Nineteenth century Sedalia was justly proud of its civic amenities and city residents were willing to float bonds in order to pay for things such as streets and sewers, a gas works, and a water system. In 1871, the Holly System, contractors of water systems, approached the City Council and proposed a water works costing $100,000. Voters approved the issuance of bonds to cover the cost, and work began. In September 1872, the waterworks, located on Flat Creek south of Sedalia, were in operation.
Over the years, the water works expanded with the addition of a reserve reservoir at 17th Street and Ohio Avenue, a dam on Flat Creek, and water mains throughout the city. In 1898, the city began a major improvement of the water works. They renovated the dam on Flat Creek, and embarked on a “complete overhaul” of the pumping stations. The water was filtered by Hyatt filters at the pumping stations. This work, along with a renovation of the dam on Flat Creek, cost $25,000.
According to A Feast of Cold Facts by I. Mac DeMuth, in 1898, the city had 35 miles of water mains with pipes ranging from six inches to 18 inches in diameter. Two steel stand pipes, or water towers, stood in the city; each stand pipe was 15 feet in diameter and almost 128 feet tall.
Much of the work of providing water to Sedalia was overseen by chief engineer Robert Walker.
Walker was born in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, in 1859. His father, Robert Walker, Sr., was Scottish and his mother, Elizabeth Creamer Walker, was born in New York. The parents moved from New York to Pennsylvania and then in 1857, to Pettis County, Missouri.
Robert Walker, Jr., attended grammar school in Pennsylvania. Following the family’s move to Pettis County, he stayed with his parents, working on the family farm. When he was 21, he took a job as fireman at the Sedalia Waterworks. His job was to stoke the fires that powered the steam engines needed by the pumps at the waterworks. After four years, he was promoted to engineer. In this job, for 12 hours a day he was in charge of the operation and maintenance of the machinery.
In 1884, Walker married Fannie Burton, who had been born in Higby, Missouri, but who was living in Sedalia. The couple had three children, Myrtle, Robert James, and Elsie May. In 1894, the couple moved into a “neat and cozy cottage” on an eighteen acre plot on the south side of Flat Creek.
Walker’s brothers also became engineers. His younger brother John worked at the waterworks for the 12-hour shifts not covered by Robert. His brother Henry was an engineer working for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, and his brother David was a machinist at the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad.
Unlike many men of his generation, Walker was not involved in politics. Instead, he focused his attention on his business and family matters. Despite his unwillingness to participate in civic affairs he was “interested in all enterprises calculated to advance the welfare of his fellow citizens or promote the prosperity of the city where he has his home.”
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.