Water Supply History
Throughout its early history, the City of Pocatello water system struggled many years with inadequate water quantity to fulfill the needs of the community. Prior to 1892, the Portneuf River was the source of drinking water for the city. Water delivered to homes and businesses was either hand carried from the only storage tank, owned by the railroad, or delivered in barrels by horse and wagon, costing twenty-five cents a barrel. Although some private wells were being constructed, their numbers were not enough to support the growing population.
James A. Murray, a mining and banking magnate from Butte, Montana, came to Pocatello with the railroad and evaluated the prospect of furthering his financial status by constructing Pocatello’s first water system. A covered flume was constructed from Gibson Jack Creek to a reservoir on the west bench. Problems plagued the system from the start – as soon as winter set in, the flume broke, causing service to cease and people to struggle in order to obtain enough water for culinary use. It took four days before repairs were made and service was restored.
As a townsite was gradually carved out of the Fort Hall Indian reservation and sagebrush, Murray’s system became more inadequate. Restrictions were placed on sprinkling hours, which had citizen’s disgruntled, because the most noticeable improvement in the City was the appearance of lawns and trees around homes. Besides culinary and irrigation use, the citizen’s demanded fire protection and water for sprinkling the dusty streets. Despite repeated demands of the City Fathers to purchase the system and expand it with tax money, Murray refused and went on collecting excessive fees.
In 1911 the City, which had suffered sufficient public pressure through the years, initiated a lawsuit against Murray’s water company. Officers were dispatched to serve papers to the water company on the morning of August 21, 1911. They were forbidden entrance to the grounds. When the officers entered the grounds they were shot at by George Winter, the water superintendent. The officers returned to town and reported what had happened. The news, which spread like wildfire, made the citizens angry. Fifty men were deputized and given guns, and those not deputized ran home to procure any available weapons. The sight of the approaching men astounded Mr. Winter, who immediately surrendered to the officers. When they reached the Halliday Street underpass, another angry mob had gathered, presumably a lynching party, but the officers placated the angry mob, then proceeded to the jailhouse.
The feeling against the water company became more pronounced and eventually led to the purchase of the system by the City in 1916, much to the relief of the citizens. Murphy’s Law prevailed however, and the winter of 1916-1917 is stated by the weather bureau to be the coldest year ever recorded here. With the temperatures hovering close to the zero mark, the frost reached a depth of 4 1/2 feet, while the water lines were only buried 2-3 feet deep. By mid-January, most of the mains and services were frozen solid. Three of the City’s sprinklers supplied water in buckets to the population for seven weeks. This prompted the City to initiate a program to lower the lines and make necessary improvements to the system.
The first municipal well was dug in 1925, and because the underground water was satisfactory, subsequent wells were developed. In 1926, a chlorination program was implemented top treat the water, providing an assurance that the system would be protected from contamination which could jeopardize the health of consumers.
With time and growth, Pocatello (and later Chubbuck) gradually developed the high quality municipal water supply system citizens enjoy today. Text on this page excerpted from “Pocatello Portrait, the early years, 1878 to 1928”, by Leigh H. Gittens, University of Idaho Press, 1983.