Water World: Pump Station and Reservoir

Civil War earthen reservoir that held reservoir with fountain. A wooden fence encloses the reservoir. Wooden buildings can be seen in the background.
Reservoir that held 50,000 gallons of water pumped from the Kentucky River at Camp Nelson during the Civil War. The water was piped to certain areas of the camp, specifically the workshops for water suppression and to the hospitals.

Camp Nelson Photographic Collection, 1864, University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center

Waterworks Sysyem

Owing to the difficulties which arose from insufficient supply of water to the Camp - all the water being hauled in wagons from the Kentucky River... [Captain Theron E. Hall, Assistant Quartermaster] was ordered...to construct waterworks for the depot. These works have been completed and are now in successful operation. - Major Charles E. Compton, 47th US Colored Troops, June 23, 1864

From its establishment in April 1863 to its closure in June 1866, the engineers assigned to work at Camp Nelson designed numerous industrial facilities. One of the most unique and noteworthy was the waterworks system. While the camp’s location between the palisades of the Kentucky River and Hickman Creek provided strong natural fortifications, these steep rock cliffs made it difficult to access the water and deliver it to the base.

To solve this problem, US Army engineers constructed a waterworks and reservoir, a great engineering feat for the time. The waterworks consisted of 19,200 feet of lead pipe that carried water from the 500,000-gallon reservoir to various points across the camp. A steam-powered pumping station located at the base of the Kentucky River supplied the energy for this machinery, carrying 150 gallons per minute 470 feet up the river bluff to the reservoir. Along with providing the camp’s inhabitants with a supply of water, the waterworks allowed for several important safety amenities, such as fire hoses at each warehouse.

In reporting on the condition of the facilities at Camp Nelson, an officer for the Inspector General’s Office claimed that while “much has been said in regard to the extravagance of this expenditure…a supply of water was a necessary and unavoidable adjunct, and the items expenditure are not apparently unreasonable.” These comments illustrate that despite costing over $50,000, the waterworks provided a service essential to allowing Camp Nelson to operate as large industrial center that served a multitude of purposes to the US Army.

A tall wooden structure that is built on stone abutments near a water source during the Civil War. Trees surround the structure.
The US Army constructed a steam powered pump house that piped water from the Kentucky River up the river bluff (470 feet) to a reservoir that held 500,000 gallons of water.

Camp Nelson Photographic Collection, 1864, University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center

Remnants of the Waterworks

When the pump is working at its ordinary rate, this pipe (8 inches in diameter) will discharge from 125 to 150 gallons of water per minute into the reservoir.

The pump station and reservoir were dismantled after the Civil War. The steam engine and boiler were shipped by river to Cincinnati, Ohio. The remnants of the reservoir are located on private property. US-27 [Lexington-Danville Turnpike] was expanded in the 1990s. Archaeological surveys discovered sections of the 8-inch lead pipes that distributed water through the camp. A piece of the pipe can be found at Camp Nelson National Monument's museum.

Last updated: January 6, 2023

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