Two fires and five years of debate

In an earlier post I talked about the disastrous fire of August 12, 1909, one that destroyed many of the businesses along Front, Union and Federal Streets. In the aftermath, downtown Milton was rebuilt and took on much of its present appearance, especially along Federal Street between Union Street and Strawberry Alley.

What is less known is that there was a second fire on May 10, 1911 which caused considerable damage to the buildings along the Broadkill wharves. This second conflagration was not quite as destructive as the first, but it did cause $75,000 in damage (about $1.9 million in today’s dollars), and for a time threatened to ignite many more commercial buildings (including the new ones built after the previous fire) and residences. According to newspaper accounts, only a change in wind direction that blew sparks across the Broadkill instead of into town prevented wider damage. Four of the structures that were destroyed—the Royal Packing Company cannery, shed, packing house and the company’s Edge Water Roller Mill—provided seasonal and some year round employment to more than 200 workers and would impact the local economy in the short term.

The two fires, occurring within the space of less than two years, had one thing in common: Milton was ill-equipped to deal with them, and a significant part of that was due to the lack of a water system. Bucket brigades, which included many of Milton’s women in their ranks, were a major part of the fire-fighting efforts in both instances. As for the fire department, they had a hand pump and a short length of hose, both useless in fighting a large fire.

It may seem obvious to us today that after the first disaster the citizens of Milton should have gone all-out to put a water system into the town. The fact is, a water system was talked about but no action taken, probably because many property owners did not want to pay increased taxes to fund it, and others were lulled into a false sense of security when the downtown was rebuilt with masonry. Incredible as it may seem, it took five years after the second fire before work began on a water system.

So, why did it take so long for something so vital to the town to become a reality?

As early as January of 1911—several months before the second fire—the Wilmington Morning News stated that Milton residents would soon be voting on whether to go ahead with a water works project. This was not exactly accurate as stated. David A. Conner, in his weekly Milton News letter of January 27, 1911, describes what actually happened:

A few citizens assembled in School Hall on Wednesday evening of last week in regard to the water works problem, that someone has been agitating. The meeting was informal in the extreme. The committee appointed at a previous meeting to bond out something about waterworks, did not think the problem of enough interest to them to attend the meeting. It is said, a motion of some kind was made by someone; and an amendment to this motion offered by another person, and that while discussing the amendment the original motion was forgotten, and the meeting adjourned—or got out of—in disgust. Unfortunately we have some persons in Milton who are altogether too utopian, who are always hankering after the impractical and unattainable.

In my reading of this report, the last sentence virtually drips with sarcasm. Georgetown and Rehoboth had gone ahead with planning their own waterworks after enduring fires of their own. A waterworks system was hardly utopian, impractical, or unattainable.

And so the matter rested, and was not revived until after the fire of May 11. Conner reports that one week after the fire, a Baltimore engineer was hired by Town Council to gather the data necessary in order to provide an estimate of what a waterworks system would cost. The editorial page of the Milford Chronicle of May 19 referred to “old-fossil-idea citizens” and “penny-wise and pound-foolish” people putting off a waterworks project for as long as possible, and exhorted the “progressive citizens” to “push them aside and go ahead.”

On June 3, a town referendum was held, and voter turnout was high. By a vote of 223 to 8, the citizens of Milton approved going forward with a waterworks system for their town. The vote allowed the Town Council to begin the planning process.

Getting from the referendum to turning on the taps was a long and winding road, however. More than a year and a half had gone by before the second step was taken: introducing a bill in the state legislature which would allow the town of Milton to issue bonds to finance the project. In January of 1913, a bill was introduced by “Mr. Wagamon” in the House to authorize the town to issue bonds up to the amount of $20,000.

Passage of the bill in early 1913 by the state legislature did not yield immediate results. Another referendum was held in Milton on April 28th of that year to decide on the matter of sewerage; the general consensus was that it would be more cost efficient to build a sewer system concurrently with the water works, rather than adding the former at a later date. However, the voters rejected the additional debt (and rise in taxes) that would be required to add the additional infrastructure. And, even though the water works project was approved by an overwhelming majority of the citizens of Milton, resistance on the part of key property owners further stalled the project. The Wilmington Evening Journal of June 16 reported that the Town Council was having trouble obtaining a site for the water tower, because of property owners refusing to release land for that purpose. Bonds were being issued, about half having been bought by local residents, with the remainder expected to be sold off soon.[i]

However, two news reports in March of 1914 indicate how much resistance still remained among certain influential property owners. The Wilmington News Journal reported on March 31, 1914—nine months later—that the Town Council had been having a great deal of difficulty disposing of the remaining bond issue due to considerable opposition on the part of some of the leading citizens. The Wilmington Morning News of March 14, 1914 reported on the results of the Milton annual town election; two factions—the “Board” and the “Citizens”—ran opposing tickets, with the former winning. The “Board” faction was against the water works, even at this late date with half the bonds having been sold. This report also provides names of the some of the members of the winning faction: William H. Stephens, the incumbent mayor re-elected

for another term; Edward Davidson; Arthur Jefferson; and John R. Black. The project’s difficulties were further described in the Wilmington News Journal of March 31, 1914, in which the opposition of “leading citizens” to the water works project was highlighted.

The first we hear of substantive progress is in the Wilmington Morning News of June 23, 1915, which reported that William Conwell of Milton was awarded the contract to install the water works system in Milton, for a price of $18,500, the low bid. That any contract was awarded at all is almost certainly due to the election of Dr. Robert B. Hopkins as mayor of Milton on March 12, 1915, by a margin of 14 votes. David A. Conner, in his Milton News letter of June 18, 1915, reports that “Mayor Dr. Robert B. Hopkins has been indefatigable in his efforts“ in getting the remaining bonds sold and, it goes without saying, in overcoming resistance to the project.

Pumping station building under construction, 1915. The man at the extreme left is believed to be Fred Pepper, on subcontract to William Conwell (Courtesy Fred Pepper)
Pumping station building under construction, 1915; the building still stands today. The man at the extreme left is believed to be Fred Pepper, on subcontract to William Conwell (Courtesy Fred Pepper)


Milton's first water tower, ca. 1916
Milton’s first water tower, ca. 1916 (courtesy Fred Pepper)

The Milton water works system was finally completed in early February 1916, and was a source of pride for Milton’s citizens. Yet, after two fires and several million dollars in losses (in today’s dollars), it is hard to understand how a small group of property owners (Milton’s 1%, perhaps?) could have stalled and come close to scuttling a project that seems like a no-brainer in our time.


[i] Wilmington Morning News, July 21, 1913

3 thoughts on “Two fires and five years of debate

  • Kevin Kelly

    Thank you…I had not heard or read of the struggle to establish a water tower and system in town. As always, your careful research and engaging narrative makes learning easy. And always makes me wonder “what’s next?” Terrific!

  • Allen Sangree

    Install the waterworks for $18,500! Seems like a bargain today.
    We just approved a project for 1,600,000 to replace 600′!

    • Phil Martin

      Yes, even at the 24:1 ratio of 2021 vs 1916, $444,000 is a bargain for an entire town water system!

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