Hendersonville Celebrates 100-year Anniversary of Modern Water System

By: Adam Steurer, Utilities Engineer, Hendersonville Water & Sewer

One hundred years ago in July 1923, the City of Hendersonville completed construction of a new, state-of-the-art water system. Today in 2023 the same system serves as the backbone that supplies some of the most pristine water that can be found anywhere in the United States. 

By the late 1890s, the old water supply, consisting of a small reservoir in Laurel Park, was becoming inadequate for public health and fire protection for the growing community. The inadequacies were most apparent in the summer months when seasonal visitation and water usage were highest. In June 1898, the small water system was cut off for a period of 24 hours to combat a water shortage. Shortly thereafter to conserve water, City officials ordered the system to be turned off at night and prohibited the use of water for streets, lawns, and gardens punishable by a $25 fine. A new water source for Hendersonville was desperately needed.

C.E. Brooks was elected mayor of Hendersonville in 1915 and became a leading proponent of an improved water system over his four-year tenure. A search for a new water supply by consulting engineer Gilbert C. White was commissioned and by January 1916, the headwaters of the North Mills River located within the recently created Pisgah National Forest was recommended. Negotiations regarding access to the selected water source began with the United States Forest Service immediately. However, the project was disrupted by the onset of World War I and placed on hold.

pisgah historic postcard

Postcard of the Hendersonville Watershed
within the Pisgah National Forest circa 1920s

In November 1921 the still inadequate water system reached a breaking point when Hendersonville residents expressed their desire for an improved water supply at a public town meeting. In December 1921, the North Carolina State Legislature approved the establishment of the Hendersonville Board of Water Commissioners. The commission was established independent of the City Council and had the authority to perform the duties necessary to construct and manage a public water system. Former Hendersonville mayor (1915-1919) and leading water system advocate C.E. Brooks was appointed chairman of the new water commission. K.G. Morris and J.W. Bailey served as the other two water commissioners.

In April 1922, the Board of Water Commissioners reaffirmed the previous selection of “Pisgah Mountain water” from the headwaters of the North Mills River as the City’s new water source. The location was unhesitatingly selected as the most economical and efficient. Other alternative sources considered were Kanuga Lake, Big Hungry Creek, Grassy Creek, and Green River. Bonds in the amount of $400,000 were sold to fund the construction of the intake dam, over 16 miles of pipeline, and a five-million-gallon distribution reservoir.

Bids for construction were opened in June 1922 and Kelly-Wilson Company of Asheville, NC was awarded the contract and would perform the pipeline construction with Virginia Machinery and Well Company of Richmond, VA constructing the intake dam and distribution reservoir as a sub-contractor. Crews were mobilized and work camps were constructed along the mountainous and remote construction site immediately.

The construction of the project involved many difficulties. Over 7,200 pieces of cast iron pipe weighing over one ton each were transported up and down hills, across creeks, and across rocky areas to complete the 16-mile pipeline. The pipeline was installed by hand up, down, and across steep terrain using mule teams and oxen with block and tackle to position the heavy pipe into place. Pipeline crossings of the Mills River and French Broad River required temporary cofferdams to bury the pipe several feet below the riverbed and were anchored in place with concrete.  

old photo of water crew

Pipeline construction crew that installed over 16 miles of 16-inch cast iron
water pipe from the headwaters of the Mills River to Hendersonville.
Much of the pipeline installation was done by hand through difficult terrain.

The 25-foot intake dam was constructed at the confluence of Big Creek and Fletcher Creek in a remote region of the Pisgah National Forest that makes up the headwaters of the North Mills River. It was made of concrete with a masonry stone face wall quarried on site. Since the streams at the intake dam were so clear and free of sediment, sand for concrete was unavailable. Sand, cement, and light equipment for construction of the intake dam were imported by wagon from a site 20 miles away, the last three miles of the route being a little more than a foot trail crossing the upper portion of the North Mills River 15 times.

In Hendersonville, a five-million-gallon distribution reservoir, located about one mile west of Main Street, was constructed by excavating the inside and building the embankments with the material excavated. Concrete was placed on the inside slopes and bottom of the reservoir. At the time, five million gallons was a 12-day supply of water for Hendersonville.

Construction of the new water supply was completed in July of 1923 at a cost of $460,000, which was the single largest investment the City had ever made at the time. A celebration was held at the distribution reservoir for the christening of the magnificent new water supply. On July 26, 1923, at 5:30 pm, a valve was opened, and the water rushed by gravity from the new intake dam over 16 miles away to fill the distribution reservoir like a fountain. Many citizens joined in the festivities which included songs and speeches by local prominent figures. The Governor of North Carolina, Cameron Morrison, was in attendance to celebrate the great new water system, which delivered water that was described to have unsurpassed purity of anywhere in America to the citizens of Hendersonville.  

Celebration of water system in 1923
North Carolina Governor Cameron Morrison opens a water valve to start up
Hendersonville's modern water system July 26, 1923

In 1923 when the new water system was completed, Hendersonville had a population of approximately 4,000 people although seasonal visitation soared much higher in summer months. An additional water source from Bradley Creek within the Pisgah National Forest was completed in 1927 to meet the growing needs of the community. Both pure water sources served the community with minimal treatment until a filter treatment plant was constructed and an additional water source on the Mills River was added in the 1960s. Currently, in 2023, an additional water intake is under construction near where the Mills River enters the French Broad River.

The Hendersonville water system has grown significantly over the past 100 years, now providing drinking water to approximately 75,000 people in Hendersonville and surrounding Henderson County through a network of over 680 miles of water pipes, 54 pumping stations, and 24 water storage tanks.  

Stanley Wright, engineer and the first manager of the Hendersonville Water Department stated after the project’s completion: We think of pure air, wonderful skies, and delightful scenery to be the natural attributes of any locality so fortunately placed that these things to the appreciative stimulate their minds and make their lives worth living. Water is usually so ready at hand, made available by the mere turning of a handle, that its quality, so long as it be clear, often passes unnoticed.

The Intake dam, pipeline, and distribution reservoir completed in 1923 are all still in operation today often going unnoticed. However, on this 100-year anniversary when high-quality drinking water is delivered by the simple turn of a handle, we should all take notice and celebrate the forethought of Hendersonville’s early leaders that constructed a water system to improve public health and fire safety. And notice the dedicated efforts of the past 100 years of Hendersonville Water Department personnel that have maintained the provision of this valuable resource.