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December 22, 2012

Oneonta's water supply expanded in 1887

The Daily Star

---- — It wasn’t specified if there were any kind of ceremonies for the first water being pumped from Oneonta’s new, larger reservoir in the early part of November 1887. By looking at newspaper coverage, the event quietly passed, but it didn’t stop this historian from using his imagination in a humorous way, if there had been festivities.

The new reservoir is today’s Wilber Lake, part of the city’s water supply found on Wilber Lake Road. Apparently some fish just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, according to The Oneonta Herald of Nov. 10, 1887, when some water was being released.

“So much annoyance was experienced at the new water reservoir in pumping water, by fish getting into the pipe, that the accumulated water was recently run off. Bushels of fish were captured.”

Imagine if there had been a ceremony. A band is playing, the village president throws the lever, and the crowd hears a rumbling sound, anticipating water to rush from the big release pipe beneath the dam. Then, nothing, except for a few drops of water. A water crew worker approaches the pipe, looks up and sees a bunch of fish, stuck, wiggling and staring back at him. At least some people ate well for the next few days.

Enough of the imagination. The reality was that it was a time of big growth for Oneonta in 1887, with plenty more to come in the next several years. The village needed additional water to meet the demands of more residents and new industry, as well as a new Normal School, which ground had been broken for that year.

A smaller reservoir had been completed in 1882 on upper East Street, but due to the growth of the village and a severe drought in 1886, the Oneonta Water Works, a privately owned organization, decided to expand the water supply.

Another private enterprise, the Couse Water Works, owned by William H. Couse, was also expanding that year. Couse, who owned a farm on today’s East End, supplied water to several residents of that part of the town. It was reported Couse had been laying several hundred more feet of pipe to meet an increasing demand.

According to the Herald of April 21, 1887, the new reservoir would be about two miles above the existing reservoir on Oneonta Creek, about four miles from the village. The company contracted with landowners in the Richardson Hill area, as the construction would take out four dwellings, two hop houses, a sawmill, barn, and wagon house. The capacity of the new reservoir would add about 500 million gallons of water, nearly 25 times the capacity of the present reservoir. The total cost was estimated at between $30,000 and $40,000.

Work began in May, and on July 6, The Oneonta Daily Local reported, “There are about 70 Italians at work and 20 teams drawing dirt. They expect to double this number shortly to enable them to complete it by fall.” Italian immigrants were widely used in many major construction projects of that time, such as railroads, as an inexpensive labor force.

While construction was going on, the dam building became a spectator event for visitors. “Most residents of the village have but a faint idea of the extent of the proposed reservoir,” the Herald commented, “and the visit to the place is necessary in order to properly appreciate what a vast body of water is soon to be held in reserve for the use of the people of Oneonta village.” 

The Herald also suggested that the roads leading to the area of the reservoir be graded better, giving “greater the desirability of a residence along it.”

The new reservoir was functional by late 1887, but work wasn’t complete. The Daily Local said on Nov. 21 that, “On Saturday noon work was suspended … until next spring. About eight feet more of the stone work on the dam is left unfinished. The Italians have gone into winter quarters.”

The Oneonta Water Works existed until 1923, when the City of Oneonta bought out the interests of David and George I. Wilber, who had a majority control.

On Monday: a bit of life and times at Christmas in 1987.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at His website is His columns can be found at