Recap • St. Louis Purifies Tap Water in Time for Expo | Post-Dispatch Archives


Tim O’Neal

stone.Louis • In the years leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair, the local water supply flowed in a distinctive hue commensurate with its muddy water source. Samuel Clemens satirized the water in St. Louis in his classic river memoir “Life on the Mississippi”:

“If you let your cup sit for half an hour, you can simply separate the land from the water like Genesis. . . the land is very moist and the water very healthy.” Eat it as gruel.”

Instead of laughing, the promoters of the Louisiana Purchasing Expo were shamed by the sight of visitors from around the world gazing at the fountains and waterfalls bubbling brown. When chemists at the St. Louis Water Works tried to solve this decades-old problem, the fair built its own filtration plant, just in case.

In 1894, St. Louis opened a new water plant with six large sedimentation ponds in the Mississippi River rock chain, far upstream from the city block. But the water from the faucet still came out cloudy. Mayor Lola Wells had promised clear water for the fair. time is limited.

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Inspired by Quincy, Illinois, water plant engineers began using lime and iron sulfate to separate sludge from water. High water and ice in January 1904 delayed their experiments. But even letting the treated water sit for 15 hours, the brown color doesn’t go away.

Then waterworks chemist John F. Wexford had a simple idea – pour 10 times as much lime into the recipe. On March 23, 1904, dumping began. Early results were good, Wexford wrote in his notes: “Most of the mud went to the bottom of the basin.”

Citing evidence of downtown fire hydrants, The Post published a poem on its front page on March 30 that mentioned City Water Commissioner Ben Adkins:

“Our Mr Adkins, so we hear

The city water has been made clear. “

The paper predicts that visitors will say, “Oh, what clear water they have.” On April 19, when the waterfall on Art Hill was put to the test, the water sparkled like jewels in the sky. “

An estimated 197,000 people attended the show’s opening day, April 30. After seven months of operation, the show has never used its backup filter unit.

Success creates painful feelings. Wexford tried to patent the process, but the mayor of Wells declared no one deserved credit. Wexford resigned. The North St. Louis Merchants Association sided with Wexford and raised $5,000 for him. Wexford returned to the water department in 1927 and died eight years later.

After numerous modifications and updates to the disinfectant, the city still uses Wexford’s method.

Read more stories from Tim O’Neil’s retrospective series.

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