one practitioner, wood with a soft core was most effective.) Once water was found, a company such as Fenelon Falls’ G. Hart & Sons might then be engaged to drill through the “overburden,” or surface material, and install a well.

“I started when I was about ten years old,” remembers Don Hart, whose father began the company in 1936. Cottage owners were among the company’s earliest customers, and the first well-drilling machine used by G. Hart & Sons was a simple affair mounted on the back of a 1928 White truck.

Much has changed besides machinery in the last 85 years, observes Hart, who wrote his licensing exam in Toronto. As licensing became mandatory, individuals who couldn’t train with a qualified driller could opt for a new course being introduced at community colleges — a course that aspiring well-drillers are now required to take.

Such is also the case for those working in the field of municipal waterworks. Craig Sutton, who retired a few years ago as a water distribution officer in Lindsay, took a two-year civil engineering technician program at Fleming College. “Walkerton changed everything,” he says, noting that the contamination tragedy in that town 21 years ago ushered in numerous new regulations.

Sutton spent more than 30 years observing tremendous changes in both technology and regulation — but his interest in the world of water can be traced back to his childhood in Reaboro where, he says, “I was always playing in the local creeks.”

Like Sutton, Lisa Hart’s exposure to the water business began early. “Bringing your child to work was far from a new concept in my family,” she says. “I often travelled with my parents on Sundays while Dad talked to potential customers or Mom witched a spot for a well.”

Water, then, is not merely a source of life — it is a way of life for countless people who work behind the scenes to keep it flowing.

–The author wishes to dedicate this article to the memory of Don Hart, 1932-2021, who died suddenly soon after his interview with the Advocate.

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