St. Louis History, Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday: Why does St. Louis have such good water?

This wasn’t always the case. St. Louis made up for its terrible water with “inex- haustible quantities of the best beer in the world,” Walt Whitman remarked after a visit. The city’s tap water was sludgy, brown with river silt.

And so, in 1902, when David Francis was planning the World’s Fair, he confronted Mayor Rolla Wells in a panic—not because St. Louisans were choking down water that stained porcelain sinks but instead because we just had to have clean water for the cascades at the summit of Art Hill. Wells bluffed, said not to worry; we’d have clean water by May 1904, when the Fair opened. “But tell me how,” Francis pressed. “I will not tell you how, Dave. Just take my word for it. I have a plan.”

Three months before the Fair, the water was still full of gunk. Then John Wixford (seen left), a brilliant chemist who worked for the city water department, hit on what he’d call the Wixford Process: using unprecedented quantities of milk of lime to swiftly rid the river water of sediment.

Christine Froechtenigt Harper would later chronicle this alchemy in her doctoral dissertation, The Water Wizard. Clear, fresh water flowed for the first time on March 22, just five weeks ahead of the grand opening. Francis smiled, the mayor breathed a sigh of relief, and about 20 million fairgoers enjoyed the sunlit sparkling-clear fountains. Our stock rose in the world’s eyes.

And the man responsible? There’d been a $10,000 competition to solve the riddle, but Wixford couldn’t collect the prize because he was an employee of the water department. He was shut out of credit, too, perhaps because Wells was scared the city would have to pay him royalties on his forthcoming patent. Or because Wells had backed an earlier, far pricier solution. Or because Wixford was so eccentric, he was easily cast aside.

He lived his entire life in a three-story house on North Ninth Street—with no running water. Using the first floor as his lab, he opened the second to boarders who had nowhere else to go, and he slept alone on the third floor. Old “Clean Water Wixford” did his own dental work with copper wire and often forgot to cash his paychecks. He rode a bike because motorcars went too fast, and he kept two dismantled buggies in the attic, just hoping.

Harper combed through 90 years’ worth of books and articles about St. Louis’ great water purification, the most important civic improvement of the Progressive Era. Wixford’s name appeared just four times. Today, he’s all but forgotten, save for her dissertation and a small street at the Water Department treatment plant that’s named after him.

Article originally posted by STLMag

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