The Quest for Pure Water

March 1, 2017

In 1860, Louisville Water customers would fill a glass with water and let it sit so the mud would settle to the bottom. (We’ve come a long way in 157 years!) When the company began in October 1860, taking water from the Ohio River for drinking water was better than drinking from a contaminated well, but Louisville Water’s product wasn’t quite pure. 

Chief Engineer Charles Hermany began advocating for treating the river water shortly after Louisville Water began delivering drinking water.  Hermany’s “quest for pure water” first included building the Crescent Hill Reservoir so more of the mud in the river water could settle.  

But his most important decision was to bring George Warren Fuller to Louisville to conduct a series of experiments on filters.  Fuller’s work from 1895-1897 in Louisville was the foundation for the water treatment Louisville Water and others around the world use today.

To celebrate the achievement, the Kentucky Historical Society and Louisville Water dedicated a state historical marker at the site of Fuller’s work.

A landmark experiment

Louisville Water constructed a laboratory and wooden shacks near the Louisville Water Tower.  Four filter companies came to Louisville with their designs and took muddy Ohio River water and tried to “clean” it.  Fuller watched over the experiments and scientists tested the water.

After two years, Fuller concluded that allowing the mud in the water to settle, using a chemical that brings particles together and then filtering the water with sand and gravel was the best solution.

Fuller’s work sparked Chief Engineer Hermany to design the Crescent Hill Treatment Plant and in July of 1909, Louisville Water began filtering the drinking water.  There was immediate benefit: first, the water was clear but more importantly, it was clean.  Typhoid deaths dropped in the city from 71 deaths per 1,000 people to less than 45.  When Louisville Water added chlorine to further clean the water in 1914, suddenly water-borne diseases from drinking water were not a public health concern in this city.

Lasting achievements

Fuller would go on to continue his research in other cities and would later be coined as the “father of sanitary engineering.” Hermany’s quest set Louisville Water on a path for quality and innovation that continues today. Louisville Water’s two treatment plants are ranked as two of the top 14 in North America and the company’s drinking water is so pure it has a trademarked name, Louisville pure tap®. 

Louisville Water uses sand and coal to filter the water today and also uses natural filtration, pulling water deep from the ground next to the Ohio River so that the sand and gravel in the earth can provide a pure source.

Of course, today’s customers don’t need to let a cup of water sit and settle before they drink it. Safe drinking water can easily be taken for granted.  But it’s been just over a century since Louisville’s first treatment plant opened and today while this region enjoys high-quality water, the lack of safe drinking water is the largest contributor of disease and death in developing countries. The Kentucky Historical Marker is a reminder of the importance of water to a community and how advancements in science improve public health.