History Flows Through the Cincinnati Triple Steam Museum

An unsung gem of Cincinnati history, the Greater Cincinnati Water Works Triple Steam Museum brings visitors back to a time when meeting needs required means of epic proportions.
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The Triple Steam Museum is home to the four largest triple steam engines ever built.

Photograph by Killian Baarlaer

Turn on the faucet, fill your cup, and drink. It’s an implicit process in our culture, and its ease is often underappreciated. 

In the late 1800s in Cincinnati, the luxury of clean water wasn’t a norm like it is today. The Greater Cincinnati Water Works worked to finance and install an efficient means of pumping water to support the city’s bustling growth throughout the century, but what was delivered was raw river water. Little attention was paid to water contaminants and risks posed by drinking it until the mid-1800s. In 1853, the City of Cincinnati passed an ordinance in an effort to clean water supplies that banned hogs from swimming across the river and ordered people not bathe in the river within 500 feet of water intakes.

Typhoid cases and deaths at this time were on the rise, and in confluence with the city’s proliferating population and economic growth, the need for safe water rose to the top of the agenda. 

In 1896, an ambitious plan to build a cutting-edge water pumping and treatment facility that would solve Cincinnati’s drinking-water dilemma was approved. Then commenced a search for a company to design and install four triple-expansion engines, each with a pump capacity of 30 million gallons a day. What was spectacular about these engines were their monstrous size—104 feet—and the installation of a rapid sand filtration facility that would make sanitized water the standard in Cincinnati.

An active pumping station still operates amid these remarkable triple expansion engines, representing the past and present of the mammoth but essential tasks that dwell in the background of many lives but are the forefront for a heroic few. Lee Hite toured the facility by request with an engineers club about 12 years ago. Riveted by the site’s engineering prowess and impact, he was inspired to present the feat of engineering as a museum. 

“It was never secret or hidden…It was just nobody knew about it,” says Hite.

Hite was granted access to GCWW archives to research the site’s history and develop media, which is the crux of the museum’s outreach today.

The cavernous and officious building burrows into a deep hole that attendees navigate by elevator or a network of catwalks and spiral staircases. Guided through the entire height of the engines, boiler room and engineering room, the museum is an up-close peek at a complex and community-changing operation. “The interest is: how in the world could they build that thing…You’re looking literally at technology of turn of the century,” says Hite.

A look up from the floor of the facility, which burrows six feet beneath the floor of the Ohio River.

Photograph by Killian Baarlaer

The towering height of the engines was necessitated by the stubborn dynamics of the Ohio River. Prior to navigation dams that ensure a consistent minimum water level for river travel, the Ohio River’s water levels oscillated seasonally from as high as 75 feet to below two feet. 

After exploring bids from a number of manufacturers, GCWW settled on the local Lane & Bodley Co., which was renowned for its quality workmanship but was eventually overcome by the challenge of this task. The company stagnated on the project and after two years, the City of Cincinnati tried to cancel the contract, spiraling into a lawsuit that eventually saw the matter in front of the Ohio Supreme Court and returned some of the city’s money back to its pockets.

In 1901, the search for a contractor was reinitiated by GCWW, who opted for New Jersey-based Camden Iron Works. 

The base of the engines would rest six feet beneath the floor of the river to allow water to feed into the pump by gravity during episodes of low water and avoid cavitations in the pumps that would over-rev the engine. The engines extended 104 feet tall to keep the steam cylinders dry in events of floods and high-river level. Meeting these criteria made for an industrious requisite of grueling ingenuity and labor that is stunning to conceive when navigating the facility. 

The Old River Station facility was fully operating by August 1907 and had a cascading effect on the burgeoning city. Typhoid cases dropped dramatically. The possibility of using sanitary water unleashed population and economic growth.

A look at the GCWW Historic Old River Station. On the first Saturday of the month, GCWW temporarily shuts off the active pumps in this facility for public tours of the gigantic triple expansion engines.

Photograph by Killian Baarlaer

The triple steam engines ran until 1963. On every first Saturday of the month, Triple Steam Cincinnati shuts off its active pumps and hosts free tours for the public. “You go home tonight, you draw a glass of water–it’s out of sight, out of mind. We don’t think about it. But when they start to see the massive amount of operation it takes to push water to the city of Cincinnati. People gain a whole new appreciation for a utility,” says Hite.  

Learn more about the Cincinnati Triple Steam here.

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