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  • Dale C. Maley

Water disrupts 1977 project

In the Fall of 1977, the local elevator decided to build a large new complex at the southeast corner of Locust and Fifth Streets. Unfortunately, a massive water vein disrupted the foundation construction for several weeks.

This water problem stumped the experts and delayed the $1 million project by about a month.

To understand why there was such a vast underground water problem at this location, we must look at the geological history of Fairbury over the last 10,000 years. Before the glaciers leveled the area, our area was mostly covered with rolling hills of rock. The three glaciers descending from Canada to Southern Illinois ground the hills into gravel and sand. When the last glacier melted about 10,000 years ago, the Fairbury area had glacial deposits of fifty to 100 feet deep on top of the rock.


In some locations, the low spots in the original rock were filled with gravel and sand with topsoil on the surface layer. This gravel and sand can hold up to 30 percent of its volume in groundwater. These formations are called underground aquifers.


In May 1914, the Illinois Water Survey division visited Fairbury and assessed the City's water supply. This assessment report used an 1899 book by Frank Leverett titled Illinois Glacial Lobe. In this book, Mr. Leverett stated that rock in the Fairbury area is found at a depth of 50 to 90 feet. A coal vein is located 150 to 200 feet below the ground. Most private wells in the Fairbury area are 18 to 55 feet deep. The water from these private wells comes from the sand and gravel layer below the soil.


Fairbury's first public drinking water system was built in 1887 at the northwest corner of Locust and First Streets. The SELCAS ambulance service building is now located there.


In 1887, an open well 25 feet deep and 25 feet in diameter was dug. A steam-powered pump forced the water through 3,300 feet of eight-inch-diameter water mains to homes and businesses. In 1890, this 25-foot-deep well provided enough water for 2,324 residents.


In 1892, a new well was drilled at that exact location to a depth of 2,000 feet. A 60-foot-long section of six-inch casing was installed at a depth of 1,500 feet to keep very salty water out of the well. An 8-inch casing was used from the ground level to a depth of 394 feet. The rest of the well had no casing installed. The pump was placed at a depth of 252 feet.


No records were available in 1914 to indicate how much water the 2,000-foot-deep well produced. Officials estimated that 400,000 gallons per day were produced. This rate is equivalent to 278 gallons per minute. As a point of reference, the average faucet in a Fairbury home will discharge about five gallons per minute.



In March of 1978, Koehl Brothers of Fairbury removed two 24-foot by 50-foot grain silos to prepare for building the new $1 million elevator complex. Workers involved with removing the old silos included Jim Kafer, Willie Meister, Mike Peters, and Steve Ricketts. Keith Coleman was the elevator manager in that era.


Once the old silos had been removed, soil borings were done to assess the soil structure that would be below the new complex. These borings did not indicate any excessive groundwater present.


The construction crew started to excavate to make a hole to pour the new concrete foundation. Two torrents of underground water poured into the hole at about 250 gallons per minute when they broke through a layer of blue clay. The water was encountered at a depth of about 20 feet.


The first fix tried was to pump out the water and discharge it into the sewer system. This attempt failed because the pumps could not keep up, and the dirty water created problems at the city waste treatment plant.


The second attempt to fix the problem was to build a concrete box with no top or bottom on the ground. The hole was then filled with sand. The idea was to lower the box into the hole, and it would stop the torrent of water from pouring into the hole. Material would be excavated from the interior of the concrete box, causing it to sink because of its weight. The crew got the concrete box dropped, but it did not stop the excessive water flow into the hole. There was too much water to pour into the concrete base.


The third idea was to pump the water south several blocks using four-inch diameter hoses to Route 24. The water went down a storm sewer, which discharged it into Indian Creek. This attempt failed because the pump could not empty the water fast enough. Many current Fairbury residents remember the big hoses that temporarily ran along Sixth Street to Route 24.


Artesian well experts were called to Fairbury to consult on how to solve the excessive groundwater problem. The fourth idea developed was to hire a company that specialized in driving steel pilings into the ground. Steel pilings are often used in construction in other parts of the United States.


On May 25, 1978, forty-foot-long interlocking steel pilings were driven into the ground around the concrete box. These pilings slowed down the water enough to pour concrete into the bottom of the hollow concrete boxes. The excessive water problem delayed the construction of the 120-foot tall elevator complex by about four weeks.


In hindsight, the finding of the enormous underground water source in 1978 should not have been a surprise. Back in 1887, the City dug its first well, which was just 25 feet deep, and it likely produced about 278 gallons per minute on average.


The location for the new elevator was just four blocks to the east of the first City well. At the new elevator location, they found water at a rate of 250 gallons per minute at a depth of 20 feet. The depth and flow rates of the water supply at these two locations were about the same.


Back in 1978, nobody remembered the first City dug well at the northwest corner of Locust and First Streets in 1887. Although it took four tries, the excessive water problem was solved, and the new elevator was built.


Keith Coleman, the elevator manager in 1978, made a scrapbook that chronicled all the issues of this construction project. Keith donated his scrapbook to the Fairbury Echoes Museum, and information from the scrapbook was used to help write this story.

(Dale Maley's local history article is sponsored each week by Antiques & Uniques of Fairbury & Dr. Charlene Aaron)


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