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OKI Wanna Know: Can you really drink the water at Fountain Square? And more Downtown inquiries

Bill Rinehart
The Tyler Davidson Fountain glows red soon after being turned on for the season.

Our OKI Wanna Know feature gives you the chance to get an answer to one of those questions that isn't earth-shattering, but still gnaws at you. This week, we go Downtown to drink from the fountain of knowledge, and get a temperature reading, with WVXU's Bill Rinehart.

Will the Western & Southern clock ever work again?

Tim Ruffner of Fort Thomas wants to know if the Western & Southern time and temperature clock at Broadway and Third is ever going to get fixed.

Western & Southern declined an interview but did send answers to the questions. The clock was installed on top of the Broadway Garage in 1961, and quickly became a landmark for the city, displaying the time and the temperature as it rotated. It was designed, manufactured and installed by the Cincinnati plant of the Federal Sign and Signal Corporation.

In 1986, it was rebuilt, but time has caught up to the fixture.

Western & Southern says it's been difficult, if not impossible, to find parts to keep it rotating and shining. And, considering the age and condition of the Broadway Garage, "it would not be financially prudent to rebuild," until the future of the garage is known.

The company did point out that the site itself is historic. That's where the gunpowder was stored for Fort Washington, which was the Army's headquarters for the Northwest Territory from 1789 to 1803. There's a plaque on the side of the garage. The fort itself is also remembered in the name of nearby Fort Washington Way.

And if you're really into statistics, the sign stands about 40-feet tall, the letters that spell out Western & Southern are five-feet tall. The part of the sign that displayed the time and temperature is 20 feet by eight feet. When it worked, the sign rotated about every 12 seconds. It had an electronic eye, so depending on the time of day or sky conditions, the brightness would change.

Can you really drink the water from the Fountain Square fountain?

Mike of Colerain Township has a question about Fountain Square. Are the four smaller side fountains actually still fresh tap water drinking fountains?

Bill Rinehart
The water from the four statues on the outside of the pool is fit for drinking. The water in the pool, not so much.

It's one of Cincinnati's original icons, and while many may refer to it as the Fountain Square fountain, the real name is the Tyler Davidson Fountain. The woman at the top is the Genius of Water statue. Along the outside rim of the pool are four smaller statues, boys or young men; one with ducks, one with a snake, another riding a turtle, and the fourth with a fish, or depending on who you ask, a dolphin. Water pours from the mouths of the animals into small basins.

3CDC manages the square and the fountain, and confirms, yes, the water from those four fountains is still fresh, clean drinking water. The entire landmark was a gift from Henry Probasco.

He was a successful hardware merchant in the mid-19th century. According to local historian Jim Tarbell, Probasco was making it big as the city was growing in leaps and bounds. "He was so grateful for all the success, he wanted to give back to the city. So he did not just one, but two fountains. The one in Clifton, which is known as the Probasco Fountain, which is where he lived at at the time."

Tarbell says that Clifton fountain was also built for people and animals to drink from.

But the big fountain, the Tyler Davidson, named for Probasco's late brother-in-law and business partner, served a couple of purposes. Tarbell says Probasco wanted more than just a piece of art.

"At that time, people are traveling for water every day. So having a centerpiece — I mean literally and figuratively, in the heart of Downtown where most of the people are living," Tarbell says, "Being able to service them, not just visually and artistically, but practically, by having water right there at their doorstep, it made so much sense."

The city accepted the fountain as a gift, and there were conditions, including "the city will maintain said fountain in complete order, and forever supply the drinking conduits thereof with pure drinking water for the free use of all who may resort thither at any hour of the day or night." That rule is included in a book Probasco had published after the fountain's dedication, in 1871. Jim Tarbell has some copies of a reprinting, from 1988, republished to celebrate Cincinnati's bicentennial.

The last page of the book is a chart showing how popular the drinking fountains were when it was almost a year old. From 6 a.m. August 10, 1872, a Saturday, to 6 a.m. Sunday morning, 7,202 people were counted drinking from the fountain. People filled another 117 buckets and pitchers of water during that time, too.

This story has been edited to correct an error about electronic eyes.

If you have a question and your search only leads to dead ends, try asking OKI Wanna Know by filling out the form below.

Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio in markets including Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska; Sioux City, Iowa; Dayton, Ohio; and most recently as senior correspondent and anchor for Cincinnati’s WLW-AM.