During the second Industrial Revolution, when Americans were taking a step back to dedicate and admire great man-made achievements such as the Transcontinental Railroad, in the small southeastern Michigan city of Ypsilanti, a population of a few thousand had the chance to witness their own significant erection, the Ypsilanti Water Tower.
The structure, which predominately consists of Juliet stone, took five years and $21,435 to build back in the day. Completed in 1890, the tower, which houses a 250,000-gallon water reservoir, aided the city’s need for high-capacity water reservation and pipe pressurization.
During the 19th century, the tower, along with the city’s water works, provided Ypsilanti dwellers with running water for a set price. Interestingly, the rates were per faucet.
A residential customer would have to pay $5 to have water run to a faucet, with an additional $2 per bathtub and $1 per cow. The flat rate was a little higher for saloon owners, who were charged extra per faucet and per billiard table.
If a person were unable to pay his or her bill (due to an additional cow, a new found love of billiards, etc.) he or she could be handed a $50 fine, hefty for the 19th century, and 90 days in the county jail.
Today, the Ypsilanti Water Tower holds much more weight in historical and directional significance.
In a central location on Washtenaw Avenue and Summit Street, just off Eastern Michigan University’s campus, the tower acts as a northern star, giving many people in the Ypsilanti area a navigational point of reference.
Although many people would see it as nothing more than an oddly shaped brick structure, the tower is beloved by most. It’s no wonder college-bound students visiting the university are captivated by its beauty.
EMU sophomore, Alex Alvarado, who studies electronic media and film, gave his own reflection on the tower’s presence.
“I’m always hanging out at my friend’s house, which is on Normal and Cross Street, right across from the water tower,” Alvarado said.
“My fondest memories are of staying the night, and waking up to the morning stone.”
Students are not the only ones who think highly of the structure. In 1975, the American Water Works Association declared it an American Water Landmark.
With the tower attaining such a prestigious title, it is not surprising the Ypsilanti
Community Utilities Authority worked on restoring the structure in both 1976 and 1987.
In 1988, while on its way to collegiate fame, the Michigan Department of State’s Bureau of History recognized the structure as a registered Michigan historic site.
In 1996, the tower was again nominated as a historic site, this time by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Since then it’s received kudos from numerous publications, students and alumni, and those who reside in or visit Ypsilanti.
In 2003, the tower received its most apropos acknowledgment to date when it was recognized by Cabinet magazine as the most phallic structure in America.
From that big win from Cabinet magazine, the Ypsilanti Water Tower also found itself coming in at number 2 in Esquire magazine’s list of “The 9 Most Remarkable Things In Culture This Month.”
While Cabinet magazine was the first publication to put that particular stamp on the tower, residents, visitors and students have been playfully acknowledging the peculiar shape for many years.
Standing in the tower’s lengthy shadow, Dave Martin, a junior at EMU sheds some light on his experience with the stone structure.
“I remember when my friend Ken and I first drove past it as freshmen on move-in day,” Martin said.
“He said ‘look,’ and I said, ‘penis.’ There was also the time I walked from Sidetracks all the way to Evergreen Apartments. On the way back, me and my friend [Ken] stopped and got pictures of us giving it a hug. I think the tower will be around as long as the city wants it to, but the novelty of it will never go away.”
We can only hope the Ypsilanti Water Tower, a beacon of history and a permanent fixture in the memories of Ypsilanti, with its 147-foot height and 85-foot base circumference, will stand firmly erect for years to come.