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Many U.S. communities advertise their special qualities via artwork on tall water towers. This one, locally known as “the Gaffney Peachoid” in Gaffney, South Carolina, touts the area’s tasty peaches. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2017 Oct. 28. //

Towering over the Landscape

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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.

GENERAL VIEW FROM WEST – Grand Avenue Water Tower, East Grand Boulevard & North 20th Street, Saint Louis, St. Louis (Independent City), MO. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, 1986. From HABS MO,96-SALU,111-

GENERAL VIEW FROM THE WEST – Red Water Tower, Blair & Bissell Streets, Saint Louis, St. Louis (Independent City), MO. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, 1986. From HABS MO,96-SALU,132-

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.

GENERAL EXTERIOR VIEW – Boston Water Works, Roxbury Standpipe, Fort Avenue, Highland Park, Boston, Suffolk County, MA. Photo by Jet Lowe, n.d. From HAER MASS,13-BOST,76-

Old North Point water tower, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006.

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.

Water Tower, Chicago and Michigan Aves., Chicago. Stereograph by Keystone View Co., ca. 1930.
Closer view of the tower and bottle-shaped tank – Brooks Catsup Bottle, Highway 159, Collinsville, Madison County, IL. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, n.d. From HABS IL-1230

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.

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  1. I have to admit I wasn’t aware there were “pretty” watertowers. If I ever did see one that elaborate I wouldn’t have know the purpose of the structure. That was a fun journey…thank you.

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