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History of HMA-Written by Rusty Christoff

I don’t even think about it and I’ll bet you don’t either. You turn on a spigot not even thinking about how it got there, but there it is. We actually expect it to be there, because most of us grew up with city water. While I’m conscious of conservation and appreciate the luxury, I never imagined what it would be like to not have good water readily available. The early settlers of Houtzdale and surrounding areas had to make do, be creative and work for simple things that all of us take for granted. Water, food, shelter and heat. Think of those basic needs and ask yourself if you had the ability to survive without them. Our forefathers were hard working and ingenious and it is my hope that my story portrays them as such.
My interest about the history of water supply in the area came from a story about Mountain Branch and a fellow by the name of Peter Cameron. While it’s impossible for me to document every fact, I was able to come up with a nice little piece of history, thanks to my friend Nathan Jones, a fellow history buff and a 20 year employee of the Houtzdale Water Authority.
Water supply in Houtzdale and Brisbin at first depended on hand dug wells and a few natural springs. One of the best known of these springs can still be seen in front of the Brisbin Post Office. For as long as people have been around, it’s been referred to as “The Spout”. One of my childhood friends and school class mates, John Brennan grew up with the spout in his front yard. John relayed a few stories about how cold the water is and how as kids playing ball in Brisbin, it was a refreshing place to grab a drink as kids would stash cups near the spout. Over the course of the last 150 years, the spout has never quit flowing ice cold water. Up until approximately 15 years ago, before most of the area had city water, people would still fill drums and totes out of the spout if they had a well going dry. The hillside dividing Houtzdale and Brisbin had also pushed water into John’s basement. John’s dad, Marty Brennan built a spring house in the basement and John and Tim Smith would put a screen in the stream of water to keep live minnows for fishing. John’s dad also put an electric pump in the spring house so he could wash cars and water the garden. The spout also became a popular source of water during the giardia outbreak in the mid to late 80’s.
It was not until 1889 that the Houtzdale Water Company was formed by making a drill hole at the top of McAteer Street. The ground was donated to the town by the heirs of Dr. Daniel Houtz. When I was a kid, it was a large open reservoir, now a large storage tank. The reservoir pumped water through Houtzdale in pipes made of wood. It was about this time that the hill became known as Derrick Hill, because of the derrick pump installation there, photos attached of the reservoir and the original Derrick pump. This water, however, proved too hard and rusty.
The following part of the story is what caught my attention, made me pause and begin to ask questions. Peter Cameron was a supervisor at the Berwind White Coal Company and has been described as a genius coal engineer as well as a geologist. A staunch Presbyterian, Sunday school teacher and a popular figure in Houtzdale. He resided in the home our generation will know as the home of Jerry Mancuso. I wish I knew what led him to Mountain Branch but I don’t know. Was he searching for coal to mine? Was he hunting? Nobody really knows but his work can be seen at the original Mountain Branch reservoir which was constructed in 1908. Mr. Cameron can be credited with the idea that Mountain Branch could supply Houtzdale and surrounding areas with water and it could be delivered via hydraulic pressure or in simple terms, GRAVITY! For our generation it’s easy to follow Mountain Branch. I can’t fathom what it must have been like in the late 1800’s, a time that the mountain still had panthers, mountain lions and a big rattle snake population. Regardless of how he figured it out, he proved that he could provide the area with better quality water, long before good roads, transportation, computers and calculators. In 1922, the Houtzdale Water Company purchased the ground on the Mountain Branch side of the Moshannon Creek from Edwin & Elizabeth Christ for the purpose of utilizing the reservoir and constructing a WOODEN pipeline to the Borough of Houtzdale consisting of 28,000 FEET. What’s even more remarkable is that this method is still used and new pipe follows the original design.
It’s important to keep in mind the towns surrounding Houtzdale. Ramey and its own water company and pulled their water from the Moshannon side of the Moshannon Creek on ground purchased from attorney Harry Boulton in 1914 for the amount of $3,000, which was a lot of money for that time. Mr. Boulton had purchased the ground from the county originally in 1908. Ramey also pulled water from Mountain Branch and a third source, Hagerty Spring. Water was piped to Ramey through wooden pipes in the same fashion and stored in a reservoir with some of the water making its way to Smoke Run and in Smoke Run there was a dam, still behind Finch’s gas station, used for water supply. Madera had a reservoir located between Vulcan and Banion Road, somewhere near the cemetery but towards Banion.
Water rates at the time were calculated on a flat rate and billed quarterly. Domestic users, Stores, Offices, Stables, Garages and Barber Shops paid a minimum of $3.00 per quarter with a maximum residence paying $6.25 per quarter. Dairy farmers paid a flat rate plus $8.00 up to 20 cows. Each horse or cow stabled on premises paid an additional $.25 cents per animal. Each additional barber chair paid an additional $1.00. Hotels $7.50 per quarter, Coal Mines $50.00 per quarter and schools $1.25 per room.
On March 1, 1960, 64 years ago this month, the Houtzdale Municipal Authority was formed in the borough of Houtzdale. This allowed for Houtzdale and Ramey to merge and to be able to meet the needs of water supply in Madera and Janesville. The borough council consisted of Richard Greenwalt, my grandfather Russell Christoff, Ephie Crosovolt, Ray O’Shea, George Love, Frank Love and Gomer Evans. The newly appointed board members were L.T. Phillips, J. Howard Smith, Chester Johnson, Jacob Isenberg, Walter Williams, G.L. Lehman and Paul Morroni. Juanita Holenchick was secretary. Honorable mentions for me would be Joyce Hagan. I can still see her in the old water office below Doc Ronans sitting behind a typewriter and Ruth Love whom had been a part of the water authority for years.
Not all local areas had a good source of water, especially Sanborn. In the early 1990’s the residents of Sanborn took personal backhoes, picks and shovels and started to dig from Sanborn to Henderson. Prior to finishing, the DEP finally stepped in and funded the remainder of the project. This was all volunteer work done during time off from work, weekends, evenings and whenever they could.
In 1995, the water authority took on a massive plant construction project which was initiated due to the giardia outbreak in the late 80’s. I remember the months of boiling water for drinking and cooking as giardia caused severe stomach problems. The DEP was involved and discovered that beaver feces had contaminated the water. In order to remedy the problem, the water intake at Mountain Branch was relocated.
The water authority has four permitted production wells and two permitted streams. Out in Ginter past the old Ginter dump, the Moshannon Creek and a deep well pump water to Hale road. I have a photo included showing the intake at the Ginter stream. It’s really unassuming unless you stop and think about it. The headwaters of the Moshannon Creek begin about 500 yards upstream of the intake at the camp of George Cornelius. The Moshannon Creek is 57.4 miles long, ending In Karthaus before it dumps into the Susquehanna and has served as the boundary between Centre and Clearfield Counties. As Nathan was giving me a tour, he pointed out that the ground we were on had been surveyed nearly 100 years before the ground was purchased for use as a water shed. With the close proximity to the Tipton T and Tyrone Mountain, one has to wonder just how many travelers, traders, hunters, Indians and explorers have followed the Moshannon Creek.
Out in Mountain Branch, the remnants of the original reservoir can still be seen as well as the original intake pipe. Up on the hillside is an old stone shack. It’s speculation and old folk lure that this was a place for a tender to stay. The tender was responsible for making sure the intake stayed free of debris.
The new intake at Mountain Branch doesn’t utilize a reservoir like we would see on Tipton Mountain but rather is an open stream that acts as a pre filter. The Mountain Branch stream is regulated by flow and only so much is allowed for consumption, the rest of the water supplied to the area comes from one of the wells out on the mountain. However, should Armageddon occur and all of the well pumps lose power, the old stream could keep us supplied.
Today, the Houtzdale Municipal Authority distributes water through 110 miles of underground pipes delivering 750,000 gallons on a daily average of some of the best water in the country as far as I’m concerned. Three boroughs consisting of Houtzdale, Brisbin and Ramey. And five townships consisting of Woodward, Gulich, Beccaria, Bigler and parts of Decatur are all receiving water from a little piece of heaven out on the mountain. A daily ritual of monitoring streams and wells for bugs, bacteria and flow pressures ensure the area a quality product. A recent upgrade to the pipe work and the installation of meter pits have saved the authority and the rate payers nearly 500,000 gallons of water DAILY, which is about 13 million gallons per year!
Like I said in the beginning, I took for granted how and why water comes out of my spigot. I never thought about water being fed to the area by gravity. I never imagined a life without it. Traveling out through Mountain Branch with my friend Nathan today, a beautiful March day, I thought about the city and said to myself, they can keep it. The treasures we have can’t be replaced. Turn on your spigot and imagine life without….