Tangible links to Chico’s rich history

Why the water towers at Orient and Third streets are worth preserving

The author is a member of the Chico Heritage Association and a professor of history at Chico State.

As Chico Heritage Association worked this year to save the obsolete Cal Water towers from demolition, people often asked: “Why bother? They’re just old, not historic!” Clearly, it was not enough to argue that the towers are cool looking (which they are), or that they contribute to Chico’s charming character (which they do). Regrettably, old and charming do not equal historic.

Nevertheless, the historical significance of the two elevated steel tanks at Third and Orient streets is beyond question. Along with the Old Municipal Building, the towers are prominent architectural reminders of Progressive Era Chico. Built in 1905 and 1913, the towers represent a dynamic period of community growth and modernization. Spurred by the arrival of the Diamond Match Co. and the Northern Electric Railroad, Chico’s population nearly tripled between 1900 and 1918, soaring from 4,700 to 12,000.

To keep pace, energetic and visionary leaders like Mayor Sherman Reynolds reformed local government by adopting the city manager model and launched a series of major civic improvements that completely transformed downtown Chico. The streets were paved, the wooden awnings and boardwalks removed, cement sidewalks put in, electric streetlamps erected, and a modern sewage system installed.

These essential public upgrades paralleled critical private-sector initiatives. Striving to accommodate Chico’s rapid growth, the Chico Water Supply Co. purchased two of the newly patented steel water tanks manufactured by the Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. Providing storage and gravity pressure for Chico’s water mains, the tanks boasted respective capacities of 100,000 and 150,000 gallons. Raised to elevations of just over 130 feet, each rested upon four sturdy legs, several bearing the legendary name of Carnegie Steel. With their distinctive rounded bottoms and conical caps, CBI’s tanks represented state-of-the-art technology at the dawn of the 20th century.

There is, quite obviously, a rich history embodied in the retired old water tanks that have stood for over a century at Orient and Third. Now, thanks to our community’s deep appreciation of that history, these iconic landmarks shall remain standing as tangible links to the birth of modern Chico.