January 2014
Libby Reuter and Joshua Rowan
Reservoir Park, South Grand Blvd.
St. Louis, MO
N38.614929 W090.238663

This birdbath-shaped Cairn nests in the snow on the steps to the Compton Hill reservoir, adjacent to the 179-foot-tall Compton Hill Water Tower. A vintage ornament swirls through the WaterTower Cairn to suggest water moving from the reservoir to the tower.

The City of St. Louis won an award for the “Best Tasting” water in 2007, but the city’s record as a purveyor of delicious water goes back before the Civil War. When it was built in 1898, Compton Hill Water Tower was the third tower in the city’s water delivery system. Then, as now, Missouri River water is captured just below the place where the “Big Muddy” joins the Mississippi, but before the two river’s waters mix. In the past, a system of wooden or cast-iron pipes and steam-powered pumps forced the water to the tops of the towers. The purpose of all this upward pumping was to increase water pressure in the pipes so that city water could reach the faucets on the upper floors of the many brick buildings.

The three water towers are no longer in-service but are maintained as historic landmarks. When they were built, architectural beauty was as important as the towers’ function. The city was proud of its water and wanted to celebrate it. City leaders hired distinguished architects to design these water-monuments on major boulevards with the same materials used for the city’s finest homes. The Compton Tower was constructed of rusticated limestone, brick, and terracotta to look like a European castle.

Although the standards for good, clean water are different today, St. Louis has always had a national reputation for quality water. An 1858 traveler’s guide bragged about St. Louis’ water, writing: “The Missouri river imparts its peculiar muddy cast to the Mississippi at and below their junction, and although the appearance of the water is not clear, and to a stranger is rather disagreeable, yet it is nevertheless about the best river water in the world. It is said to keep longer, and to be sweeter on a sea voyage than the water of perhaps any other stream; indeed it may almost be said never to spoil.”

A history of all three St. Louis Water Towers can be read at this link.

A Sketch Book of St. Louis by Taylor and Crooks, quoted in A history of St. Louis Water Works, 1764-1968 by William B. Schworm, can be found here.