Portsmouth’s Basham Hill Reservoir

An Amazing (and Nearly Tragic) History

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the City of Portsmouth grew so to did its demand for clean and reliable drinking water. Constructed in 1913, the little-known Basham Hill Reservoir has been a key component of the City’s water system for over 100 years. In 1915, a failure of the reservoir wall nearly caused the deaths of several Portsmouth families. It was subsequently repaired, and then replaced by a steel water tank. It has supplied drinking water to Portsmouth residents ever since.

Portsmouth’s first water works plant was built in 1871 on the banks of the Ohio River. It was located in an area that is, today, just outside the floodwall behind Shawnee State University. That original water plant left much to be desired in terms of today’s standards. Steam-powered pumps (and later, electric-powered pumps) took untreated river water directly into city water mains to be used in the Portsmouth's breweries, factories, and businesses, as well as for fire protection services. Many residents used the water for drinking, too. Filtering the water (using home filters at the customer’s own sink) was up to the user. This helps to explain the popularity of freshwater springs, such as Kinney’s Spring, as drinking water sources in the 1800s and 1900s.

As the City grew it expanded eastward. Manufacturing expanded within Portsmouth and New Boston as well. With this growth came a demand for more reliable water services and more palatable drinking water. In 1912, the city started construction on a new water “filtration” plant just east of the New Boston corporation limit. Today's water filtration plant is actually an expansion of the original structure from 1912.

A key component to create a reliable water supply, in addition to treatment, is water storage. The City needed a means to store a large amount of treated water: a reservoir. Basham Hill, just north of the current location of the New Boston Wal-Mart, was chosen to be the site of City’s first reservoir. 

Thomas Basham's Hill

The Portsmouth Daily Times reported on May 13, 1912, that the City of Portsmouth had agreed to purchase “Thomas Basham’s hill above New Boston,” as a reservoir site. The city would purchase 25 acres of land at $250 per acre or $6,250. The plan was to build a reservoir with a capacity of six to seven million gallons of water. There was consideration given to also making a City park on the property. “The extra land can some day be converted into a beautiful park. The hill skirts Millbrook Lake and within there is a valley which would afford an excellent automobile driveway of an easy grade.” And while Millbrook Lake was still a popular recreation area at the time, the proposed park on Basham was never built.

Construction of the Basham Reservoir

The engineer selected to design the reservoir project was J. F. Witmer of Buffalo, New York. A local contractor, Curtis and Shumway, was awarded the contract to build the structure. Construction was well underway by August 1913, and completion was expected by mid-October 1913. The dimensions of the reservoir would be 250 feet by 250 feet with 20-foot high side wall. A reinforced concrete top supported by brick columns would form the roof. Curtis and Shumway built a cable system to lift concrete, brick, steel and other materials up from Gallia Street to the construction site.

However, by October 29, 1913, there were already concerns about the stability of the new reservoir. In a report on the progress of the reservoir, the Times stated: “On Basham Hill, on top of which the reservoir is laid, there is a precipitous natural drain, beginning right at the northeast end of the reservoir wall, and which threatens the entire safety of the reservoir. The engineer gave warning that nothing, except a stone wall, built far down, could keep the hill from slipping down this drain and carrying part of the reservoir with it. In the face of this warning a contract was given to Henry Ruel at $1000 to drive piling as a precaution against slipping. The piling was driven, on a measurement about 75 feet distant from the reservoir wall…The slippage predicted has begun and those pilings are snapped off like pipe stems. And right now a rip-rap wall is being built to stop impending disaster and avalanche.”

It is not clear whether any additional actions were taken in response to the report published by the Times on October thirteenth. In any case, the reservoir was placed into service later that year storing treated drinking water which was produced by the recently completed filtration plant.

October 3, 1915: Disaster on Basham Hill

On Sunday afternoon, October 3, 1915, disaster struck. The northeast corner of the reservoir collapsed, emptying the entire 7 million gallons of water stored within. The release flooded the valley on the north side of Basham Hill, destroying several homes and threatening the lives of those in its wake. The Portsmouth Times reported that “Portsmouth’s reserve supply of seven million gallons of water was released with one mighty rush, spelling ruin and destruction to everything in its path when a large section of the east wall of the city’s reservoir on Basham hill collapsed without warning Sunday afternoon about 5 o’clock. Like a perfect Niagara the big wall of water rolled down the hillside in the School Land Hollow, floating huge blocks of concrete like so many timbers, crushing homes and destroying everything before it. Within a half hour’s time the big storage basin had been completely drained….”

“A hole 100 x 30 feet was torn out of the northeast corner of the reservoir, buttresses were scattered promiscuously down the hillside and piling and all other means of back filling and protecting strewn all over the hollow. Not only was the outer wall torn out but it pulled a good sized portion of the roof and floor with it. Sections of the brick pillars were found at the extreme end of the hollow. The entire east side of the hill was washed down to the rocks. .... All of the earthwork, piling and other support of the east side of the hill were carried away as if they were so much paper. .... By many, the break Sunday is attributed to the unusually heavy rain last Thursday night and the shock from the dynamiting and blasting on the C&O Northern railroad work which New Boston residents claim is plainly felt in the village.” 

James Harvey Shonkwiler, the intrepid Portsmouth Times illustrator, cartoonist and reporter was soon on the scene. In 1915, newspaper photography in Portsmouth was limited. Thus, Shonkwiler was often relied upon to provide sketches of events in the area. Shonkwiler’s sketch of the collapsed reservoir illustrates the severity of the damage. The drawing shows the triangular buttresses built to support the walls of the reservoir, as well as the rip-rap and pilings constructed to guard against subsidence and collapse.

“Many Had Narrow Escapes”

It was fortunate for the community that the reservoir collapse occurred when it did- on a Sunday afternoon when residents were away from their homes. If it had happened at night, many would have likely drowned in their beds.

Ironically, a three-room house owned by Thomas Basham (but rented out to Joseph Richmond) was destroyed by a 30-foot section of concrete just five hundred yards below the reservoir. It was said to be “crushed like an egg shell.” Fortunately, Richmond, his wife, and four children had left their home about fifteen minutes before the disaster. When Richmond was finally able to return to his home, he found “his earthly possessions had been ruined...His entire cornfield was washed away and all his chickens drowned.” Mrs. Richmond was said to be “the most pathetic figure in the devastated hollow…As she stood gazing sadly in the direction of the mud clogged and wreckage filled ruins of what was once her happy home, Mrs. Richmond burst into tears. Neighbors took turns in trying to console her...For hours she wandered aimlessly about the desolated scenes until the wailings of her hungry children drove her to accept the hospitality of a neighbor.”

Two other homes in the water’s direct path were destroyed as well. One was said to be a “shanty” occupied by three steelworkers who had left the dwelling shortly before the flood. Another house, “A two room cottage, also belonging to Mr. Basham and occupied by Daniel Boone was also destroyed with all of its contents." Several residents living near the path of destruction were spared, but were still able to watch the devastation from the front porches, which including the William Sparks and the Rev. William Madden families. “Sparks’ corn field, however, was completely destroyed.” The flow of water was even reported to have interrupted a football game at Millbrook park “between the Giants and Shamrocks.”

“Boys Almost Drowned”

Three boys, Dewey Parsons (18), and Joe (11) and Walter Cooley (9) "had a narrow escape from drowning. The boys had been romping about the hollow when the rush of water started. Separating they ran in opposite directions, Parsons to the west hill and the brothers in the direction of their home. Exhausted the brothers dropped in their tracks and crawled up the remaining distance on all fours. Parsons was marooned on the other hill for fully an hour before the water receded sufficiently to permit wading to his home.”

Repair and Aftermath

Portsmouth Mayor Adam Frick advocated for “speedy restitution of all damage suffered by persons” and called for a “careful estimate of the damage done to property, crops, lands, buildings, and other equipment.” Thomas Basham, the owner of the three houses that were destroyed, said that his damages were at least $1,000. Other losses were expected to be between $2,000 to $2,500, including a claim from a man named Fields who demanded $75 for his lost corn crop. However, Mayor Frick declared that “The city is in no way obligated to stand a nickel of that expense.” He claimed that the construction was not done according to specifications. The contractor, Milton H. Shumway, denied that the collapse was the fault of his company. Mayor Frick also said that immediate steps would be taken to restore the collapsed wall as soon as Witmer, the design engineer, could return to Portsmouth. Early estimates of the cost to repair the reservoir were under $20,000.

J. F. Witmer arrived in Portsmouth in January 1916 to meet with city officials. He called for “the immediate restoration of the reservoir storage with a temporary cross wall in the gap left by the break some months ago.” The plan was for a permanent repair to follow the temporary repair. The temporary repair was apparently completed and water was pumped to the reservoir. By July, however, residents below the structure reported continuing problems. “The newly repaired reservoir on Basham hill has sprung another leak, wasting on an average of a half inch of water per twenty four hours.” Residents in New Boston petitioned the Village Council “for an injunction restraining the city [of Portsmouth] from using the reservoir until the walls are strengthened. They claim that the walls are liable to break at any moment, precipitating a flood of water upon them.”

In December 1915, there was a complaint about “the flow of water that continues to come down Basham hill for the reservoir.” An aerial view of the Basham Reservoir reveals that it was built in a pronounced diamond shape, rather than a square. The reservoir was 250 feet by 250 feet with 20-foot high side walls. The concrete roof  was supported by brick columns spaced about 20 feet apart. The wall collapse occurred in the northern section of the east wall. The engineers determined that the rest of the reservoir was stable and that it could be repaired. They decided to construct a new section of wall about 200 feet long inside the reservoir. The wall would be tied into the original floor and roof of the and the area outside the new wall was to be backfilled.

As late as December 1916, the contractor Curtis and Shumway was still advertising for workers: This ad appeared in the Times: “WANTED-Carpenters on the Reservoir, Basham Hill.” The Times editorial page quipped in January 1917: “Nothing like keeping on trying. They have got some water into the reservoir.” Permanent repairs were apparently complete by March 1917, when the new mayor of Portsmouth, H. H Kaps, declared that the “Reservoir is in Fine Condition.” Kaps said, “We can now depend on the reservoir to supply the city for 48 hours service.” 

Sunrise Resevoir: The City Builds a Second Reservoir 

The failure of the Basham Reservoir triggered a discussion concerning the need for a second, larger reservoir. Chief Engineer of the Water Works, John Herrmann, expressed his belief that “the city is bound to grow to a population of 50,000 within the next ten years and the present reservoir will not be ample to serve the needs of a city of such size.” A Times article entitled “Second Reservoir is Favored by Committee” reported: “The outstanding feature of Tuesday night’s session of the Water Work Advisory committee was the earnestness with which the member advocated a new or second reservoir.”

Sites that were in consideration for the proposed reservoir included Brewery Hollow (now Mabert Road), Sunrise Avenue, and Two-Mile Hill north of Portsmouth. According the Times, one of the advisory committee members, Mr. Frank Knauss, “facetiously” commented that "the present reservoir was built for New Boston anyway. Maybe they will thank us for it some day.” Ultimately, the Sunrise site would be selected. Construction on the new reservoir began in July 1928, with completion and filling by the following July.The capacity of the Sunrise Reservoir was 22 million gallons, about three times the volume of the Basham reservoir.

With the completion of the Sunrise structure, the city water system was separated into two distribution areas: Sunrise Reservoir, serving Portsmouth, New Boston, West Portsmouth and Rosemount, and the Basham Reservoir serving Sciotoville and Wheelersburg, to the east.

Reevaluation of Basham Resevoir in 1986

Richard Duncan was hired as the City of Portsmouth Director of Public Utilities in June 1986. The City had contracted the engineering firm, Finkbeiner Pettis and Strout (FPS) of Toledo, Ohio, to complete a study of the City’s water system. Part of that study was to evaluate the Basham Reservoir for suspected leakage. In August 1986, Duncan accompanied FPS engineers on an inspection of the Reservoir, which was still in use and had to be drained to allow for entry. The inspection revealed that the reservoir was more deteriorated than expected. Several portions of the concrete roof were on the verge of collapse. There was also extensive penetration of the roof by tree roots. These Holes in the roof of the reservoir were large enough to allow small animals entry.

The reservoir was shut down shortly after that inspection. The consultant evaluated various means of restoring it, including re-pouring a new concrete layer over the old roof, covering the existing roof with a rubber liner, and reducing the size of the reservoir to 6, 4 or 2 million gallons. However, none of the proposed solutions could be guaranteed, and we determined that the reservoir could not be safely restored to service. The cost to construct a new reservoir at the site would be considerable, estimated to be about $1.00 per gallon. In total, it would cost upwards of $7,000,000 to replace it at original size.

With the reservoir out of service, the Sciotoville/Wheelersburg area had to be supplied by pumping water 24 hours per day in order toprovide consistent pressure. But to provide reliable service during power outages or large fires, the need remained to replace the Reservoir. Basham Reservoir was originally intended to supply the entire water system. However, with the construction of the Sunrise Reservoir, a smaller reservoir would be sufficient. It was determined that a storage tank of 1 to 1.5 million gallons would be enough to supply the Eastern part of the distribution system. In 1987, a new infrastructure funding program was made available through the Ohio Public Works Commission (OPWC), originally known as the State Issue 2 program. The City applied for these funds, and after preparation of plans, approval by Ohio EPA, and receipt of the grant funds, the City was ready to replace the old reservoir.

Construction of the new water tank began in 1990. It was completed in two stages. In the first stage, the contractor, Boone Coleman, demolished the deteriorated top and supporting brick columns of the old reservoir. Coleman also demolished part of the east wall to allow access to the floor of the reservoir. The demolition debris were spread out on the existing access roadway and compacted to make a better access road to the site. In the second stage, a 1.6 million-gallon steel water tank was constructed on the site using the floor of the original reservoir as a base in order to save costs. Mid Atlantic Storage System manufactured and assembled the tank on site and attached it to the existing 30-inch water line from Gallia Street. The new tank featured bolted construction with glass coated steel panels that never need to be painted and a domed aluminum roof. The aluminum dome is partially visible from New Boston around the Walmart shopping center, after the leaves fall in autumn.

The Legacy of the Basham Reservoir

The story of Basham reservoir represents a period of rapid growth in the City of Portsmouth when steel mills, coke plants, and other manufacturing concerns had a great thirst for water that taxed the City’s existing infrastructure. If the Basham Reservoir had been constructed a little smaller, avoiding the area northeast area that collapsed in 1915, perhaps the disaster, the loss of property, and expensive repair could have been avoided. But, its failure eventually led to the construction of the much larger Sunrise Reservoir in the following decade.

The Basham Hill water tank, now 28 years old, still provides reliable water service to Sciotoville and eastern Scioto County, continuing the legacy of the original reservoir. Some of the remains of Basham Reservoir, in the form of large boulder-like concrete blocks, can still be seen near the intersection of Milldale Road and Basham Rock. These boulders, washed down Basham Hill by the water released in the reservoir’s collapse, remain as evidence of the cataclysm that occurred over a century ago and nearly took the lives of a dozen Portsmouth citizens.

Disclaimer: The Basham Hill Reservoir is located on Portsmouth City Property, with restricted public access. Scioto Historical asks all its readers to respect the "no trespassing" signs and visit the site virtually via Scioto Historical.


"Basham Hill Bought for Reservoir Site" Portsmouth Daily Times (5-13-1912)

"Blunder on Pumping Station Will Cost the People Dearly, is Located in Wrong Place" Portsmouth Daily Times (10-29-1913) 

"Many Are in Peril When Reservoir Breaks Letting Out 7,000,000 Gallons of Water" Portsmouth Daily Times (10-04-1915) 

"More of the Reservoir Said to be in Danger" Portsmouth Daily Times (10-05-1915)

"Some Interesting High Water Facts" Portsmouth Daily Times (12-21-1915) 

"Witmer is Here to Restor Reservoir" Portsmouth Daily Times (01-24-1916)

"Second Reservoir is Favored By Committee" Portsmouth Daily Times (02-02-1916)

"Pointing Out the Cracks" Portsmouth Daily Times (08-19-1986)