The Norwich Water Story: “Water is Life”

Norwich Reservoir Under Construction, 1922

In 1925, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, a group concerned about the destructive power of alcohol, built a granite drinking fountain which still stands there today on the Norwich green. A plaque on the side of the fountain reads, “Water is Life.” Apparently, the newly formed Norwich Water Supply Company supported this adage. “It gives me great pleasure,” wrote the president of the company, “to state that the company will furnish water without charge for your recently completed fountain.” Indeed, without water, there would have been no village of Norwich. Fortunately, through its history, the town has been blessed with an abundant supply of water. But getting that water to flow to its citizens has been an ongoing community adventure since the town was founded.

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Before there was a town water supply, the citizens along the Main Street area of Norwich just had to dig down ten feet to find water. People outside of town depended on gravity-fed springs. Many of the springs were found in the Hawk Pine area before it was developed. Often a springhouse was built above the spring to keep out leaves and animals. Because of the constant cool temperature in the springhouse, food that would spoil in the summer, such as milk and meat, was stored there. People who needed more water than a spring could provide would dig out a well with picks and shovels and line it with stone.

Glenn Merrill served as treasurer and director of the Norwich Water Supply Company

The earliest mention of any water system in Norwich came in 1797, when Colonel Jasper Murdock, a 1781 graduate of Dartmouth, erected a home at the intersection of the roads to Sharon, Thetford and Hanover. The home had gardens and a fishpond that required plenty of water. Murdock’s house, which later became the Norwich Inn, had a private water supply from a spring “high on the hill west of the Inn” (which would place it in a field west of Hillside Cemetery today). The water was “conveyed in bored logs,” and a few houses on Main Street and one or two on Elm Street were connected to the system. “It was very limited in volume of water and otherwise most unsatisfactory as the owner of the Inn would cut off all these houses when there was not ample water for his own need. These cut-offs were made without prior notice to the individual consumers.”

In 1832, several men, including Alden Partridge, the founder of Norwich University, started the Norwich Aqueduct Company with hopes of providing water for the village. Apparently, the company never got off the ground for there is no record of them ever building an aqueduct. A second Norwich Aqueduct Company was incorporated in 1855. But it also failed to build a water system. In 1906, a third Norwich Aqueduct Company was formed “for the purpose of furnishing to the citizens of Norwich and vicinity a supply of water for the extinguishment of fires, and for domestic, sanitary and other purposes.” This outfit built a small system that provided water to ten or twelve families, but failed during the drier months.

A water bill for the Norwich Grade School for $17.21 dated August 1, 1950

Finally, in 1921, the Norwich Water Supply Company was incorporated by several Norwich selectman. According to an article in the November 5, 1921 edition of the Burlington Free Press, “The company’s purpose is to construct and operate a water supply system for the village of Norwich.” A reservoir and dam were designed by a retired dean from the Thayer School of Engineering on land purchased from Eben P. Sargent, “an elderly farmer and a good citizen whose hobby was keeping weather records over a great many years.” Sargent had a farm a short distance out of town on Beaver Meadow Road; the Charles Brown Brook that flowed through his land-filled the reservoir. (The reservoir can be seen today after a 15-minute trek up the Ballard Trail from the old swimming area.)

The company wanted to raise $50,000 to pay for the new system and tried to sell 1,000 shares at $50 apiece. Stock for the company was sold in Hanover and Norwich. “It was an uphill job in both cases,” wrote Clarence Charles Hills, an early water company director. Corners had to be cut to save money.

From the beginning, problems surfaced with the firm that laid the pipe. “They came from somewhere down country,” wrote Hills, “and were a slippery bunch.” The water company asked that the ditches be filled in with loam, which was more expensive than rock. When the company’s inspector was on site this clause was followed, but when he took his lunch in the village “many sections of the ditches were filled up with rock, to the detriment of the wooden mains,” which damaged the line.

Eben P. Sargent sold land on his farm off Beaver Meadow Road for a reservoir and dam

Not enough shares were sold to have the more expensive iron pipe laid from the reservoir to Main Street, so wooden pipe was used in this section of the line. This pipe was purchased from “The Michigan Wood Pipe Company,” which claimed in a company brochure, “We have not heard of a single instance in which the pipe of the Company has failed to give satisfaction.” But they would have received a negative review from the Norwich Water Supply Company. The wooden pipes proved durable, but the metal bands holding the pipes together rusted and broke. This made the pipes leak “with the result that much water was wasted and much expense was incurred in correcting the trouble.” But as Hills noted, the wooden pipes were affordable. “We probably could not have had a water system as early as we did unless we had used these wooden pipes.”

Despite the troubles with finances, leaky pipes and shady construction practices, the Norwich Water Supply Company began to run water from the reservoir via a pipe along Turnpike Road to houses on Main Street, Mechanic and Elm Street in November of 1922. “The day the water was finally turned into the mains was an eventful one in the history of Norwich Village. The volunteer fire department was able to throw a stream of water over the main part of the Congregational Church and the fire insurance rates in the village benefitted accordingly.”

In November of 1927, a flood roared through Vermont and washed away roads, destroying 1,285 bridges and killing 84 people. On the night of the flood, wrote Hills, then the president of the water company, “Cliff Martin and I managed to get up what was left of the Beaver Meadow Road to our dam before the further side of it went out. I will never forget the thunderous roar of boulders as the water washed them down the brook.” The left side of the dam completely washed out and the reservoir emptied.

The water company did not have the funds to rebuild. But Fred Howland, an 1887 Dartmouth graduate and an insurance company president in Montpelier, quickly formed “The Flood Credit Corporation of Vermont” and provided loans to those towns that needed to rebuild dams. The water company signed up for a loan and repaired the dam. “Without this corporation it would have been very difficult for us to survive,” wrote Hills.

As time passed, the water company grew. In 1933, water was piped into the new neighborhoods being developed along Cliff and Hazen Street.  It’s not surprising that many members of the water company board were also involved in the real estate business. A new home with a guaranteed water supply was an attractive feature in the new developments and lots, many owned by board members, sold quickly.

Through the years, residents of Norwich and the water company occasionally bumped heads. In the spring, there were complaints that the drinking water looked a bit green.  The green tint was caused by the growth of the algae blooms at the reservoir, and the water had to be treated and then the lines flushed. At a town meeting in the winter of 1963, the Norwich Water Company heard complaints about the “turbidity of the water”. There were also questions about a “20% increase” in dividends the water company had received during the year. Glenn Merrill, treasurer of the company, pointed out that actually between 1922 and 1940, the stockholders did not receive any dividend. The dividends only rose from two percent in 1940 to four percent in 1962. “The investors of the Norwich Water Supply Co. have received $57 back on their original investment of $50.”

No one was making money at the Norwich Water Supply Company. Before water meters were installed in the 1980s, the household water bill was based simply on the number of plumbing fixtures in a home. A rate chart from 1941 showed that the annual fee for the first faucet was $16.20 and a second faucet cost an additional $4.20. Each shower, tub or toilet in a home cost $4.20 more. But once the fees were paid, there was no gauge on how much water was used. In fact, by the summer of 1963, water consumption was up to 200,000 gallons a day, and the reservoir was dropping three inches a day. Even when restrictions were imposed, the reservoir just didn’t have the storage capacity to keep up with the town’s water demands. In 1965, the water company hired a drilling expert in an attempt to locate auxiliary sources of water from wells that could be pumped into the water lines. After making eighteen separate tests, no large water source was discovered.

By 1968, the stockholders could see the writing on the wall. They were done. The cost to repair and replace pipes was rising quickly. There wasn’t enough water to keep up with the growing population. And to make matters worse, an Army Corp of Engineers study revealed that the Norwich reservoir needed to be replaced. The spillway and dam were in need of repair and could not be counted on to hold back a 50 or 100-year storm.

The Norwich Fire District, a town department started in 1922, and really a sister organization to the Norwich Water Supply Company, was approached to see if they had interest in taking over the assets and liabilities of the struggling water company.  Because the NFD operated the fire department, the sale seemed like a logical handoff.

In 1978, after nearly a decade of discussions, the NFD purchased the Norwich Water Supply Company from the shareholders for $55,000. By turning the water business over to the town, Norwich became eligible to receive approximately $1,000,000 in federal and state funding with a payback of only $200,000 to $300,000.

After the sale, the first order of business for the new water department was to find a bigger water source for the village. Test wells were drilled at the bottom of Dutton and Bragg Hills, along Beaver Meadow Road and in several places atop Hawk Pine. But the town struck gold—or water—when Anthony Farrell, who had a farm about three miles north of town on Route 5, and a well that produced 250 gallons a minute, offered to sell the town some land for a new well. The town drilled down 170’ and hit an aquifer, which according to many experts stretched from St. Johnsbury, Vermont to Middletown, Connecticut. So $50,000 was spent to purchase the Farrell land and a system was installed to pump the water five miles from Route 5 up to a holding tank on Dutton Hill.

Today, on average, Norwich uses 65,000 gallons of water a day. The aquifer has the capacity to provide a million gallons in a twenty-four hour period.  In fact, according to the NFD, the aquifer could provide 350 gallons a minute for 120 days before the town would need to look elsewhere for water. To hold the water needed for its citizens and an ample supply for the fire department, a cement holding tank, 100 feet long, 50 feet wide and 12 feet deep was installed on Dutton Hill. The tank can hold 500,000 gallons. No one should go thirsty in Norwich!

“Water is Life” proclaims the fountain plaque the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union installed in 1922, and without water, where would Norwich be today? In a saga that has lasted over 200 years, ordinary citizens and then the Norwich Water Supply Company and the Norwich Fire District have battled droughts, floods, aging technology, crumbling reservoirs and balky pipes to bring water to the fire department, and life to the village of Norwich.

Thanks to Brion McMullen, a long-time District Administrator for Norwich Fire District for his detailed help with this article. Thanks also to Bill Aldrich for his information on the town’s water history. Finally, a tip of the cap goes to Sam Eaton, another NFD employee, who not only answered all of my questions but found my leaky spring house 15 years ago.

Coming Up at NHS

David Hackett Fischer – Paul Revere’s Ride: A New Look at an Old Story  April 5

Nancy Jay Crumbine – Celebrating E. B. White    March 1

First Wednesdays Talks  - 7 pm at the Congregational Church

Save The Date - House and Garden Tour    June 24, 10am-4pm

Summer Sunday Walking Tour: “Lewiston: Norwich’s Ghost Hamlet”      May 21

Peter Gould – Readings from Horse Drawn Yogurt:         April 13, 7pm - Stories from Total Loss Farm        

Heather Cox Richardson – A History of the Republican Party       May 3


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