Saturday, February 20, 2010

Built more than Bush House: W.F. Boothby Water Booster, Controversy Buster

Wilbur F. Boothby was perhaps the first notable architect in Salem. But he did much more. He was also a bit of a public polemicist!

Before the era of licensing and specialization, prior to designing buildings he was originally trained as a carpenter and then engineer. One of the most interesting episodes of his civic life is the controversy surrounding the start of the Salem Water Company.

In her fascinating series of year-by-year snapshots of Salem, Virginia Green suggests that in 1876,"Salem began to solve its water problem." The 19th century history of Salem's plumbing is little known, but a lengthy statement in the Statesman from January, 1878 suggests that the water works and 80-foot water tower built in 1876 together were far from solving the problems.

Salem, in fact, struggled for over a half-century to solve the problems. We've already noted the typhoid scare of Christmas 1909 and how Mayor Lachmund torpedoed the 1911 effort to tap into purer mountain water.

But long before the final water success in the 1930s, Boothby was active in Salem city life. His main buildings are mostly known, though in Architects of Oregon Richard Ritz cautions that the exact extent of Boothby's design work is not always known on buildings to which his name has been attached. Boothby is celebrated for the 1872 County Courthouse1, the Bush House, First United Methodist Church, the Eldridge block, and the J Building at the State Hospital. Gaston suggests he might also have worked on the Capitol and the Penitentiary. Other than the Bush House, however, his residential work is not known. Boothby died in 1912 and is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery.

The part of his history that is largely forgotten is his role as President of the Salem Water Company. Frank Mauldin mentions Boothby in his history of Salem water, Sweet Mountain Water. About the water tower Mauldin notes
it was a huge mistake to assume the cistern would supply sufficient water without testing it before building the water tank and installing the steam powered pump. When the cistern failed, another mistake was made in not ending the suction line upstream in the main river channel instead of in the Willamette Slough...

(Detail from Birdseye Map of Salem, 1876 at Historic Map Works. Cistern in middle left; County Courthouse in upper right; Reed Opera House and White Corner / Breyman Blocks along Court street in center.)
A short decade after construction the water tower had outlived its usefulness. The leaky tank was regarded as an unsightly landmark...with increasing public criticism the water company decided to demolish the water tower in the 1880s.
Mauldin discusses Boothby's role as engineer and president, but as his interest is mainly the 20th century, and does not extend to architecture, he doesn't connect the dots between Boothby the engineer and Boothby the architect. But the connection is also is unknown to Ritz and given but one line in the Salem Downtown Historic District Nomination.

We can at least highlight the connection here. The 1870s were full of engineering difficulties, outright failures, and political maneuvering around the delivery of tap water. This was the Gilded Age, after all. Tracing out the full extent of that history is beyond our scope here, but a long apologia Boothby arranged to have published in the Statesman establishes his centrality to the problem of water and gives much of the flavor and bitterness of the controversy.

The entirety of the statement is almost 1800 words. It has its longueurs. But the 19th century political rhetoric is pretty great. Not much in the way of pulled punches!

By W.F. Boothby, President of the Salem Water Company, in regard to the Action of the City Council

Since public attention has of late been frequently called to the Salem Water Company by certain persons who seem desirous of making false impressions on the public mind concerning it, and who for that purpose do not hesitate to purposely and deliberately utter falsehoods concerning its organization, the means used to procure it charter from the city, and the conduct of its members since it has been in existence, I regard it but due to the company, as well as those who wish to deal fairly and to judge justly between the company, the city and its citizens, that I submit a brief statement...

In the year 1870 the Common Council of the city of Salem advertised for bids to furnish the city with water for a term of years. The time for receiving bids had nearly expired and the term of office of the members of that Council had nearly expired before any bids were presented.
The vote had taken place at the end of a council term in special session. Criticism focused on the timing.
The persons who have made their attacks on the Water Company have not hesistated to more than insinuate that the members of that Council had been influenced by corrupt means, applied by the Water Company, to pass the ordinance. This infamous and cowardly charge is as well answered as any way by giving the names of the members of the Common Council at that time.
Here are the council members at the time.
First Ward – W.L. Wade and R. Williams. Second Ward – J.L. Starkey and J.G. Wright. Third Ward – B.F. Drake and L.S. Skiff. Fourth Ward – J.H. Bridges and J.C. Brown. Not one among them whose name is not sufficient to prove the utter maliciousness of the untruthful scoundrels who made such imputations.
Boothby here may protest too much! The vigorous denial suggests, of course, that quite the opposite was the case. In any event, the revolving door of public-to-private jobs was a problem back then, too, not just in the legislature, and some new jobs gave the appearance of impropriety.
It should be borne in mind that the charge that Mayor Smith and Recorder Waymire were in the Council at the time this ordinance was passed is wholly false, and also that they did not become owners of their stock of the company until long after work commenced.
When a new City Council was elected and seated, they attempted to nullify the contract and waterworks facilities.
The company completed their works and began to furnish water under their contract in 1871, and continued to do so for over two years, when, in utter disregard of their solemn obligation, duly and regularly entered into by the city, under which the company had invested a large sum of money and in such a venture as made it impossible to get it back again, another Council voted to repeal so much of the ordinance conferring the charter upon them, but left in full force all the provisions requiring the company to supply water to the city – and act which was undoubtedly induced by just such false charges as certain loathesome creatures are now making to prejudice the public mind against the company.
Then came a series of settlements, attempts at changing the contract, and double-dealing. There were also wild disputes over the valuation of the Salem Water Company's waterworks. They culminated in a dispute which appears to have got personal.
The fact is, that the money now owed by the company in this city, which has been expended in these works, is more than double the sum named, and this sum is but a part of the cost of the works. I will further state that no officer in the company has or is to draw one cent salary for services done for the company; and that each and every year the company has been compelled to levy assessments on its stock to pay interest, moneys borrowed, and running expenses... [Alderman] Murphy has repeatedly charged that the Water Company were wholly responsible for the late trouble with the Hook and Ladder Company, and that the Water Company had improperly and corruptly interfered with the late election in this city. I desire simply to say that in both of these matters the man who uttered them knew that he was not speaking the truth, and the remarks were only made in his desperate, wanton and cowardly ambition for revenge.
After this, what more could be said? The final peroration is a bit of a let-down, perhaps the exhaustion of one with the weaker case. Unfortunately this letter is plucked like a plum out of the pudding, and CT has not researched its context. Still, it reads more like bluster than substantive critique or defense - and where there's smoke, there's likely fire!
In conclusion I desire to say that any person who will take the trouble to examine the matter will see that the rates originally agreed to be paid to the company, viz., $150 per month, was less than any city on this coast is supplied with the same quantity of water for. I know the people desire to deal justly, act honestly, and do that which is fair, but since this water supply is necessarily a tax upon the city, it is made a pretext for base men playing the part of contemptible demagogues, to misrepresent, by bare lies, the true condition of affairs and to mislead those who do not have the time or opportunity to ascertain the facts.

W.F. Boothby,
President Salem Water Company

As we've mentioned before, as a source of flavored and pre-boiled water, beer was a beverage much safer than tapwater. We are likely, therefore, to understate the importance of beer in the daily lives of people struggling against the frequency of water-borne gastro-intestinal illnesses. Beer was good for you in important ways!

1 See correction here. Boothby was part of the construction firm and possibly engineer; the design is more securely ascribed to W.W. Piper.

No comments:

Post a Comment