Plumbing Puzzles

By TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

*The blog post solely reflects the views of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

A few weeks ago, I posted about my research on the cisterns at the mansion. At the time, I was able to map out the cisterns and the drainage system they were connected to. I had a big problem historical problem though: I did all this research on the cisterns but had no idea what happened to the water the cisterns collected. At the time, I searched through specifications for the building as well as looking for physical pipes in the walls of the basement that may have been connected to the cisterns. It seemed as if it was all to no avail, but this week, everything changed.

Like many of the puzzles at the mansion, the answer was sitting right in front of me. When I was working on the cistern project, I was still organizing my files of work orders and specifications for the mansion from 1905. I had most of the specifications sorted into their own PDF’s, originally the files were all individual Jpeg images. When I was sorting these files, my technological ineptitude got the best of me more than once. I accidentally sorted several files wrong, and some of the work specifications had other specifications mixed in. For example, my specifications for the ironwork had the fireproof flooring specifications attached at the end. When I was working on the cistern project, I did not realize many of these mistakes, and I ended up missing the plumbing specifications, which were mixed in with the interior woodwork specifications.

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This week I finally noticed the mistake and sorted them out. It turns out the plumbing specifications had exactly what I was looking for and much, much more. A page in the specifications was labeled “Cistern Supply,” and it clearly defined where the cistern water went. The cisterns collected water from the gutters, overflow from the fountain, and from the under soil and took the water through a filtration chamber. The filtration chamber had a metal pipe which fed the water into an “automatic pressure tank” in the basement. The pressure tank was very large, 42” by 12’ and was made by the Kewanee Pneumatic Water Supply Co. of Kewanee Illinois. I was able to find a brochure for the company’s pressurized tanks and I included some of their advertisements below.

This tank pressurized the cistern water and allowed it to be used in the laundry tubs, hot water heater, the master bathroom, the second-floor servant’s bathroom, the bathroom in the old master bedroom, the Bishop’s room bathroom, and Mr. Barker’s bathroom. All of these bathrooms put a lot of demand on the cisterns. The plans called for the original home cisterns removed, ostensibly because of these higher demands, but it turned out that the cisterns were not the only source of water for these rooms.

cistern supply

This biggest find in the document was the other sources of water for the mansion. We always said on tour that the pressurized plumbing for the house came from the freight car factory one block away. The factory had a water tower at the time, and it is well documented that the house received electricity from the factory, so it was not too much of a historical leap to assume that the water also came from the factory, but we were wrong. The document very clearly stated that “the main city supply will enter the basement through the north wall of the boiler room.” The mansion was connected to city water at the time! The city water supplied several of the bathrooms, the cleaning room in the basement, the boiler, an old basement sink, the servant’s basins (small sinks in several of the servant’s rooms), the slop sink (in a mop closet in the servant’s quarters), sinks in the servant’s dining room, Butler’s pantry sinks, and a few other spots throughout the house.

city supply

Many of these rooms had both cistern water and city water. This confused me at first; I assumed that some fixtures in these rooms were cistern water, and some were fed with city water, but this did not make much sense. After a very close read of the document, I found some answers. According to the document, a valve in the boiler room was set up to allow the Barkers to entirely shut off and drain the city water from the home. A similar system was set up for the cisterns. The plans also had extra valves that could change the source for specific rooms, switching which water source went for which room. A hot water heater in the basement was also set up to take water from either source.

I have a few mildly-educated guesses as to why this system was in place. First, it may have been set up so that the mansion could rely primarily upon cistern water and only use city water in times when rainwater was in short supply. My second guess is that it was for the Barkers to avoid city water during cholera outbreaks. Cholera was an often fatal bacterial infection caused by infected water supplies. I have records of numerous cholera outbreaks in Michigan City during the time the Barkers were alive. In August of 1879, John H. Barker’s five-month-old son passed away due to a cholera outbreak in Michigan City that claimed the lives of several other children. Shutting off the city water and switching to cistern water could be one way to avoid infected water in Michigan City. The cistern and city water was not the entire story, though. According to the document, there was one other source of water for the mansion.

cholera 1
Burial labeling Cholera as cause of death for the Barker’s son; Trinity Church Archives
Burial record for John Barker’s son; Trinity Church Archives

The document had a brief section titled “well water supply.” This section ordered the contractor to attach an old hand pump from the original kitchen to a “water lift” inside the home to take well water up to the attic tank. The attic tank is a large metal tank covered in canvas which sits inside the closet of the head maid’s room on the top floor. When the document was drawn up, the maid’s room was not there, and the tank was inside the attic. The maid’s room was not planned until after the addition was complete and it was not built until late 1908 at which time the room was built so that the maid’s closet opened up to the tank.

well water supply


The water lift may have worked similar to a windmill, using a vane to displace air and water to force the water up the pipe. Several pipes are still connected to the tank inside the closet. One of those pipes may be my ticket to finding the pump inside the attic, but I am not very interested in climbing around the attic right now given that it is well over one hundred degrees in there in on these summer days.


The water tank was directly connected to extra outlets in the Butler’s pantry and kitchen sinks. The sinks in these rooms and possibly more outlets were supplied with well water. I am not sure why well water specifically supplied these two spots, nor am I sure why they needed to use the attic tank when they had two other sources of water. Since the water in the tank did not circulate much, attic tank water was liable to freezing in the winter and or becoming stagnant in the summer. The Barkers had a radiator installed next to the tank to combat the tank freezing. An advertisement for the Kewanee Company compares their pneumatic tank (like the one for the cistern) with these attic tanks. The attic tank is also very close to being above the servant’s bathroom and may have supplied water pressure for a shower there. As with most of my puzzles, more research is needed. Oh, the love of primary sources!


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The document also clarified where the wastewater was to go. Most of the wastewater in the home was either sent into a sewer line lain between the cisterns and the side of the home in the garden. Basement and boiler wastewater went into a catch basin underneath the courtyard on the side of the house. Connected to this catch basin was one final noteworthy find: refrigerator waste.

A small section was labeled “refrigerator waste.” The refrigerator waste was excess water that melted from the ice chamber. The water went through a lead-lined oak shaft and fed into pipes that went out into the catch basin under the courtyard. The catch basin was a drain for water from the laundry and boiler as well. In my last post, I wrote about how I believe the original refrigerator was cooled by liquid ammonia and not an icebox. The ice melt that went through the waste chute may have been ice from the part of the refrigerator that made ice, or it could be that it is indeed an icebox, more research will be needed to determine this.

refrigerator waste

Overall, this document went a long way to answering my puzzling questions about the mansion. Like all answers, though, it brought along new sets of questions and new directions for research. I’ll keep digging deeper, and in the meantime, I am going to edit our tour scripts and signage to take out any mention of water supply from the Barker’s factory. More adventure awaits!

TJ Kalin 7.13.19

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