City preserves the past for the future

Humboldt’s 100-year-old water tower represents the struggle to obtain a good water supply on the Prairies

HUMBOLDT, Sask. — Volunteers scaled ladders and catwalks in cramped darkened spaces to renovate Humboldt’s derelict water tower in 1998.

At the top, Norm Duerr, Hubert Possberg, Ed Brockmeyer and Matt Breker found pigeon droppings half a metre deep on the floor above the water tank.

“It was quite a terrible job,” said Duerr.

They had to scrabble up the 24 metres via a half metre space between the wooden housing and metal tank.

Dressed in disposable coveralls, hard hats, ventilators, goggles and a safety harness, they used rakes, scrapers and shovels to load bird waste into a specially constructed plastic chute leading to the ground.

What they found underneath was a severely sagging and rotted floor that was the only thing separating them from a fall to the bottom of the empty water tank.

The tower, a 6.1 metre wide standpipe water reservoir designed by engineers Chipman and Power, was built in 1915. A water treatment plant was added in 1945.

Iron struts around the tank supported the wooden sided exterior with a cone shaped roof and walkway atop the structure.

What once held 670,000 litres of water now sports a spiral staircase bolted to the tank walls that takes visitors up 143 steps for panoramic prairie views.

The tower, resembling a lighthouse, is one of only four still standing in Saskatchewan. The others are in Weyburn, Kamsack and Kerrobert, which continues to be used. Eleven similar water towers once stood in the province.

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Duerr said Humboldt’s tower was abandoned in 1977 and deteriorated to the point where the city council was ready to burn it down.

“I went on a rampage,” said the retired English teacher, who spearheaded a campaign to save it and founded the Water Tower Committee.

“We have lost much of our built heritage here.”

Dan Steiner joined the group in 1999, interested in saving a heritage property in a community that had seen the demise of its old city hall, fire department, public school and church.

Steiner said $260,000 has been raised to support the project with money coming from Saskatchewan Heritage, the city, donations and bequests.

In 2003, a crew from Manitoba reinforced supports at the base and roof, reshingled, rebuilt the rooftop catwalk and installed a door for access to the roof. Access to the top had previously been through a ceiling hatch and ladder.

Exteriors colours were reversed from the tower’s early days to a predominately white facade with brown trim.

Steiner learned that the tower leans 10 centimetres to the northwest.

“It’s not quite the leaning tower of Pisa but we do have a tower with a bit of a lean,” said Duerr.

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The conservation work received a Heritage Architecture Excellence award in 2011.

Steiner hopes to eventually add viewing telescopes to the roof deck and an improved interpretive area on the main floor. Other plans include developing access to tunnels beneath the structure that house valves and pipes.

Like many old buildings, the tower is not without its ghost stories. Both men related tales of unexplained noises and radios turning on.

“There are strange tappings at night that you don’t hear during the day,” said Steiner.

Steiner and Duerr agree the water tower has potential for tourism.

“I see it as one of Humboldt’s main tourist attractions. It could become an iconic symbol for the city,” Duerr said.

“The struggle for adequate water is the struggle for life. It’s a powerful symbol of that struggle.”

For more information, visit www.humboldtwatertower.ca.

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Contact karen.morrison@producer.com