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  • Writer's pictureRochelle Gridley

Death at the Waterworks

In 1915 water was supplied to the city through wells. Water was pumped from the ground using centrifugal pumps such as this one at another location in 1915. On July 27, William Guttschow and William Koester, two employees of the waterworks descended into the centrifugal pump well, a depth of 40 feet, to maintain the pump. Although this was called a "well" there was no water in the structure. The two men had worked in the well all morning without incident and returned to the well after their lunch break.

​Reportedly, one of the supervisors went to the well to check on their progress, but having no response from the men, raised an alarm. Everyone was familiar with the dangers of "black damp" which is not a gas per se, but is the presence of two different gases and the absence of air. The resulting mixture is carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapor. The bodies were found just below the ladder used for exiting the well, and rescuers were quickly overcome by the black damp. It appeared that the men could have been alive when their plight was first discovered, but the bodies were not recovered for over five hours.

Many blamed the failure to rescue the men on the absence of any oxygen helmets at the waterworks.

Gottschalk was from Harvard, IL and left behind a wife and two sons. Koester was born in Ohio but his family had come to Bloomington many years earlier. He was married and had one daughter. Luckily for their families, a workers' compensation law in Illinois gave them up to $3,500 in compensation.

Testimony the next day indicated that other men had been working with Gottschalk and Koester in the morning and had come out of the well because of the conditions. After lunch the two men returned to the well and after a few minutes, the other men heard their cries and ran for help. Black damp was known to be a danger in coal mines and such wells by all the workers, but no actions were taken to make the wells safer or to provide safety equipment. After this incident the use of safety candles was required by the city. However, working and keeping an eye on a candle would not be very efficient and the action of black damp could overtake its victims very quickly, as seen in the rescue efforts.

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