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130 Years Later - the 8th Avenue Reservoir Still Stands

August 24, 2019

The Metro Water Department and Metro Archives are commemorating the 130th anniversary of the completion of the 8th Avenue Reservoir and the George Reyer Pumping Station with an exhibit and this blog post!


As of the beginning of August and possibly through October, Metro Water Services and Metro Archives are celebrating the 130th anniversary of the 8th avenue reservoir with a pretty cool exhibit in our West Reading Room. Come check it out if you can; there's also a video playing on loop in the room, talking about the reservoir and its many years of existence. But if you can't make it, here's a semi-brief recap of Metro Water's history and the history of the historic reservoir. 

Also, I've filled this post heavily with photos and scans of documents. So feel free to just browse through and look at the cool images! 

Brief History of the City of Nashville Water Works Dept. and Metro Water

Sticker of the City of Nashville Water Works Department, prior to Metro forming.


Water has a long and established history intertwined with Nashville, both before and after it officially became a city. Fort Nashboro was established by the first settlers because of the availability of pure water from a spring at a nearby location. The city also maintained its status as an important location throughout the 19th century, due to being a major port on the Cumberland River, with the first steamboat coming through in 1819. It became the main distribution point for goods throughout the Mid-South. 

In fact, I know I read this somewhere but correct me if I'm wrong, but the Cumberland River and its size was one of the main reasons that Nashville became the permanent capital of Tennessee in 1843. Vying with Murfreesboro to be the winner, other things worked in its favor as well, such as being in the center of the state, better roadways, the state prison was here, and the city also offered the state a free piece of land to build the capitol building on. 

Early View of Nashville's Riverfront/Wharf. Unknown date.

But I digress, back to the history of Nashville's Water Works...

According to Metro's "History of Nashville's Water Services" page, prior to the official establishment of the municipal waterworks system, the city started their first water system by purchasing the rights to a double-forcing pump in 1819. By 1826, the city had taken another promising step forward with the public square reservoir, where water was being pumped from the Fort Nashboro spring. 3 years later though, a fire destroyed the city's first water facilities, but a new system was built in the Rolling Mill Hill area, east of downtown.

Check out the 1804 map of Nashville that shows the spring that was located near Fort Nashboro... 

1804 map of the city of Nashville.

With all of this progress, the next step became establishing the city's first municipally-owned waterworks system. The city owned 24 slaves by the year 1831 (and 60 prior to the civil war), and they were the individuals responsible for building the first successful water system (among many other projects that they worked on in the city such as the early roadway system, the 2nd Courthouse, probably the State Capitol building, and Fort Negley). According to George Zepp's 2003 Tennessean article about the slave market in downtown Nashville, "vital contributions of slaves to the development of Nashville and other cities have often gone unnoticed." 

But the new waterworks system project was completed by 1833, and the city inaugurated this new system with cannons, a parade, and of course speeches. This new system sufficed until the population increased again around the time of the Civil War. 

Ten years prior to that though (in 1823), the city began constructing their brick and clay sewer system. They conveyed both stormwater and sanitary sewage to be deposited into the Cumberland River (ugh!). Thankfully, this process has improved over the years.

Nashville Banner news clipping from 1954, commemorating the 121st anniversary of the city's water works system.

Both the sewage and water treatment systems improved when the 20th century started approaching. Before the new century, Nashville did not chemically treat drinking water. In fact, it wasn't until a Cholera outbreak in 1878 that the city decided to install (with the urging of the Health Department and Water Works) an island filtering gallery to reduce waterborne bacteria in the drinking water. 

Next came the 8th ave reservoir and the George Reyer Pumping Station at Omohundro Drive, both completed in 1889. More details on both below. 

Aerial view of the north side of the reservoir.

But after that, 1908 was the next significant year when Nashville officially began chemically treating the water supply to help eliminate the bacteria as well as improve the color of the drinking water. I was going to try to simplify this next sentence from the Water Services page, but forget that, I'm not sure what it's actually saying. So straight from the website - "Sulphate of alumina (alum) reduced the bacteria and increased the clarity of the naturally-muddy Cumberland River water by coagulating smaller particles into larger, heavier pieces that settled to the bottom of the reservoir." Whatever that says, it means it was a step in the right direction of improving the city's drinking water. 

The next year, hypochlorite of lime was used to disinfect the water, and that was then replaced in 1920 with liquid chlorine. 

The next big milestone, albeit unfortunate, for the Water Works department and the city was the breaking apart and collapsing of the southeast quadrant of the reservoir wall. This occurred on November 5th, 1912, causing over $100,000 in damages in the immediate area. More on this unfortunate occurrence below as well. 

Omohundro Campus and George Reyer Pumping Station

Like the 8th ave reservoir that is still in operation today, the Omohundro campus and George Reyer pumping station was built in 1889. The way the pumping station worked was that the pumps used steam power to pull water from the river to send it to the city reservoir. From there, the water settled in the reservoir (read more about this process below), and then was dispersed throughout the city. 

Next came the filtration building and first filtration treatment to the Omohundro campus in 1929. The filtration building, still standing today, remains to be one of the most unique buildings in Metro Government (at least in my opinion).

Both structures (the building and reservoir) are included on the National Registry of Historical Places as well. Check out the photos below of the interior and exterior of the filtration building, which was in the spotlight during the 2010 Nashville flood due to the fact that it was the only functioning treatment facility for a short time while the city tried to get back on its feet. Impressive for a facility that was 80 years old at the time. 

The inside of the building.

The outside of the building.


Lets bullet point the rest of the details to shorten this blog post a tad, shall we:

  • 1950: The need for a system that would capture and treat sewage was imperative. With a population of 300,000+, the discharge of untreated waste and also the failure of septic systems represented a significant threat to the environment and a challenge for a growing community. 
  • 1953: Nashville became the 2nd city in Tennessee to fluoridate drinking water for dental health. 
  • 1958: The Central Wastewater Treatment Plant was built just north of downtown and began operating. 
  • 1961: The Dry Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant was built in the Rivergate area and began operating. 
  • 1963: With the new formation of the Metropolitan Government, the suburban areas now received their first fire hydrants.
  • 1975: The Whites Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in West Nashville was put into service. 
  • 1978: The K.R. Harrington Water Treatment Plant located on Heartland Drive was added to the Omohundro Treatment Plant. 
  • 1980's: The beginning of an aggressive sewer expansion program to help eliminate more septic systems in Davidson County. 
  • 1990: The Overflow Abatement Program launched as an aggressive program designed to upgrade pumping stations and treatment plant capacities, repair leaking sewers and address combined sewer overflow impacts. 
  • 2016: Metro Water transitioned from chlorine to bleach for drinking water disinfection. This new process includes onsite generation of bleach and decreases risks to our community and staff. 
  • Throughout the years, Metro Water has made changes to chemical processes in accordance with regulations promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

And because pretty much all of this information came from the Metro page, here's the link to it if you'd like to read more about Metro Water's history or to view some of the videos on the site. 

History of the 8th Ave Reservoir

Tennessean clipping just days before the completion of the reservoir.

I'd bet a Kennedy half dollar (because I have one in case I'm wrong) that most people that currently live in Nashville, have driven by or seen the 8th ave reservoir and possibly wondered what it is (I'm not betting on the second part though). It's not necessarily a place that's a secret, but tours of the site are no longer open to the public for security and safety reasons - sorry. If you are interested in taking a tour of one of their treatment plants though, they offer free monthly tours of the Whites Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and the K.R. Harrington Water Treatment Plant. Check out their site here to book a tour.

But if you are someone that's ever wondered about the reservoir, here are some details about it...

The plans for the reservoir began in 1887, by the city engineer, J.A. Jowett. The plan was to build it on Kirkpatrick's Hill - the previous site of Fort Casino during the 1864 Battle of Nashville. 

1888 Sanborn map showing the area for the planned reservoir.

Prior to the construction of the reservoir, the mayor and city council authorized and directed the Board of Public Works and Affairs to employ a hydraulic engineer to conduct a survey, estimate, and specifications for a reservoir to be built on either Curry or Kirkpatrick Hill - " his judgment, might be best for the interest of the city, all things being considered" (from the City Council Minutes, April 28th, 1887). 

Mr. Charles Hermany of Louisville was the engineer selected to conduct the survey and other evaluations. His initial survey and estimates, for a rock and earth enbankment, pointed to Curry's Hill as the cheapest and best location, at a cost of $401,589 (which is equivalent to about $10.8 million dollars in today's money market).

However, there was a conflicting opinion from the aforementioned J.A. Jowett, that pointed to Kirkpatrick's Hill as the best location for a masonry reservoir. His estimate of cost was $362,375. Which, according to Metro Water Service's brochure about the reservoir, was under the final cost by a little over $2,100. But, still cheaper than Mr. Hermany's estimate. 

The other big difference in estimates and surveys is that the proposed reservoir on Curry's Hill would be a rock and earth enbankment, while the proposed reservoir on Kirkpatrick's Hill would be a masonry reservoir. I'm not going to pretend to understand the difference, but will simply say that's what I read in the City Council notes (insert shrug here). The main similarities in reservoirs though were that they would both hold 50,000,000 gallons of water, and that they would both be divided into compartments holding 25,000,000 each. 

After all that, the obvious is stated in the notes (the notes include a clipping from a local newspaper detailing each engineer's report):

"If each can be built for the sum estimated (and on this both gentlemen seem confident) then the only question for determination is which is the better mode of construction - a rock and earth enbankment or a thick, cemented masonry wall."

But long story short, Kirkpatrick Hill was finally chosen due to the belief that it would be safer in terms of pressure and also water tightness...

"They [the board] think the masonry if properly cemented will certainly be watertight; they believe its power of resistance to pressure to have been properly calculated and they feel sure beyond all peradventure, from an examination of the hill, that a natural rock foundation will be found for the wall, which will forever shut out all danger of settlement." 

I do wonder if they regretted their decision when November 5th, 1912 rolled around? 

But the construction of Nashville's second (I think second but I've also heard that it was the city's third) reservoir began sometime in the year 1887. It was officially completed on August 24th, 1889. The final cost was $364,525.21 (roughly $10.2 million today). 

It was constructed out of cut limestone which was quarried from the present day Rose Park. The walls stand 33 feet, 9 inches high. The interior of the elliptical-shaped reservoir measures 603 x 463.4 feet. A center dividing wall separates the 2 basins, each holding the planned 25.5 million gallons of water (51 million total). 

If you're curious where Curry's Hill was, which I was so I went and found a map, check out the scan of an 1877 map below showing that both hills were actually not far from each other at all. 

1877 map of the city showing both Curry and Kirkpatrick's Hills in red and blue boxes.


While the new reservoir was the second built in the city (again, I think), it became the first filtration plant. The way the process worked is that the mud settled to the bottom of the basin (the 2-compartment reservoir design allowed the west side to function as a settling basin). As the mud settled out of the stored water, the clear water at the top then traveled through a channel (or weir) in the cross wall to the east basin. The cleaner, settled water flowed to the community through a series of cast iron and wooden pipes. 

There is a gatehouse (see photo below) on top of the reservoir as well that houses valves as well as serving as a shelter for the custodian (it's no longer in operation anymore though since it's just a storage container now - more on that below). A 9-foot walkway with sidewalls runs around the top of the reservoir. 

View of the top of the 8th ave reservoir.

Though it's no longer used as a settling basin, it is still used today as a storage location for clean water that's been treated at one of two of Metro Water Services' treatment plants.

And I already mentioned this but here it is again - on March 30th, 1978, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service.

The Break in the Reservoir - November 5th, 1912

Photo from November 5th, 1912, showing the southeast wall broken off.

Briefly mentioned above, but here's the full story - November 5th, 1912 turned out to be quite a day in Water Works and city history. At approximately 12:10 a.m., the southeast quadrant of the reservoir broke away, pouring 25 million gallons of water out of the reservoir, towards the state fairgrounds. 

While thankfully no lives were lost due to the breakage, many homes were damaged or washed away from their foundations. The estimated property damage total came to about $75 - $100,000. Seems cheap considering the amount of water that came out, but you've also got to put yourself in a 1912 money market mindset; $100,000 in 1912 is equal to roughly $2.5 million today. 

Because we have some of the Water Works records here in Metro Archives, that means we also have the settlement papers and other documents from the breakage. I've gone through all of the settlements, and to my best guess, the individual below (Arthur Cooney) is the one that endured the most damage and therefore received the most in settlement money from the city. He owned 7 properties semi-close to the reservoir, and therefore received $11,000 from damages. Check out the ledger book below too (though it's a tad illegible) showing the items he reported as damaged due to the breakage. 

Settlement documents for Arthur Cooney and family.

1912 flood damage ledger showing some of the items reported by Arthur Cooney.


This 1908 map also shows the approximate area that was affected by the wall breaking, give or take a few streets...

Were there signs of the upcoming doom before the wall broke? Actually, yes. Apparently before the fateful day, observers said to have noticed a large stream of water running down the gutter on 8th avenue. 

One of the possible causes, according to some engineers, was apparent slipping of the clay strata, causing the wall to slide. But others said that it was more likely that the leaking water gradually dissolved the clay, allowing the thin ledges of stone to settle until the wall broke. However, it was determined that the wall did not fail due to water pressure. 

Whatever the cause, a critical lesson has been learned and today, the reservoir is monitored daily while yearly inspections to check for possible settlement are also conducted. 

In Other News - A Recently-Discovered Find in our Collections

The State v. Edna Smith

A new volunteer project that we've started in Metro Archives involves sorting through the Criminal Court case files and placing them into acid-free folders. It may not sound initially entertaining, but most of our volunteers enjoy it because it provides them with the opportunity to read about each case/crime in the process. We recently received these case files (which range from approximately 1911 to 1970) from Criminal Court, so of course all of us staff members have sorted through them a bit as well to see what kind of interesting crimes we can come across (don't judge us, we learn a lot this way).

While most of them are crimes that have some relation to alcohol such as tippling, the "bone dry" law, or even "unlawfully driving an automobile while under the influence of intoxicating liquors", there are other unique ones like the State v. Edna Smith which charged Ms. Smith with "unlawfully refusing seat on car." 

This occurred in August, 1921, and surely wasn't the only incident. But it is the only case of its kind, as of yet, that we've come across in the case files. As our volunteers continue their project, we'll see how many more cases of this kind come about that are said to "violate the Jim Crow Law." Either way, this is roughly 34 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, and the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.

Feel free to read the entirety of the transcript below, but here's a short summary of what happened:

Edna Smith was a passenger on one of Nashville's streetcars, operated by the Nashville Railway and Light Company. Per the Jim Crow laws at the time, the streetcar had segregated seating areas for whites and blacks, which was upheld and continued to be lawful due to the landmark decision made in the Plessy v. Ferguson case from 1896, which made racial segregation lawful for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality. 

The specific streetcar in this case was the line known as the "Broadway and West End Line". The conductor was an individual by the name of H.H. Webb. When Edna boarded the streetcar, she then refused to take the seat assigned to her by Webb. After that, she also refused to leave the streetcar when instructed to.

In reference to her refusing to leave, the last portion of the transcript states: "[Edna Smith] did not leave said streetcar, but did remain thereon, against the peace and dignity of the State." 

I'm not able to determine how the case played out; I know there are several documents in the case file such as subpoenas and requests to appear in court though. One states that she'd be charged $250 (which is equal to about $3,500 today) if she didn't appear in court on the first Monday in January, 1922. The court case began in September though, I believe, so to my best guess, she didn't attend a few of the required court dates.  

Using our very handy subscription, I searched thoroughly to see if this particular case was included in the papers. So far, I haven't found it. But I did find a few other news articles discussing how the City Council was ruling for Jim Crow laws to be enforced on the streetcars, by prohibiting the entrance of more passengers than seats are provided for. 

See a part of the news clipping about the City Council's ruling below. 

Subpoena for the State v. Edna Smith case.

Criminal Court case file for the State v. Edna Smith.

Tennessee news clipping from September 21st, 1921.

As we continue to process this collection of case files, and especially if we come across more cases like this one or similar in the future, rest assured that I will write a blog post about it.

'Til next time, 


lucille ball


Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.