Save the Water Tower

core of mclean tree icon

In July 2023, at the monthly McLean Village Board meeting, a resident of a nearby town expressed his concern about the original McLean water tower, built in 1935 and decommissioned in 2017, being removed and sold for scrap as he had seen happen to many other historic water towers. He stated that if the McLean Village Board ever decided to take the water tower down, he would have it removed at half the cost of the lowest bid and take the water tower to place on his own property. At the August 2023 meeting, the Village Board began discussing plans to remove the water tower, and CORE of McLean board members, who had been discussing plans and saving funds to restore the tower since it was decommissioned in 2017, expressed their desire to submit a proposal for restoration of the water tower in its current location as an alternative to its removal. The Village Board agreed to give them 90 days to put together a proposal that they would consider. At the November board meeting, CORE presented their proposal, which outlined plans for the painting of a mural celebrating Route 66 on its tank. This would not only save the Village the public funds that it would cost to remove the tower, but it would make the water tower an asset to the Village, celebrating the town’s history and attracting attention from tourists traveling Route 66. It also included a structural evaluation report from an engineer hired by CORE, which confirmed the tower’s structural integrity for a minimum of 50 years and likely more. However, a majority of the Village board members voted in favor of accepting a quote for removal of the tower from the interested party who attended the July meeting, which was $200 less than the one other quote that they had received. They did not solicit any public bids for removal of the water tower, nor did they consider or vote on CORE’s proposal to restore it.

Since then, CORE of McLean has worked diligently to research the history of the water tower, raise awareness among community members of the Village Board’s plans for its removal, and establish its importance as a historic landmark. As a first step in the latter effort, CORE obtained a positive staff opinion from the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for its eligibility for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places on November 29, 2023. CORE also obtained, in less than one week, 127 signatures from eligible voters in the precinct on a petition to the save water tower. This was seven more people than had voted in the election for the Village Board members in April 2023. In addition, they bought and distributed 60 yard signs promoting the Save the Water Tower effort and attendance at a special meeting regarding the water tower in mid-November. Demand for the signs was greater than CORE was able to have produced in the short amount of time before the special meeting. Through these signs, emails, and social media posts, they rallied a large number of residents to attend that special meeting and the December regular board meeting, with many of the residents speaking out in favor of keeping the water tower. Also attending these meetings were representatives from the Route 66 Association of Illinois, Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway, and Landmarks Illinois, who advocated for the restoration of the tower, providing testimonials for its potential value as a strong tourist draw for the Village due to its visibility from Route 66. They also provided information about grants available to help with its restoration and pledged their assistance with the efforts. At the December board meeting, the Village Board voted to not move forward with writing the contract for removal of the water tower and stated that they would consider a proposal from CORE of McLean that removed all future liability for the water tower from the Village, which CORE members drafted with the help an attorney and presented at the January 2024 meeting. At this meeting, the Village Board voted to enter into negotiations with CORE for transfer of ownership of the water tower and the property below to CORE of McLean. If an agreement between CORE of McLean and the Village of McLean can be reached, CORE will perform the necessary maintenance and painting to refurbish the tower and commission a mural to be painted on its tank.

A Brief History of the McLean Water Tower

The McLean water tower was commissioned in 1934 as a Public Works Administration (PWA) project, which according to was “a New Deal government agency designed to reduce unemployment and increase purchasing power through the construction of highways and public buildings. Authorized by the National Industrial Recovery Act (June 1933), the Public Works Administration (PWA) was set up by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt under the administration of his secretary of the interior, Harold L. Ickes.” The PWA was one of the first pieces of legislation under President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was aimed at helping the country recover from the effects of the Great Depression by improving American infrastructure and creating jobs.

From July 1934 to March 1935, a total of 54 local men worked on the water tower project. The master craftsmanship and functionality of the design and materials provided a source of water for a drought-laden town. At a total specific height of 96 feet, the water tower includes a 60,000-gallon tank made of riveted sheet metal and features a tank with a conical top, straight sides, and concave hemispherical self-supporting bottom. Raised on four legs that are bolted onto square, beveled, poured-concrete footpads, the steel trestle tower includes three levels of cross beams and diagonal tie rods between each of the legs for additional stability. A narrow steel ladder that is attached to the southeast tower leg and side of the water tank and a railed walkway that is supported by steel brackets around the tank provide access to the water tower. The cast iron riser pipe extends up through the center of the tank bottom. This exceptional workmanship has stood the test of time and is still in sound condition.

During the water tower’s use, it not only supplied water for the Village of McLean, but also provided a location for a siren to alert volunteer firefighters in the Village. The siren was located on the first level of the tower, and when fire calls came into the Dixie truck stop, the call was made to the McLane family, who resided across the street from the tower, to cycle the siren until volunteers made it to the engine house, which was located across the street from the tower, and still stands there today. The tower is a monument to the men, mostly World War II veterans, who answered those calls.

Until 2017, the water tower was in use and well maintained. It was then that a new, larger tower was erected to expand the infrastructure of the Village and meet an increased water demand. The original water tower was decommissioned and emptied at that time and remains in its original location. Inspections of the structure, as well as oral history, indicate that the structure remains unchanged since the installation in 1935 with the exception of paint colors.

In 2017, when it was determined by the Village board members to leave the original water tower standing, CORE of McLean took the opportunity to turn the property below into a park, named Water Tower Park. It was also at this time that CORE of McLean members began discussing plans for restoring the tower as part of the park space.

Why Save the Water Tower?

The original water tower is a beautiful artifact of the PWA project and holds value with its rich history. It serves as a monument to the program, engineers, and laborers who built it, as well as a period of time in our American history. The integrity of workmanship on the tower, specifically the use of riveting, shows the labor and skill necessary to construct this water tower.  It is a reflection of the technological practices of the period and is a point of pride for our community as well as our country.

The National Register of Historic Places includes similarly designed water towers. Such water towers can be found in Manassas, VA; Hernando, MS; and Oshkosh, NE. Saving McLean’s water tower is an opportunity for our community and the state of Illinois to have a landmark that is unique to the state as there are no other landmarks of this type currently on the register.

While the structure is in need of surface rust removal and a new coat of paint, the concrete foot pads are in good condition. If the water tower is allowed to stand, CORE of McLean is committed to not only completing the maintenance tasks of rust removal and application of a fresh coat of paint, but also commissioning a mural to be painted on the tank, celebrating McLean’s location on Route 66 for all to enjoy.

Construction of the Water Tower

Below is a more detailed history of the construction of the water tower, gleaned from news articles from the McLean Lens, the local paper at the time, and The Pantagraph, a broader-reaching Central Illinois newspaper. 

  • On Sept 23, 1933, the McLean Village Board met with Mr. J.J. Woltman of the engineering firm Saylor & Woltman of Bloomington and Blake Leach, attorney for the Village. They were present to further plans on the water works; proposed locations for the wells and blueprints for laying the mains were submitted.
  • The contract for the new water system was awarded to A.L. Wargo from Eureka, IL, whose bid of $38,557.60 was the lowest of 18 bidders. Charles A. Deveneau of Chicago represented the Public Works Administration (PWA). The low bidder had the advantage of agreeing to use hand labor instead of machinery whenever possible in the construction work.
  • The Village Board recommended that all labor be done by local men, and 54 men were employed in two daily shifts of five hours each. The prevailing wage for labor was $0.50/hour. More than 100 contractors and materials men attended the meeting held at the Mt. Hope Township Community Hall. 
  • At this time, McLean was suffering the worst water shortage in its history. A few deep wells were supplying water for the whole town. Many were forced to carry water across town from neighboring wells. A fire at this point would have devastated the Village.
  • By Jan 26, 1934, bond contracts & grant agreements were executed by Village authorities. Bonds were to be repaid by water revenues with no direct tax on property. An outright gift of $10,500 was announced by Harold L. Ickes of the PWA to be included in the allotment of $45,000 to the Village of McLean for a water works system, meaning that of the $45,000 only $34,500 had to be repaid. This amount was secured by 4% revenue bonds from the municipality. The Village selected two triangles of land on the east side of town for the location of the water tower and pump house.
  • PWA money paid for a deep well with the pumping equipment and elevated storage tank and distribution system, including the installation of fire hydrants and water meters. Water rates were comparable to others in the area. Services were provided at $1.00 minimum for 2000 gallons with a cap of $1.50. It was the hope that the convenience would be so great and the cost so reasonable that all homes where it was available would participate. Households that elected to participate before the main was laid were to be connected free of charge.
  • Digging began on July 23, 1934, on the new well for the water works, and by the end of the month had been sunk to 220 feet. Water had been obtained. However, veteran well digger Robert Bowers of McLean said the well should go deeper to take care of future deficiencies that might develop and to get better-quality water.
  • By October 1934, the water works had been held up several times, awaiting parts as well as additional time required for digging the well. In November each day of favorable weather brought the hope of a winter with plenty of water. Mains had been completed on the east side of town and work had begun on the west side.
  • On December 1, 1934, 57% of work had been completed, and the time had expired in which the work was to be completed. It had been impossible to complete work in the specified time due to prolonged rains that delayed excavating in addition to the delays in receiving parts and digging the well. An extension was granted to Mr. A.L. Wargo. Two sections of the tower had been erected at this point in time.
  • Water was released into the mains and tested ready for use on March 15, 1935, 1 year and 8 months after the application was signed requesting PWA funds. The McLean water works included 152 service connections and 42 fire hydrants. The Village Board met and formally accepted the completed water works from contractor A.L. Wargo on April 19, 1935.