It is May 4, 1925. A great crowd of men, women, and children huddle together around the lanterns of their guides as they walk through a dark, stone hall beneath the earth. Somewhere under the arches, music begins to play as young men test their banjos and mandolins in the hallowed space. However, despite the arches and columns supporting the great stone roof, the place that they tour is no cathedral. It is not a cave, either. It is a reservoir, built underground and covered by 14 acres of concrete and dirt. The 4,000 people that will be ushered through the darkness this day will be some of the last to see the inside of this place. On July 1st of this same year, the plant and reservoir will be officially opened, and the reservoir will be filled with over a hundred million gallons of fresh, clear water. That water will then flow from the reservoir to the people that need it, all over Cuyahoga County. But, until June 7th, young and old alike will be able to stalk through what some have called a “temple”, and a modern marvel of engineering.
Part of the reason that the reservoir was such an attraction was its sheer size and the amount of material that went into its construction. The Baldwin Reservoir measures roughly 1,035 feet long by 551 feet wide by 39 feet high. Each half of the reservoir’s roof is 500 square feet and is held up by 1,104 arched panels. Each of these panels is about 20 square feet. The panels are themselves supported 1,196 concrete columns that are about 35 feet high and 30 inches in diameter. The reason that the roof is divided in half is because the reservoir itself is also divided. A wall splits the reservoir into two basins, which are fed water from the plant by flumes set 21 feet above the reservoir floor. The attached filtration plant covers an area of 268,000 square feet and was constructed in a Palladian style, according to the designs of architect Herman Kregelius. The front entrance is covered by bronze doors that are 8 feet tall, with a 27-foot-tall glass arch surrounding the doors. This arch, combined with the windows set a few feet apart close to the ceiling, allow in plenty of natural light to brighten up the plant during the day. The plant and reservoir were completed in 1925 at the cost of $5 million, the equivalent of several tens of millions of dollars today.
However, the reservoir and filtration plant have been more than just an attraction to see or a big cost to the city. They have also been a source of safe drinking water for thousands of people. Prior to the construction of the reservoir, three quarters of Cuyahoga County’s population lived in a low-service zone. For most of Cleveland, and the surrounding county, water was something that had to be rationed, and something that oozed out of the tap. It was often filthy and filled with random bits of debris and waste that had coated the pipes over the years. However, when the plant and reservoir were finished, and hooked up to a nearby pumping station, all of those people suddenly had fresh, clear water bursting out from their pipes whenever they turned on the tap. People could drink their fill, water their lawns, and bathe regularly, without fear of contracting any diseases or being poisoned by industrial runoff. And they could get this from their hookups at home, with no more need to go to contaminated neighborhood wells and pumps.
The true value of safe drinking water cannot be overstated. In the year 1900, more than twenty years before the reservoir was completed, 54 out of every 100,000 people in Cleveland died from typhoid fever. In 1915, four years after the city began disinfecting its water, that rate had dropped to 8 out every 100,000. By 1920, the total rate was less than 4 per 100,000. Most of those cases that still occurred were centered in low-service districts, where water quality and availability were lower. When the reservoir was completed, and its attached filtration plant was put into action, the rate of typhoid-related deaths went down to near zero.
Today, the Baldwin Reservoir and Baldwin Filtration plant are practically invisible and tend to stay out of the news. All that one can see, looking from beyond the fence along Woodhill Road, is a long stretch of lawn that extends to a line of hedges and trees, and some walkways leading up to the filtration plant and administration building. However, beneath that lawn is one of the world’s largest covered reservoirs, and one of the biggest water supplies in the city of Cleveland. Despite its invisibility, the Baldwin Reservoir has left a large impact on the city, its people, and its history. One that is still felt today, every time that someone fills a glass from their tap.