You Need Water to Make Steam


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:

Wells 1 045

Wells 2 046

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:

Wells 3 047

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:

Water tower November 1 1911 EOL papers 11


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.



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10 Responses to You Need Water to Make Steam

  1. marmer01 says:

    Small world. The name “Talley” rang a bell. Robert Talley received his BA, BS. Arch, and M. Arch from Rice, that last in 1934. He had an architectural practice in Houston for many years and designed several buildings in the Brazosport area, including part of the elementary school and the band hall of the intermediate school that I attended. I discovered him when I was researching the area’s architecture.

  2. Carolyn Mitchell says:

    Melissa, You are awesome!!! I love reading your posts. The first one I read was forwarded to me from Lynda Crist about Anderson Hall with photographs from the O. Jack Mitchell slides in the Archives. I am his widow and just this year Lee Pecht accepted the slides. Lynda suggested that I subscribe to your posts. I did, and I really enjoy your posts. Carolyn E. Mitchell

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. If I whine, will you show photos of the two reference marks you dug up? I’ve never seen them.

    • Melissa Kean says:

      Lol! No. Are you crazy?

      I was in the middle of the quad with people all over! I was afraid to dig up enough grass to get a real good look at them so I only scraped around (with my handy screwdriver) enough to be sure they were there.

      Although I suppose I could return under cover of darkness . . . or in the middle of break . . .
      and dig up a little more. So, maybe.

      In the meantime, I’ll post a close up of the azimuth marker, which is a much more interesting thing than the station marker.

      • Obviously we will have to address this when I’m down there to provide a plausible scapegoat. Or I could bring my surveyors vest and a few accessories…nobody but historians pay any attention to people dressed as workmen.

  4. marmer01 says:

    Melissa, I think you greatly underestimate people’s tolerance for unexpected behavior from you. They know it’s all in the service of research, knowledge, and better understanding. 😉

  5. francis eugene 'gene' pratt says:

    Historians do NOT have manicures.
    They have inkstained hands and fingernails with dust and mold beneath.

    (And your website has forgotten who I am and now I must try to remember!)

  6. francis eugene 'gene' pratt says:

    Where did my comment go?

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