116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
“The coming election will be the most important in the history of the city.” — Frank H. Juckett, Cedar Rapids businessman
That ominous quote in the March 3, 1899, Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette referred to the question of whether the city should buy the local waterworks operation, the Cedar Rapids Water Co.
The plant, at what used to be D Ave and Second Street NE along the river downtown, was on a plat that is now part of Quaker Oats. Residents were to vote on the matter Dec. 18 after months of debate and unprecedented editorial attention in local newspapers.
City-owned water services weren’t the norm in 1899. Water was supplied by private companies that had franchise agreements with cities.
The Cedar Rapids Water Co.’s original agreement with the city was signed in 1875 when the city’s 7,000 citizens relied on well water. The company ran water lines and installed hydrants, with some of them likely hand pumps.
The agreement specified that the water rates charged residents would not exceed those of four other Iowa cities — a point critics said the company ignored.
Support for better water services surged in 1899. The city had just paid the water company $16,000 for a year’s worth of water, which included water for fighting fires.
Cities like Ottumwa, Allison and Dubuque were making headlines by buying and running their own local water companies. They had jumped on the city-owned bandwagon after Sioux City’s municipal water operation saved the city from bankruptcy.
Sioux City’s hydro prosperity was complicated, however. Despite the city’s financial success in managing a water service, fears of political shenanigans prompted legislators to give control of the waterworks to a board appointed by the district court.
While that was being challenged, cities across the state began looking to buy their local water companies.
Stockholders in the Cedar Rapids Water Co. were accused of caring more about profits than water quality, with suggestions that water pump upkeep and filtration components were neglected to increase profits while putting citizens’ health at risk.
An exploratory committee pointed out the company’s water system deficiencies compared to those in other Iowa cities.
Cedar Rapids had 36 miles of water mains buried under city streets and 228 hydrants. Twice as many miles of pipes and hydrants were identified as necessary for keeping up with future growth and fire safety standards.
Water pressure also was an issue, with newspapers reporting inefficient firefighting due to low hydrant pressure.
This shifted the municipal ownership question into a discussion of whether a new water plant was needed.
The existing plant filtered Cedar River water at its downtown site, meaning it was battling local pollution from the north side of town. It was also believed that sewage from upstream cities like Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Vinton was putting Cedar Rapidians at risk of typhoid fever.
The eventual proposition put before the voters was a yes/no question of whether the city should buy and operate the existing waterworks company in a 23-year, lease-to-own agreement for $500,000, with annual payments not to exceed $38,000.
Given that the city was already paying $16,000 a year for water, and the water company was collecting $43,000 a year from customers, the proposition was billed as an improvement that paid for itself while promising to lower water rates for citizens.
Citizens were told the plan would increase the water plant’s 12 sand bed filters to 438 in an effort improve water quality.
As the vote neared, the Cedar Rapids Republican broke the news that a third-party company being considered to finance the deal was backed by Chicagoans who had a sketchy history with similar waterworks maneuvers in other cities, even defaulting on loans in one instance.
The inference was that the proposal was a risky venture for the city.
On Election Day, The Evening Gazette ran a front-page, late-edition story claiming that water company stockholders were driving carriages full of women — “wives, lady friends and hired girls” — to vote “no.”
The story encouraged women voters that they still had time to vote “yes” in order to protect their homes and “save the children.”
Subsequent reporting suggested it wasn’t clear the morning of the vote if women were even allowed to vote in the election.
Of the roughly 4,500 ballots cast, the measure passed by 1,500 votes. Full city ownership of the original water plant would be completed in 23 years.
Joe Coffey, a freelance writer and content marketer, has been writing this monthly column for The History Center for three years. Rob and Jessica Cline of Cedar Rapids will begin writing the column next month.