Water Tower

Water Tower 1890 Water Tower 1890
Water Tower 1980 Water Tower 1980

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Excerpts from “The Old Water (Watch) Tower -Saint John’s Guardian,” Abbey Quarterly, v. 3 no. 1. January 1985, p. 6-7.

“Was I less curious than other students of the 1930s about some things which stood on the campus? If memory serves me right, only once in the more than fifty years – when I walked the trails of this campus – was I inside the tower which overlooked the whole campus and stood as a guard over anyone who came near the campus. Looking more like a medieval turret than a water tower, it might well- for all I knew – have hidden a monk watching through a conning window and alerting the entrance office to the arrival of strangers. Perhaps there were heaps of stones lying on the crenellated top, perhaps even a medieval sling to repel any strangers. I never knew for I never stood atop the building.

More than once I had climbed that hill, approached the building, handled the fat padlock which secured a steel door, browsed around the area, and found a pit just north of the tower. Only once in those many trips was the lock open, and I dared to pull the steel door. Inside was the beginning of a circular wooden staircase wrapped around a huge tank. Timidly I began the dark climb, tested each step, found creaky boards – and timidly turned back.

The building was an introduction to the monastery, for it was the first building which caught the eye after one had traversed the new road from the Collegeville train depot. After the completion of the quadrangle it had to be built to furnish water to the fourth floor of the imposing structure. The open pit, just north of the tower, must have been the relic of the first water supply for the monastery.

Rather than leave an unaesthetic steel tank standing upon a hill, the monastery masons fashioned a brick jacket, which still stands with the original pointing of the cement. The tank had a capacity of 2300 barrels (another source says 2800) and the building itself was a casual sort of exercise to occupy the summer vacation in 1890. “During summer vacation the ‘water tower’ with a capacity of 2800 bbls. was built, and the steeple of Stella Maris chapel repaired.” So wrote historian Fr. Alexius Hoffman.

Since the top of the tower was so similar to the top of the old gymnasium, I had surmised that the planners liked the battle openings on the top of the gym and stretched the architectural innovation to the water tower. My theory was smashed after a bit of research. Study showed that the gym was later built by C. R. Aldrich, the Minneapolis architect. In 1901 the foundation for the gym had been completed. New conclusion: evidently Mr. Aldrich liked the tower and matched the gym to it. The old gym also had (has) a tower with a winding, wooden, creaky staircase which led to a sealed room. That tower, however, had been discovered and opened by students. (I know because I once sneaked into it and found Ed Devitt and Quinn and Fromelt playing poker, sure that Fr. Roland Kapsner was afraid of the circular stairs. I know because I memorized a string of cuss words which Fromelt let out whenever he had to write another check to Devitt. The censor will not allow me to print it.)

Upon the completion of the water tower astronomy buff Fr. Peter Engel convinced the monks to set an astronomical observatory there. He procured a telescope and put it in place during February 1891. The Record said, “The instrument has been tentatively mounted under the revolving dome surrounding the watch tower which commands an unobstructed view of the horizon all around.”

Curiosity demanded that I make an official inspection, and my visit on 23 October showed that little has happened to the building since that first climb in the late 30s. The same door keeps the entrance secure. Evidently the same paint is on the door, for there are initials scratched on it dated 1901. The hole which once stood just north of the tower has been closed and is grown over. Perhaps some water still stands in the tank which is officially empty, The skinny lombardy poplars of a 1900 photo have been outmuscled by pines which now hide most of the structure.

The Abbey Fire Department longs to use the tank for lake water which would pump through the hydrants, but admits the vast conversion of plumbing militates against the suggestion. Now on the register of historic buildings, it stands strong and comforted by the huge blue painted reservoir near by, constructed once again because of higher construction and expanded water needs.”