Huntsville Utilities: Celebrating 200 years

April 12, 2023
The oldest municipal water works west of the Appalachian Mountains, the Big Spring in Huntsville, Alabama has been supplying residents and businesses with water since 1823.

Huntsville Utilities, based in Huntsville, Alabama, celebrated the 200th anniversary of its water system earlier this year.

The Big Spring in Huntsville, Alabama, has long been a central point of the city. Believed to be the first municipal water works in Alabama and the oldest west of the Appalachian Mountains, Huntsville Utilities’ Water Operations owes its inception to the Big Spring and the Huntsville founders.

In 1809, Leroy Pope purchased most of the land surrounding the Big Spring, but it was not until 1823 that water was drawn from the spring to supply residents and businesses with water. The water in the Big Spring was naturally filtered as it flowed through limestone, making it safe to drink.

On February 15, 1823, Hunter Peel was given a contract and exclusive rights to convey water through cedar logs — hollowed out and joined with iron bands — to the town square with access for the bucket brigade. The pipes were believed to be hollowed out with a hot iron rod used to chisel out the center up until 1827, and after 1827 an auger was used.

Also in 1823, Leroy Pope granted the rights to Hunter Peel to erect a dam across the spring, which enabled Peel and his partner, James Barclay, to construct the first water works. The first water plant was a wood turbine, turned by the spring to pump water into the cedar logs up to the town square.

Between 1823 and 1828, ownership of the Big Spring water works changed hands three times: from Peel and Barclay; to Joshua Cox; and, finally, to Thomas A. Ronalds.

Upon taking ownership, Ronalds hired Sam D. Morgan to make significant improvements to the water works, such as a new dam, engine house, new cedar logs, and a more powerful pump. In 1828, Ronalds built a new water reservoir by the Court House in the town square, which held 24,000 gallons. Ronalds and Morgan ran the water works until 1836.

In 1836, Dr. Thomas Fearn and his brother, George, took over the water works and had to rebuild the entire system, including a new iron pump and cast-iron pipe 5 inches in diameter (which saw the beginning of the retirement of the cedar logs). In 1840, Dr. Fearn sold the water works to the City. As part of the terms of the sale, Big Spring was to always be open and free to the residents of Huntsville and the surrounding communities.

Now 200 years later, the water works system of Huntsville, Alabama, has undergone considerable change and seen massive growth. From cedar logs supplying water up to the town square to now over 105,000 water customers across the City of Huntsville, Huntsville Utilities’ Water Operations remains a vital and central part of day-to-day life for the Rocket City. With more growth anticipated for the city, Huntsville Utilities looks forward to providing the foundational service of drinking water for the next 200-plus years.

About the Author

Todd Long

Todd Long is the electric content administrator for Huntsville Utilities. Long can be reached at [email protected]

About the Author

Caitlin Byrd

Caitlin Byrd is the legislative and regulatory analyst for Huntsville Utilities. Byrd can be reached at [email protected].