Standing by the old city well at California and Third streets, Robert Heltberg, left, who often portrays pioneer photographer Peter Britt, explains some of Jacksonville's history to visiting tourists. - Bill Miller

Just a shovelful away

The real motto of the Old West wasn't "Go West, young man. Go West!" More likely, it was "whiskey's for drinkin' — water's for fightin'."

In Jacksonville's earliest days, wells and buckets dipped in Jackson and Daisy creeks usually were enough to soothe the town's parched lips. Battles over water generally ended up in court and not in a gunfight on California Street.

With most of the town's storefronts made of wood, and only the more prosperous residents able to build with brick, downtown was kindling-dry and always at the mercy of "the fire fiend," the threat of a devastating fire that could burn down the whole town.

Without water for the hand-pulled fire cart, disaster was just one spark away.

In 1883, it looked like the railroad might be coming to Jacksonville, so the city fathers decided it was time to supplement the town's major water supply, and wells were dug at the corners of downtown streets.

A $400 contract was signed that would build two brick underground cisterns, able "to hold several thousand gallons of water." One would be located at the intersection of Oregon and Main streets in front of City Hall, the other near the middle of California Street near Third Street.

The cisterns would be fed by a 4-inch-diameter wooden pipeline, laid from a triangular dam in Jackson Creek into town three-quarters of a mile upstream from the west end of California Street. An additional cistern was added at California and Fourth streets.

This cistern was rediscovered in 1963 by crews digging a sewer improvement trench. It was the second cistern uncovered that year, the first being the one in front of City Hall. Because they were both in the middle of the street and of no current use, they were filled in and not preserved.

The wooden pipeline eventually was extended up into the hills west of town, capturing more of the water at its source before it could dry up. A reservoir and dam were built in 1912, but the seasonal water problems continued until the town connected to Medford's water system in the mid-1950s.

The old water system popped up again in 2004, when work crews uncovered a 25-foot-deep well next to the old Beekman Bank. This time, city leaders saw an opportunity to save an early part of the town's history.

The well was covered over with sturdy Plexiglas and surrounded by safety railings. Once interpretive signs were added, Jacksonville's early water history had become a tourist attraction. But that isn't the end.

Recently, portions of the old wooden pipeline may have been found still buried in the city's new Forest Park. It's going to take a little more money and a whole lot of digging to be sure. But in Jacksonville, history's always been just another shovelful away.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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