To Drink, or Not To Drink

By Pamela Monk & Will Halim

"I drank from that spring when I went to Spring Hill School."

Water sources create community; without clean fresh water to drink, humans can’t survive.  We naturally gather where it can be found. These days, it’s easy to forget how communities are built around water supply; the access to potable water is crucial to the common good- we take it as a right (which tragically can be violated as the community of Flint, Michigan can attest).  But long time residents of Spring Hill, a neighborhood on the Northside, remember when gathering the household water supply was part of neighborhood life. Here one resident recalls her childhood memories of a local spring for Preservation Pittsburgh. The spring she refers to is located just across from Spring Hill Elementary School on Damas Street.

“My parents talked about it as if had always been there. People take things for granted you know. The firetrucks, hucksters (??), and other carts were pulled by horses and they would stop and drink from the fountain. Even in the trough, the water always seemed to be bubbling up.  
I don’t know of anybody who drank faucet water up there. We never thought of drinking faucet water, ew! It was a set chore in the house to go get water from the spring. The first time I drank tap water was sometime after I got married in 1949 and bought a new house. We still always had a container in our kitchen. There were water tanks up there, but I don’t know how they were used.” Bee Fohl Interview Notes paraphrased quotations from interviews on  10/7/10“ (From the application for historical designation pulled together by Preservation Pittsburgh).

Photo Credit: Preservation Pittsburgh

Spring Hill’s early European residents were largely German, attracted to the green hills by the abundance of natural springs as far back as the 1850s.  In the 1950s, it became the home to the first federally funded housing integrated, multi-unit housing development, which effectively integrated the neighborhood, despite community objections. Today, the neighborhood is quiet and unassuming, with an active Civic League that was born in the opposition to the housing project, but lives on in the spirit of community improvement. Councilwoman Darlene Harris and James Rizzo are both residents of Spring Hill. Beyond that, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that they don’t have much in common. Harris, a tough veteran of Pittsburgh politics, is a grandmother of five, involved for the majority of her adult life in Pittsburgh civic affairs, garnering both admiration and acrimony for her efforts. She currently represents District 1 which includes Spring Hill, on the City Council.  Rizzo, soft spoken and affable, arrived here in 2011, by way of New York City, where he was born and Chicago where he most recently resided, after a search for a congenial city led him to settle in Pittsburgh. He now works from his Haslage Street home. The two of them, the life long native and the newcomer, have made common cause of restoring the spring, united by their passion for living history.

A spring is a water resource formed when the side of a hill, a valley bottom or other excavation intersects a flowing body of groundwater at or below the local water table, below which the subsurface material is saturated with water.  http://water.usgs.gov/edu/watercyclesprings.html

According to the US Geological Survey, freshwater springs occur when an underground water flow intersects with the surface of the earth.  But to Harris, it’s so much more. “I drank from that spring when I went to Spring Hill School. People used to stand in line waiting to fill jugs up, daily.”   This project is the culmination of a dream for her. “We’ve been talking about getting the spring restored for thirty seven years.”  In May of this year, after a hiatus of 6 decades, fresh water has again begun to flow.

A  brief timeline

  • 1872  Maps show a stream running down from the top of Spring Hill down to Spring Garden
  • 1912   Residents send a petition to City Hall asking for preservation of their neighborhood water source, to protect it from the grading of Robison Road
  • 1917 (at the latest)  A rectangular stone and concrete structure was built into the shale hillside
  • 1936 – The St. Patrick’s Day flood contaminates the downtown water supply, and the city turns to the spring for drinking water
  • 1950s- around the time the housing project is built, the water is tested, and deemed unpotable. The spring is stopped, first temporarily with wood and then permanently with concrete.
  • 1950s to present time. The water makes its way through the shale, but isn’t used for drinking
  • 2016- The spring is restored, according to its 1917 construction, minus the communal tin cup that had been there in the past.

On a recent sunny July morning, Dave Hunt and his wife Gloria (Bauer) Hunt were at the spring with some of their grandchildren, filling up jugs to take back with them to Westview where they now reside.  “My wife grew up here” Hunt said, “on Admiral Street.”   Mrs. Hunt nodded. “I used to come to the spring with my pap every night.”   They’ve been back to their old neighborhood at least three times, and have been drinking the spring water, to no ill effect, according to them.   The visits reconnect them with memories of childhood, talking with neighbors while waiting for their turn, marveling at the castle wall, directly next to the spring, a fantasia of turrets, parapets and ramparts that was the hobby of David Berger.  Fallen into disrepair, the glory that it must have been is still recognizable through the unkempt greenery. “They said he used to place gnomes in the recesses,”  Rizzo noted when asked about it. “I wish I could have seen that.”  

The spring is restored. But is the water safe to drink?   “I drank some handfuls of the water when it first reopened” Harris said. “I was fine.”   A couple of other people admitted off the record to suffering slight stomach aches after drinking the water, but no other ill effects. The  Hunts had been back to the spring a few times for water to take back  home along with their memories.   However, according to Anthony Stewart of Deco Resources, an environmental consulting firm, hired by Storyburgh to test the water for potability, it doesn’t pass  the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection standard for safe drinking water. The two offending pollutants are the presence of  total coliform and a high level of dissolved solids 1100ppm, over the level of 1000ppm established as the outlier of potability.. Total coliform are bacteria found in many places, including the feces of warm blooded mammals. While not as dangerous as EColi, total coliform are a flag that there could be worse problems. The undissolved solids could be non lethal such as calcium, or deadly such as strontium.  Stewart’s test did not identify the solids.    He ‘wouldn’t drink the water himself, personally” and didn’t recommend that others do so, although he didn’t rule out that boiling the water before drinking could  make it reasonably safe to drink.  In an emergency, if other water supplies were compromised, it could be a good option. The city will not certify untreated water, so officially there will not be any guarantee of safety. Harris said there would be a sign posted to that effect.

Anthony Stewart of DECO Resources

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “A spring is a spring is a spring. ”   Perhaps. But it’s possible to see the spring as a metaphor for  Spring Hill’s  larger journey from prosperity to decline and back.   The spring will never be a neighborhood gathering place the way it was 100 years ago, nor is it likely that it will save a city when water supplies are threatened as it did in 1936.  But does that matter?   Its preservation has been a joint project engaging both natives and newcomers, and the gentle, unceasing and persistent flow of water bubbling up from the aquifer is a symbol of a successful collaboration that bodes well for the future.

Update_ The Spring Hill Spring is one of three that has been approved for historic designation.

Story Credits

Writer: Pamela Monk
Photographer & Web Producer: Will Halim

Disclaimer: the narrative expressed in the article is solely those of the author(s).
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