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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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The Big Splash! by George W. Welsh, Former Mayor and City Manager

by George W. Welsh

In the early days of the great depression when I was City Manager and we were looking for project so that our people on relief could work for and earn the relief they were getting, I noticed that the West Side has no swimming pool that was fit to use. So I suggested that we build one and induced the City Commission to appropriate $18,000 for this purpose.

The amount was based on what small pools built years before had cost, and also on the limited funds available. It was a challenge so we decided to see how far we could go on that amount. We picked Richmond Park as the site.

We had plenty of labor that was being paid in groceries, and I decided to build a real pool. We had all the supervisory talent right in the City Hall; the park superintendent, Henry Gork, had an engineer and draftsman, Jake Van Buren. He was put to work drawing the plans, based on the pools we had. As they brought them in to me, I kept saying that it should be larger. When they, rather jokingly, brought in a plan for one 150 feet long and 150 feet wide, they thought they had me stopped by giving me some of the statistics that went with a pool that big.

Did I know how much water it would take to fill a pool that large?

“No, I didn’t, so what?”

Well, the engineer said it would take 830,000 gallons of water.

Again I said, “So what?” Well, they reminded me that the Parks Department had to pay the Water Department for all that water, and they didn’t have that kind of money in their budget. I thought for a minute and remembered that the Fire Department also paid the Water Department a rental annually of $30 for each fire hydrant as a standby charge. So I said, “Don’t worry about that—go ahead.”

None of the City Commissioners except Tony Panfil and Pop Schriber, the West Side Commissioners, had paid the slightest interest in what was going on, but my friendly critics in the Parks Department were not through with me, and my crazy ideas. I got another visit from them. Had I figured out about cleaning out the pool? Pools are supposed to be cleaned every week and the experts had figured out that it took two days to fill the pool and two and one half days to empty it. When were the kids going to swim? Well, that did sound like a good question.

I had heard of pools that had filters so they didn’t have to be cleaned so often and asked about them. The experts admitted that they knew that there were some, and I asked the cost. In a few days I got the answer—$800.

“Oh, that’s easy, I can find that much; write for particulars.”

It was not long before they were back with smiles on their faces.

“Good news?” I asked.

“Not very,” was the reply.

Those $800 jobs were for small private pools. Then they added: “We have been informed that a job as big as this will require a small filtration plant.”

Now I was stumped. The $18,000 that the Commission had appropriated had been just about enough to buy the cement and I was fearful of asking for an appropriation for a filter plant. That would have let them find out how big we had been planning. This would bring on questions of where the money for a bath house and all the other accessories were coming from. So, I just waited and worried.

One day I got a visit from a representative of the State Sanitary Commission. “I understand that you are building a swimming pool,” he said.

“That’s right,” I replied.

“A big one, I understand,” said the State man.

“Yeh, kinda,” I answered.

“Well, you ought to know that the State will not approve the use of one that big unless it has proper filtration.”

“Is that so?” I asked innocently.

“Yes, positively,” the man said.

I thought a minute and then said, “Why don’t you write me a letter to that effect?”

“O.K.,” said my visitor and left.

Not long after I got the letter. Meanwhile, my genial friends of the Parks Department had done some research and had come in with their final punch. They figured this one would take care of this self-appointed expert on swimming pools. They proceeded to inform me, with just a touch of glee in their voices, that a filtration plant big enough for our monster new pool would take a one-story building 40 feet long and 40 feet wide, to say nothing about the cost of the filtration apparatus. They left with an air of “put that in your pipe and smoke it.” Which I did.

How to break the news to the City Commission which had paid no attention to what we had been doing? I called a counsel of war with the West Side commissioners, and told them the bad news. I suggested that I submit the letter from the State and that when the clerk read it off at the Commission meeting one of them just make a simple motion that the City Manager be instructed to comply with the State’s order. The motion carried with no discussion. We were on our way.

We were rushing for an opening in July, when in came my chums from the Parks and Recreations Department. “How can you run a pool without a bath house? There will be no place for them to dress or undress.”

For once I had a ready answer. “I am not worried about where they dress or undress. The kids and the West Side mothers and fathers have been watching and waiting for that pool, and we will just let them figure out this problem. I don’t think it will bother them.”

When it came time to fill the outsized monster with water, I remembered the 830,000 gallons needed and remembered that the Fire Department had paid for a lot of water from unused fire hydrants that were just aching to be tapped. I arranged with the Fire Marshal to put on a fire drill at Richmond Park. The crews from the West Side engine house responded with a couple of pumpers. From nearby fire hydrants they filled the pool.

I had to hand it to my chums of the Parks Department; they had been absolutely right. It took the better part of two days to get it filled but the Parks Department got no bill for water.

The big day came. The Recreation Department had been planning events and the best swimmers, divers, and what have you from all the other city pools were on hand for the contests. A high school band was perched on top of the filtration plant, and the streets around Richmond Park were filled with a parade of boys and girls in swimming togs heading for the big event.

When all the ceremonies ended, the critics and I got the thrill of our lives when we saw that overgrown, oversized monster filled to the brim with happy kids. Some 400 jumped in at once: there wasn’t room to swim and they had to arrange to let the girls have the first try and then the boys.

Of course, the Mayor and the Commissioners were all there and it was a little late for any criticism if they had any in mind. The only comment I remember came from Commissioner George Veldman of the Third Ward. He sidled up to me and asked, “Why can’t the Third Ward have a pool like this?” I was in no mood to tackle another one just at that time.

Soon, the demolition of the old interurban buildings that were making way for the Civic Auditorium was completed and a work crew from the relief rolls was cleaning more bricks to go into the largest bath house the city had ever seen. It was 200 feet long with all the paraphernalia that was available at that time—chemical foot baths which had to be traversed as the swimmers enter the building; shower baths, and even living quarters were provided upstairs for caretakers.

Only one detail was not carried out. On the front façade, niches had been left for statuary ornaments that I had been promised from a local artist. I think the niches are still empty. I think I will try some day to get that part of the job completed.

Excerpted from an article written for the Pensular Club of Grand Rapids magazine, no date given, discovered in the George W. Welsh papers at the Archives of Michigan, Lansing, MI

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