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July 31, 2003

Memorial Field just foul ball away from 1924 water tank
By Mike Konz, Kearney Hub

Eyes will be fixed on the action at Memorial Field Friday as the site Class A Seniors American Legion Tournament begins. But behind fans seated along the first baseline is a fixture that's been a part of Kearney even longer than Memorial Field, which was built in 1946.

Like most components of municipal utility systems, the fixture doesn't have a fancy name. It doesn't even have a number.

It's simply called Kearney's underground reservoir, to those who know it's there.

Unknown, even among many of the Kearneyites who know the reservoir exists, is that the 1 million-gallon-storage unit was built in 1924 and still is a workhorse of the city's water distribution system.

"It still controls probably three-fourths of the city," water production supervisor Mark Bowman said, referring to the thousands of homes and businesses that get water pumped through the 79-year-old reservoir.

Hidden beneath tons of soil that form a bowl-shaped mound east of the press box at Memorial Field, the reservoir is one of the last remaining components of a massive water system upgrade of the 1920s. It was in that decade when Kearneyites abandoned many of their town's original wells and began drinking water pumped from a network of five new wells.

Also sprouting across Kearney -- which then stretched about as far north as Harmon Park -- were new brick pump houses. At 19th Street and Fifth Avenue, the city build a large generator plant to power the pumps that fed the water system. That building now houses a metal distributorship.

Because the reservoir was built atop what then was the highest hill in Kearney, it served the same purpose as an overhead water tower. Gravity from the 110-foot drop to consumers below probided the system's water pressure.

Building the reservoir, which is 110-foot in diameter and 14 feet deep, fell upon Elmer Ferguson, who was the supervising engineer and maintained a detailed account of each step in construction.

Horse-drawn excavating equipment dug the hole for the reservoir, but it was men who built the intricate wood forms needed to mold the pill-box-shapd reservoir's floor, walls and ceiling.

And, according to Ferguson's notes, it was men who wheeled concrete up the hill in a 2-day, round-the-clock "continuous pour." Concrete mixing and pouring ran day and night until the floor and wall forms were filled.

Ferguson noted that 15 40-watt bulbs illuminated the nighttime work site, with additional bulbs near the cement mixer, gravel piles and water tank. Pouring began at 6:40 a.m., July 22, and concluded at 3:30 a.m., July 24.

Bowman said Keaney soon will retire its 79-year-old reservoir.

Water system improvements launched in 1997, including construction of a new 2-million-gallon water tower near the Target store in north Kearney, will allow the city to discontinue using the underground reservoir.

Bowman said the reservoir will be retired sometime after the northwest Kearney water tower is repainted in October.

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