Hopefully some of you took the chance over the July 4th weekend to climb Fort Atkinson’s historic 1901 Water Tower. The Hoard Historical Museum offers tours the first Saturday of the month, letting people climb to near the top of the 112-foot structure to get a great view of the city and surrounding countryside (when not obscured by smoke from Canadian wildfires!)
The tower came into operation in 1901 after a decade-long battle between mayors and city aldermen about whether a public waterworks was necessary. Throughout the nineteenth century, residents in the growing community of Fort Atkinson got their water from the Rock River or from private wells, some of which were placed hazardously close to outhouses. Fire protection was pretty primitive with bucket brigades and steamer engines pumping water from the river, if the fire was handily close by. As you might guess, most buildings that caught fire burned to the ground.
By 1900, during the Progressive Era when people began looking to city government to improve living conditions by providing things like sanitation systems and municipally owned water and power, many of Fort’s 3,500 citizens were clamoring for a public waterworks to provide clean water and adequate fire protection. Our mayor at the time, Daniel Bullock, was firmly opposed to the idea as his priority was a second bridge over the Rock River. The best way to protect against fire, he told his citizens, was to invest in a good insurance policy!
But the city’s aldermen were in favor of the project and in February of 1901 a city-wide referendum on a proposed waterworks won by a whopping six to one margin. It took nine months to construct the tower and install the elevated tank that held 100,000 gallons.
After the tower was taken out of service in 1988, the City of Fort Atkinson, WI worked with the historical society and local Fort Atkinson Historic Preservation Commissionto save this part of our history and skyline. Grants from our Fort Atkinson Community Foundation and from the Jeffris Family Foundation out of Janesville, along with a rousing public fundraising campaign raised enough funds to restore the tower and provide visitor access to the top. In 2005, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.