Not all acts of archeology dig up bones and shards of great age and worth. Sometimes, what is freed from rock and soil is more a curiosity than a real antiquity.
But for the finder, it’s still a “Eureka!” moment that stirs old dust — and remarkable stories — about a heretofore people and place.
So it was for me last month when Transcript Bulletin Account Executive Keith Bird walked into the newsroom on a Wednesday morning and said, “Hey! Did you see that old piece of wooden pipe in the street out front? It’s got to be old, like from the pioneer days.”
Being the son of a master plumber, Bird’s question got my attention. Although words and cameras are my tools of choice instead of a pipe wrench and welding torch, my late father taught me a thing or two about the complexities of moving water through pipe. But made of wood? Never seen it before. To be honest, never heard about it before, either.
“If we don’t get it out of there, that pipe is going to disappear,” Bird warned. “It’ll probably end up in the trash.”
“No it won’t,” I said. “If it’s from the pioneer days, I’ll bet the DUP Museum will want it. Let’s go get it.”
We had the pipe safe inside our building on a pallet less than an hour later. A worker from the state’s Main Street reconstruction project retrieved it. Before he could, he first had to get permission from the contractor. The pipe, about 7 feet long and 10 inches in diameter, had been left exposed on excavated dirt. Work crews had apparently disturbed it from its crypt below Main Street while tearing out the roadway’s two northbound lanes.
I stared at the wooden pipe as if it were a mastodon tusk from the last Ice Age. Its simple, yet brilliant engineering grabbed me: two-inch wide wooden staves, cut in angles to create a round pipe shape, and held together by tight, spirally-bound wire, not clamps or nails. As the wooden staves swelled from the water inside, they would push against the compressed wire, sealing off leaks. The staves looked to be made of redwood, which is known to resist rot and parasites.
I had no idea how old the pipe was, but I knew I was looking at a long-forgotten relic from one of Tooele City’s early-day water systems. To make sure it would be saved from being treated like campfire kindling, I called Lynne Bevan, president of the Tooele County Daughters of Utah Pioneers.
As president, the DUP Museum on Vine Street is part of her many duties. Would she be interested in having the pipe for the museum? “Oh, yes,” she said without hesitation. Later that same day, Transcript Bulletin Publisher Scott Dunn delivered it to the museum using a forklift. Bevan, her husband Gary, and others, happily received the new addition, where it’s now on display.
Bevan, however, has a bit of a problem: She’s not quite sure what to write on the description placard about the pipe for museum visitors to read. She’s contacted City Hall and was told there are no records about the city’s use of wooden stave pipe for its early-day water distribution system. For now, at least, the pipe’s origin and age are a mystery.
She can feel comfort, though, in knowing that she’s not alone in her endeavor to know more. There are accounts from other cities across America where construction crews unearthed buried pipelines made of wooden staves or bored-out logs. One of the biggest recorded finds occurred in New York City in 2006. While digging the foundation for a new building in Manhattan, crews unexpectedly hit two logs with their cores bored out. Researchers were able to find city records that indicated the logs were in fact wooden pipe — and may have been placed in the late 1700s to early 1800s when the city began to build a water distribution system.
Intact wooden pipelines from more than 200 years ago are impressive if such things interest you. But they aren’t the oldest to have been discovered. In 2004, archeologists in the United Kingdom reportedly found wooden pipes underneath the ruins of a Roman fort estimated to have been built 2,000 years ago.
How is it that such wood could survive without rotting away? Portland, Oregon has a long history of using timber for water pipes, beginning in 1856 and ending in 1953. According to a historical brochure on Portland’s water system, both oxygen and water are needed for wood to rot. When buried underground, wooden pipe is deprived of oxygen and can last for countless years.
Here in Utah, wooden stave pipe and bored-out logs were also used. According to a historical brief titled, “Salt Lake City Old Water Conveyance Systems,” in 1854 Brigham Young asked Walter Eli Wilcox to devise a machine for boring logs to distribute water to the Endowment House.
The brief also notes that Salt Lake City used wooden stave pipe during the late 1800s to move water from open ditches to city lots and businesses. The city’s first possible attempt to convey water from City Creek via wooden stave pipe occurred in 1873. The brief quotes an F. E. Morris who described the pipe “of wooden stave variety bound spirally with ‘hoop’ iron.”
Is the pipe now on display in the DUP Museum from Tooele City’s first culinary water delivery system? Is it possible it dates back to the 1880s or even earlier? Possibly so. To hopefully end the mystery, Bevan has asked if there are citizens who may have records or remembrances about the city’s early water system. She can be reached at 435-840-3370 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you’ve been searching for a way to stop taking for granted the endless supply of fresh water that comes out of your home’s tap, stop by the DUP Museum and have a look at a piece of early Tooele City history. It might be a “Eureka!” moment for you, too.
The museum is located at 39 E. Vine Street and is open Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, see the website at www.duptooeleco.org.