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Were Wooden Pipes used in Texas?


Were Wooden Pipes used in Texas?

Wooden Water Pipes

By Melinda Luna PE, Chair, History & Heritage Committee

Using wooden timber pipes was the first type of pipe used in water lines in the United States. Today, these wooden pipes are uncovered as part of water replacement projects. In Philadelphia in 2017, timber trunks in 6- and 12-foot segments were found with three- and six-inch diameter drilled in the center. The city was able to find the original documentation of the project by the Philadelphia Water Committee.[1] Other cities, such as Portland, have had found similar pipes.

The use of wooden pipes is sometimes only documented in photographs. In a photo taken in Redlands California in 1908, a 52-inch pipe is being used. What we can see is that the slatted pipe could be made of redwood, oak, and even Texas pine. In abundant areas of timber, tree trunks were used with a hole drilled in the center to serve as pipe. In the United Kingdom in 2004, there was a wooden pipe uncovered in a Roman Fort in Northumberland. This pipe was still intact in the ground for 2000 years. 

20in Wooden Water Pipe from 1920
Mr. Tony Moreno, Water Superintendent City of Laredo and Mr. David Olazaba, Smith Pump Company, stand at an exhibit of an actual wooden water pipe found within the city limits. Built like a barrel, the water pipe consists of wooden staves and metal hoops. This 1920s 20-inch wooden pipe was uncovered in 1995. Credit: L. Granger Smith PE, CEO, Smith Pump Company

But was timber used for water pipes in Texas?

The common use of wooden water pipes ended in about 1913 and most waterlines were made of cast iron after that date. There were probably few projects laying water line before then in Texas. Some newspapers in the early 1900’s carried testimonials of the economics of wooden pipes and their reliability in efforts for them to be used in Texas projects. Since then, there have been discoveries of wooden water pipes in Texas, proving timber was a type of pipe used in Texas. The Waco News Tribune from May 31, 1927, published an article about a 1200-feet of wooden pipe being replaced from a plant on Riverside Drive. 

A wooden pipe was uncovered in May 1957 in the City of Tyler. The pipe was estimated to be 50 to 70 years old and was two inches in diameter. It was speculated that the pipe was made of pine and cypress. The pipe was joined in an alternating tongue and groove. This relic was kept for its historical significance in the Tyler City Hall.    

In Eastland, a project uncovered a four- to six-inch wooden pipe. As recently as January 2019, a wooden water pipe was discovered in downtown Pampa, Texas. It was estimated to be put in the ground in 1890’s.

Similarly, reports by the Houston City council have mentioned some leaky pipes were due to timber pipes but no details were mentioned. 

While probably rarer to find wooden water pipes in Oregon and Philadelphia than in Texas, it was noted that early cities such as Portland did not like timber pipe because it was easy to drill in the pipe and make a connection. In surveys during the time timber was used, several illegal connections were found in the timber pipes. When these timber pipes had to be replaced most were left in the ground because they have no salvage value. With cast iron being more economical, it was the material of choice until other pipe types such as asbestos cement, ductile, iron, steel, concrete, and PVC were available. 

Having water pipes made of timber probably served to be more problematic as pipes needed to be larger to provide water for a growing population. Timber was not an abundant material everywhere. The City of Laredo Water Museum (2702 Anna Avenue, Laredo, Texas) has a piece of a 20-inch wooden pipe put in the ground in the 1920’s and unearthed on Springfield Road in 1995.  The Weslaco Museum (500 S Texas, Weslaco, Texas) also has an example of wooden water pipes that were uncovered in the area. 

So, while not widely known, timber pipes were used in Texas to serve the population with water while utilizing local material.  Wooden pipes are an example of an outdated technology that was used by engineers, reached its limitation or design life, and now needs to be replaced. ASCE’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card states that there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the US. Old pipes are just one reason the water systems need to be addressed. And with United for Infrastructure: A Week to Champion America’s Infrastructure occurring September 14-21, 2020, nationwide, let us use this focused time to educate the American public and policymakers about the importance of infrastructure to the nation’s economy, workers, and communities.[2] Let’s #RebuildBetter!

[1] WEF Highlights; Found in Philadelphia: 200-Year-Old Wooden Water Mains; https://news.wef.org/found-in-philadelphia-200-year-old-wooden-water-mains/; accessed 14 August 2020.

[2] United for Infrastructure; https://unitedforinfrastructure.org/; accessed 14 August 2020.