A while back I got this question from Carl Riedel in the Central Plant:
I have been working here at the Rice Central Plant since 1991. I was asked a question today about the steam plant’s early days that I couldn’t answer. When the plant was first built it had coal fired boilers in it. I’ve seen pictures of the coal deliveries to the plant so I understand how that was worked out.
What I’m wondering, after being asked about it, is where did the boiler make up water for the steam come from?
This is a really good question. I’ve written before several times about how the boilers were fueled–it was mostly oil with coal as a backup, then natural gas after the mid-20s– but had never thought about the water source. Intuitively, you know the answer has to be that they dug a well. There certainly wasn’t any city water being piped in–we weren’t even in Houston! I tried to find something more specific but came up empty.
And then, a miracle occurred.
A couple days ago I was rather half-heartedly looking for documentation of the installation of the Geodetic Survey markers that I talked about yesterday. As I expected, there wasn’t any. But I did find a folder I’d never noticed before and from it emerged, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, the fully formed answer, complete with map.
It starts with a typhoid outbreak in Houston in 1933. One of the stricken was a Rice graduate student, which raised the issue of the safety of the campus water supply, prompting this report:
Although the typhoid story, which is very well documented in the folder, turned out to be a bit of a page-turner, I managed to stay focused on the matter of the well, specifically the original well that was dug in 1911. (It wasn’t our fault, by the way. The typhoid outbreak, that is.)
The report had appended to it a map showing the location of the wells and the other stuff underground in their vicinity:
As soon as I saw it I recollected this photograph of Mech Lab construction, taken on November 1, 1911. Look at those tanks to the left of the campanile. The one on the left looks like a water tank, exactly where it should be:
Bonus: I got multiple requests, some whinier than others, for a picture of the survey marker underneath the metal plate. That plate is quite heavy and there’s dirt under it (mud, really) but I went ahead and sacrificed my manicure for the sake of the historical record.