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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Traditional North Dakota Steel Water Towers Are Going, Going...

Stanley Water Tower

Stanley Water Tower photo by William Stark, 2008.

Municipal steel water towers are currently my sideline research project. From what I have gathered so far, the research better speed up because the towers are coming down rapidly. I’ve been able to uncover 69 traditional-style water towers in North Dakota in the past three years, and in that time seven of them have been pulled down or are scheduled to be demolished.1 I’m working with the Bureau of Reclamation to document some of these vital infrastructure elements prior to their razing.

Water towers are the most visible component of a municipality’s investment in a public potable water and sewer system, and provide pressure to move water through the system and storage capacity.

Stanley, North Dakota, provides a typical history of infrastructure development with the establishment of the community to provide coal and water for the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway (later the Great Northern Railway) railroad locomotives in 1887, a post office in 1899, and more than 40 businesses by 1906. In May 1908 the Stanley Village Board organized and began passing ordinances to establish streets and sidewalks, a telephone system, road and bridge maintenance, and a village well in 1909. By 1915, with Stanley’s population growing to more than 500, the Stanley Electric Company was established and a water and sewer system installed, along with a city well nearby. In 1917 the Minneapolis Steel and Machine Builders constructed the Stanley water tower, which remains in use today, to create pressure in the water supply system.2

Drawing of Steel Water Towers associated with South Dakota Water Systems

Gregory R. Mathis Steel Water Towers Associated with South Dakota Water Systems, 1894 – 1967. Used with permission of the SD State Historical Society. Full context available at: http://history.sd.gov/preservation/OtherServices/SDWaterTowers.pdf

The structural side of documenting this group of water towers is straightforward, but documenting the manufacturer of each tower is more difficult. This traditional form of steel water tower has four steel legs, a center riser pipe, and a hemispherical bottom on the tank. Other identifying features are the guardrail around the circumference of the tank and the characteristic conical cap topped by a vent. From about 1900 to the 1960s, several regional water tower manufacturers dominated the market for construction of these handsome structures, but only two have been definitively documented to date. Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Company and Minneapolis Steel & Machinery are the two manufacturers that supplied the towers to North Dakotan municipalities. The towns typically either hired the manufacturer’s own construction company or a regional builder who trained specialized teams to construct them.3

Water tower in Flaxton

City of Flaxton Water Tower, Susan Quinnell.

It has been far more difficult to identify the “soft side” of municipal water development. Some municipalities got behind their water system construction projects quickly and efficiently. Williston’s project sailed through completion on the tide of progressive city officials who, by 1917, had built the water filtration plant, water tower and supply system, and paid off the municipal bond indebtedness of $40,000, primarily with the proceeds of the sale of water.4 Meanwhile other towns struggled to find local support for their pure water supply projects, even with the North Dakota Department of Health providing concrete evidence of rising levels of bacteria in individual wells sampled within the city limits of Northwood. This 1937 – 1939 project was one of many funded in part (45 percent) by the federal government’s Public Works Administration program to provide a reliable source of pure water and water for fire protection.5 My research continues with analysis of water tower types by geographic location and a search for the build dates on each municipality’s water tower.


1Survey of City Auditors taken by e-mail February & March, 2017, and Google Maps
2 William Stark, Stanley Water Tower: Context and History Stanley, North Dakota, 2008. SHSND, Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division manuscript collection, MS. 11258.
3 Survey of North Dakota City Auditors and Ronald E. Spreng, “They Didn’t Just Grow There: Building Water Towers in the Post War Era,” Minnesota History, (Winter 1992): 130 – 141.
4 Williston Graphic, March 29, 1917, 19.
5 William Start, Northwood and the Public Works Administration: A Brief History of Northwood, North Dakota’s Waterworks and Sanitation Systems, 2008. SHSND Archaeology and Historic Preservation manuscript collection, MS. 10400.

Acquiring Artifacts Related to Dakota Access Pipeline: Our Efforts to Document a Current Historic Event

History isn’t just in the past—it’s being made every day. Our mission includes collecting from the contemporary world because we want to preserve what it’s like to be a North Dakotan right now. We have a duty to document and preserve our current time for the historical record so future generations can study it and come to understand it.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project has many people expressing strong feelings on all sides of the issue. The scale and intensity of the pipeline protests are unprecedented in the state’s history. No matter what your stance, the controversy has become a significant part of North Dakota’s story and is worthy of preservation in the historical record.

We decided to start collecting objects related to this movement in November. We feared that if we waited too much longer, some of the objects that tell the story would be discarded by their owners.

Our public efforts started with a Dec. 23 article in the Bismarck Tribune, which outlined the objects we wanted to collect. We want to collect items to tell varying viewpoints of this ongoing story. Every perspective is equally important to help understand an event. We have reached out to private companies, law enforcement, state, tribal, and federal government agencies, counter protest groups, and people living at the camps to request donations. Our finalized list contained 28 groups or individuals to contact.

Museum aims to collect objects from porotest article

We first announced our collecting efforts with a December 23 article in the Bismarck Tribune, which gave a basic outline of what we wanted to collect and why we were gathering objects.

Donovan, Lauren. “Museum aims to collect objects from protest.” Bismarck Tribune, Dec. 23, 2016. Accessed Feb. 28, 2017. http://bismarcktribune.com/news/state-and-regional/museum-aims-to-collect-objects-from-protest/article_a1b1fa2b-73cb-5c97-81ed-f3097b63ea99.html

Our first influx of artifacts came from a Feb. 3 staff visit to the Oceti Sakowin camp, which was being dismantled at the time. Someone at the camp directed us to a pile of items being discarded as residents left. We selected 37 objects that we felt encapsulated daily life at the camps, including sleeping bags, camp chairs, signs, and canned goods. We also took the opportunity to talk with people we encountered about what we were doing and encouraged them to donate.

Oceti Sakowin protest camp on February 3

Museum Division staff visited the Oceti Sakowin protest camp on February 3. It was very quiet (not to mention cold), as most people had left, and the camp was being dismantled. We collected 37 artifacts and spoke with residents of the camp about what we were doing.

Pile of discarded items

We primarily collected from a large pile of items that had been discarded as people left the camp. We tried to select items that would encapsulate camp life like a sleeping bag, camp chair, canned food, and hiking boots. Pictured is Registrar Len Thorson examining the pile.

In addition to artifacts, we are interested in recording interviews with people from all sides of the story so we can have firsthand accounts of their experiences, which will add another layer to the three dimensional artifacts we are collecting.

Our goal is to assemble a comprehensive index of an important event in North Dakota history. Do you have something to add to the narrative?

Signs and other objects from DAPL protest

We have received items from a variety of sources.