Like grain elevators - the true skyscrapers of the plains - water towers were long the signature landmarks of prairie communities. More than simple storage containers, they signaled the locations of human habitation, displayed the names and mottos of villages and towns, and provided a spectacular and practically irresistible venue for adolescent shenanigans. The need for water may have been the main motivation for their erection, but the desire to express pride in hometowns and relationships eventually altered their significance from that of mere utilitarian structures to symbols of home.
As new technology came to replace them, these once immovable giants began to disappear. No longer useful to the communities they had served, the cost of maintaining them quite often outweighed the benefit of preserving them. Though standpipes (cylindrical water storage tanks) remain quite common, only 36 water towers remain in Alberta. Out of these, fewer than half are still in use. Among those, the Wetaskiwin water tower stands out as Canada's oldest functioning municipal water tower - having continually served its community for the past 100 years.
Originally painted black - like most of its contemporaries - its riveted steel legs support a 450,609 L (119,038 gal.) capacity steel tank - holding enough water to fill an average, 25 m public swimming pool. The original wooden sheath protecting the tank from cold winter winds has been replaced by a steel enclosure, topped by a blue, octagonal peak, while steel tie rods and turnbuckles ensure the 45.72 m (150 ft) tall structure (54.86 m including the antennas on top) doesn't topple.
The tower was erected during the 1906-1907 building boom, which saw Wetaskiwin grow from a tiny town to "the smallest city in the Empire". The Calgary division of the Dominion Bridge Co. was responsible for construction, while the Ontario Wind Engine and Pump Co. furnished the tower's equipment. Both companies were involved in erecting a large number of similar structures across Canada, constructing towers in neighbouring communities like Camrose and Lacombe - though apart from Wetasksiwin, only nearby New Norway has retained its Dominion-built tower (erected in 1947).
The Wetaskiwin water tower stood unconnected and unused for a year and a half following construction, as the town's water and sewage system didn't actually reach it until 1909. Today it primarily serves the western end of Wetaskiwin - now a city of 12,285 inhabitants - drawing water from Coal Lake. Formed on the Battle River roughly 13 km east of the town, the lake has served as Wetaskiwin's municipal water supply since 1968, and had its level regulated for this purpose by an earthen embankment and dam in 1972.
Threatened by demolition six years ago, the now refurbished water tower became a subject of great dispute in Wetaskiwin when initial renovation estimates were drawn up. Ranging from C$1.22 to 1.38 million, compared to the C$250,000 cost of tearing it down, the figures left many citizens feeling that the money could be put to better use. A problem architectural conservation faces everywhere, not just in small prairie communities; the public doesn't mind preserving its cultural heritage as long as it doesn't have to pay for it. Preserving aesthetically spartan, utilitarian, industrial structures - such as water towers - presents a particularly difficult challenge.
The costliest part of the renovation appeared to be the removal of the lead paint coating the tower, though once it was established that it was possible to largely seal rather than remove the original paintwork, by February 2004 the city was able to reduce the total cost to C$748,000. As it turned out, the singularity of the project required very specific scaffolding to envelop the structure, raising the total cost by July 2004 to C$988,710 - leading concerned citizens to vent across the pages of the Wetaskiwin Times Advertiser, generating well over 40 articles and countless letters on the subject of the water tower.
What began as concern over spiraling costs erupted into a full-blown scandal, once the complete tally of the delayed project was revealed. Though optimistically scheduled to be completed between August and October 2004, work on the the tower wasn't finished until October 2005. Following many delays and several gaffes, the restoration of the city landmark totaled C$1,918,362 - leaving even the city councillors responsible dismayed. Though the city had committed nearly C$739,000 to the project, the Wetaskiwin Memorial Fund had raised C$130,000 in private and corporate donations (from as far away as Arizona), while the provincial and federal governments contributed C$236,000, that still left (roughly) an C$814,000 hole to fill. Even with the rejuvenation completed, the debate over whether the water tower's new white garb represented money well spent continued - until the controversial renovation of Wetaskiwin's National Historic Site, the 1907 Court House, overtook it in 2006.
Unlike the Gleichen water tower, erected in 1911, the Wetaskiwin tower hasn't yet been added to the Canadian Register of Historic Places - probably because it remains a fully functioning component of municipal infrastructure. Its new exterior incorporating the official city colours - designed by local students in competition - will likely enable the tower to serve the community for at least another half-century. Dominating the city skyline, visible for ten kilometers, it also stands as a striking reminder of the vital role water towers played in the survival of many prairie communities.