Funeral for a Friend: Buried Water Infrastructure in 1949

To paraphrase Mark Twain, I didn’t attend this funeral, but I’d like to send this nice note to say I approve of it!

saginaw michigan MI water pump funeral 1949This item from the June 13, 1949 issue of LIFE magazine covers the charming, oddball funeral/celebration for one of Saginaw, Michigan’s ubiquitous community water pumps, finally “put to rest” in favor of an efficient new pipeline. The text in full:

Saginaw gives it civic burial when new water finally comes in
Twenty years ago the city of Saginaw, Mich, erected a $2 million water-pumping plant, but it made the mistake of drawing its water from the Saginaw River, where chemical plants and other factories dumped their waste. A way was found to purify the water bacteriologically, but it still tasted like aqua nausea. So for 20 years townspeople continued to use town pumps to get their aqua pura and stoutly resisted all efforts to raise taxes to pipe in a supply purer than the Saginaw River.

Then someone suggested they run the pipes 78 miles to Lake Huron and pay for it with higher water rates. The tax-conscious people of Saginaw approved. So on May 20 Saginaw, the last U.S. city of its size (pop. 97,000) that still had them, celebrated the passing of its 165 pumps. One was reverently deposited in a pink-lined coffin (above). People sent baskets of flowers, held parades, boat races and ball games in observance of the occasion. It was the happiest funeral Saginaw had ever seen.

saginaw-cornerwaterpumpAnd while we’re all appalled at the plight of water-fetching women and children in the developing world, it’s a chin-tilter to know that in post-war Wholesomeville USA,  just 64 years ago (link to original source),

“Children in the family were usually the ones whose chore it was to get pails of water more than once a day.”

I suppose it was a logical choice, then, for the pump to rest in a pink-lined coffin.

My top-5 astonishments from Town Pump’s End

  1. Yesterday vs. Today: Today’s infrastructure is also dead and buried, but we have to continue using it!!!
  2. Saginaw is pro-business! Although the aqua nausea was due to the filthy Saginaw River, where “chemical plants and other factories dumped their waste”, it was more prudent to build 70 miles of pipeline than to slow down those plants and factories. Bet that created some jobs!
  3. LIFE-ers knew Latin! Aqua nausea? Now that’s how jargon was done back in the day, kids.
  4. Pumping beats paying! Citizens “stoutly resisted all efforts to raise taxes”…but I imagine they were careful not to brew for their Tea Parties from the tap!
  5. Children in Homemade Hats! Ye olde broadside bonnet…another casualty from the newspaper death-watch and one that I truly do mourn.
Lower left detail: Newspaper upcycling, circa 1949.

Lower left detail: Newspaper upcycling circa 1949.


1 reply
  1. Tatiana Pina
    Tatiana Pina says:

    Im doing a story on water towers. Can you please contact me at my e-mail or at 401-230-5501. I’m assuming u live in RI?

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