Madison's Early Water Tanks, A Vintage Vignette

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Madison's Early Water Tanks
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
August 16, 2009

According to Madison County Deed Book 74 in 1894 an agreement between the City of Madison and the Memphis & Charleston Railroad allowed construction of Madison’s first water tank for fire control. While it was called “water tank” in the agreement, my own word for it would be “cistern”. Some folks would call it a well. It was below ground, not the kind put on stilts. It became the city’s water supply, located underneath the original Roundhouse. The Roundhouse was constructed in 1896 at the request of Captain John Buchanan Floyd, who was mayor at the time. The location on railroad property along today’s Village Green between Main and Front Streets was used because the city owned no property in the business district where the water supply was needed to fight fires. The railroad has owned the Village Green since the 1850s, when the Memphis & Charleston Railroad was constructed through the area. Even today, the Village Green is used under a lease from the railroad by the city and its authorized organizations.

The specific location of the cistern and the original Roundhouse is easily found now by the raised concrete pad on the north side of Main Street, just east of the Main Street Café. Of course, the replica Roundhouse that stands today is on the other side of the tracks, standing on the original site of the railroad depots. The depot provided one of the key landmarks in the agreement that allowed construction of the cistern. It stated that the “tank” was to be positioned “30 feet west of the west wall of the depot and 50 feet south of the main track.” (Madison had two east-west tracks in front of the depot, and one track looping around the back of the depot).

While this was the first known municipal water tank in Madison, it was not the most visible one in the town’s history. There was another water tank, above ground and built around 1920, owned by the Planter’s Warehouse. It was on Bradley Street, just a few feet east of Sullivan Street. Additionally, in 1937 the tallest tank was built just behind the second city hall, located at Garner Street and Martin Street, a block south of Main Street. The 1937 Garner Street tank was owned by the city and held 75,000 gallons of water. It stood 135 feet high and had the town’s name emblazoned in large letters, typical of the era. Photos show the tank and two-story city hall in the 1940s, when live chickens were thrown from the tank on Christmas Eve, in the tradition set by “Doc” Hughes when he turned chickens or turkeys loose from the roof of his two-story pharmacy building.

The Garner Street tank was taken out of service in 1979. Both it and the Planter’s tank were taken down by a three-man crew from Pittsburg Tank & Tower of Hendersonville, Kentucky. Gladys True, in her book “Reflections of Madison, 1869-1999”, included a newspaper clipping of the event, along with a photo of the Garner Street tank. Unfortunately, her clipping does not include the name of the newspaper or the date of publication. However, it does mention that the price paid by the Water and Wastewater Board of Madison to demolish and remove the Garner Street tank was just over $7500. It was also pointed out that the crew had salvage rights for the materials they removed. The sale of the metal for scrap was sufficient to pay for their travel to Madison plus their costs for lodging and food. When the crew left town, Madison’s most publicly visible and oldest above-ground water tanks were only memories, but the oldest town water supply is still in existence. It is lying unused beneath a concrete pad that most people don’t notice today. Even fewer have any idea of why the pad is there or what may be beneath it. So it is with much of any town’s history, and Madison is no exception in that regard, but this Vintage Vignette series is at least one small way of preserving some of our town’s history.

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