Water towers dot the landscape, almost always the tallest structure in the nearby area. When taking long road trips, they catch my eye, especially ones where the tower has been painted to reflect something about the region or when the tower itself is an unusual shape. For example, the tower above, in Gaffney, South Carolina, proudly touts the area’s peach production with this 130 foot tall tower shaped and painted to resemble a delicious peach!
As always, my visual interests led me to search our millions of images for more of the same. Deep dives into our collections revealed so many other interesting types and styles of water towers.
It’s the unexpected finds that come out of a search that pique my curiosity. The serendipitous discoveries in our vast image collections never cease to amaze!
Water tower is a catchall term, but some are standpipes, which serve a similar purpose to other water towers – providing water under pressure to the nearby community.
A search for water towers turned up these two gems from the late 19th century. The architectural whimsy around what was originally a large diameter pipe is delightful. Grand Avenue Water Tower of St. Louis, on the left, is also the world’s tallest free-standing Corinthian column. Something in the background of the Grand Avenue Water Tower caught my eye – another tower! It turns out to be yet another 19th century water tower that has also been preserved. The Red Water Tower is featured below on the right.
I continued down this search path and found two more water towers, these seemingly both pulled right out of fairy tale storybooks. The Roxbury Standpipe of the Boston Water Works, like most standpipes, has at its core an actual pipe. In the 3 foot space between the pipe and the outer wall, a spiral staircase leads to the top for a view of the neighboring area. The North Point Water Tower in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, shown below at right, sits on a bluff over Lake Michigan. The Victorian-Gothic tower has recently been restored and can be visited by tourists to the area.
A notable feature of most water towers is their height, and how they stand out in the landscape. And yet, one of the oldest and most well-known water towers in the U.S. is now dwarfed by its neighbors on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The Chicago Water Tower has the distinction of surviving the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, while all surrounding buildings were burnt down.
There are so many more water towers scattered in our collections, but I’ll leave you with a return to the type of water tower I started with, a tower built to advertise a local product as well as be a roadside attraction, the Brooks Catsup Bottle on Highway 159 of Collinsville, Illinois. It is declared to be the world’s largest catsup bottle – and I imagine that is likely the case! Keep your eyes peeled on your next trip – maybe you will spot a water tower with as much character or history as those shared here.
- Explore the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey (HABS/HAER/HALS) for more water towers documented through photographs and sometimes measured drawings. Be sure to read the background info on each structure for interesting details!
- Search throughout the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog for water towers. You’ll find more examples like this corncob tower and this one based on a castle tower.
- Revisit a Picture This blog post about a mysterious tower: Double Take: Fairy Tale Tower?