Good to the Last Drop

Big Butte Springs operator Dennis Burg checks on an overflow canal of the remote water system near Butte Falls that provides Medford's drinking water. 3/2008 Denise Baratta

When Medford residents turn on the tap at the kitchen sink, the water they draw started in the mountains at a pristine source called Big Butte Springs.

It's easy to take that kind of convenience for granted, but 100 years ago, local residents could only dream of such things.

In early 1902, for example, typhoid fever outbreaks were blamed on contaminated wells.

"Was there any water ever made dirtier than now being pumped through the city water works?" asked a Dec. 27, 1907, editorial in the Medford Daily Tribune, which described the foul water the city drew from Bear Creek. "Is it possible for water to contain any more solid matter and still remain liquid? Is it any wonder that meters don't work, that water pipes fill up and that people drink booze and go unwashed?"

By that time, the search was on for a better water source. Some people favored piping water from Big Butte Springs, while others leaned toward Fish Lake. The problem was how to get the water here.

In 1908, a Medford engineer acknowledged the purity of Big Butte water, but he made it clear to the City Council that running a pipeline some 30 miles would be expensive.

"The question of supplying Medford with water from the Big Spring on Willow Creek, one of the tributaries of Big Butte, has had its advocates because the quantity and quality of water were beyond question, and the water rights were not in dispute," wrote engineer W.J. Roberts.

But the cost of a pipeline from Big Butte Springs was estimated at $400,000, or roughly $9 million in today's dollars, said Roberts, who warned the city against supplying water in open ditches or flumes.

"An open ditch of that length is a menace to the public health. ... No community can afford to risk the health and lives of its citizens by contributing negligence in supplying polluted water to any customers. Physicians and sanitarians agree that polluted water is responsible for the larger portion of typhoid fever cases and deaths, and that impure water so lowers the vital resistance of the human organism."

The less expensive idea of tapping into Fish Lake won out, with the city securing water rights for $15,000. In 1910, a 22-mile, gravity-fed water system with a capacity of 4 million gallons a day was completed from the lake at a cost of $254,000.

To cut costs, the city ignored the advice of Salt Lake City engineer Frank Kelsey, who insisted the city install settling tanks and filters to clarify the water along the 20-mile wooden stave pipeline.

The celebration over Fish Lake water was short lived, and Kelsey's warnings hit home.


After a building boom in Medford in the 1910s and early 1920s, the Fish Lake supply didn't provide enough water and became contaminated, requiring chlorination.

The Medford Water Commission was organized in 1919 to champion the construction of a $1 million pipeline that would bring water from Big Butte Springs to the 10,000 residents of Medford. In today's dollars, the pipeline cost the equivalent of $13 million.

"It was a huge undertaking," said Laura Hodnett, spokeswoman for the water commission.

Instead of wooden pipe and flumes, the water commission, made up of bankers, businessmen and educators, chose high-quality steel coated with asphalt and paraffin wax.

Today, the springs provide 26 million gallons a day, supplemented in the summer with treated water from the Rogue River.

A plaque at Big Butte Springs lists the names of the original water commissioners who promised "a mountain spring in every home."

The chairman of the water commission was H.L. Walther. Other commissioners were Howard U. Lumsden, Olin Arnspirger, A.L. Hill and Earl C. Gaddis.

Gaddis was a former Medford mayor who helped pick the commissioners.

The engineers for the project were Frank C. Dillard and Ralph P. Cowgill. Dillard was credited with overseeing the construction of the pipeline from 1926 to 1927.

Robert Duff, who was the first manager, was one of the main movers and shakers in the fledgling organization.

In an Oct. 24, 1981, Mail Tribune article, Duff described how he came to Medford in 1925, fresh out of engineering school. Water still flowed from Fish Lake through an old wooden pipeline and in some areas it flowed in open flumes.


"As the summer progressed, the water got putrid," he remembered. "It was so full of algae. It was terrible. The Big Butte Springs system was really a gift from heaven to the people of Medford."

Hodnett said the water commission doesn't have records preceding 1908 that would point to a person or persons who first proposed the idea of tapping into Big Butte Springs.

"It certainly appears that there were some advocates before 1908," she said.

Medford obtained water rights at Big Butte Springs in 1915 after the city went through a period of water shortages and contaminated supplies.

A.W. Shearer, John F. White and B.J. Trowbridge had their sights set on water flowing from Big Butte Creek. And an Aug. 4, 1905, article in the Medford Mail described the sorry state of Medford's water supply from both Bear Creek and local wells.

The article supported the idea of the pipeline to Big Butte.

"The especially good feature of this pipeline is that we get water absolutely pure and direct from the mountains — such as every person could and would want to use for domestic purposes."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.



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