© 2023 Cincinnati Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

OKI Wanna Know: What is that castle along the Ohio River?

 A stone building, with a pointy roof, sits along the Ohio River.
Bill Rinehart
The "castle" on the Ohio River, as seen from California, on a damp Monday morning.

Our feature OKI Wanna Know is your chance to ask a question about the area. If there's something that's jumped out at you, and you don't know where to look, we'll try to find the answer. This week, WVXU's Bill Rinehart investigates a castle on the water.

You might be thinking this is about the Loveland Castle, on the banks of the Little Miami River. But it's not. Hope Johnston Holm of Clifton says the castle she's thinking about is on the Ohio River, near the Combs Hehl Bridge on I-275.

"That little castle with its red roof has always stuck out to me," she says. "Maybe it's like an eccentric lighthouse person moved to Cincinnati and wanted to — I'm not really sure where I'm going with that!"

The castle is on the Kentucky side of the river. It's next to the Northern Kentucky Water District's pump station, but they say it's not theirs. It belongs to Greater Cincinnati Water Works.

The superintendent of water quality and treatment says the structure doesn't have an official name, but it does have an important job. Jeff Swertfeger says it's an intake point, one of the ways Water Works gets water for customers.

RELATED: What looks like an apartment building on Kennedy Avenue is actually a pump station

"The water gets into the intake, it goes down about 70 feet below the bottom of the river; there's a tunnel that was built back in 1900 that's seven foot in diameter that goes about a quarter mile; then into the pump station at our treatment plant over on the Ohio side," he says.

Swertfeger says the intake needed to be on the Kentucky side because that's where the river is deepest.

"This was before the dams on the river, and it was said many times in the summer you could walk across the Ohio River and not even get your knees wet. So the Ohio River in the dry periods would really just be what we would call more like a stream today," he says. "So if we were to just put our water intake in where the treatment plant is on the Ohio side, we would be dry a lot of the year."

Swertfeger says it's easy to visualize if you think of it like a drain in the river, a drain that could technically take 120 million gallons a day through the tunnel. Having that drain in the deep water isn't really as necessary today.

"And it became less important as we go into the 1920s, when we started to get some of the lowhead dams on the river, and with the dams we have now that were built in the 1950s and '60s, to keep the water level as high as it is."

Swertfeger says even as homes and businesses were getting indoor plumbing, before the intake tower and the treatment plant on Kellogg were built, Cincinnati didn't really treat drinking water. It came out of the river at the original pump station, in what is now Sawyer Point, and went directly to customers.

RELATED: How contaminants are detected along the 981-mile Ohio River

"But then you also had cities like Pittsburgh which didn't do anything for their sewage treatment," he says. "So their sewage washed into the river and a couple of weeks we were drinking it. And even worse, as we were expanding into the eastern suburbs, their sewage then went untreated into the Little Miami River and then went directly to Downtown where our intake was. So we were drinking our own sewage as well."

Swertfeger says waterborne disease was rampant back before treatment started, with hundreds of deaths from typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. He says in the late 1800s, health professionals started making the connection between dirty water and disease. Cincinnati, he says, then made two important decisions.

"One, we decided to go ahead and treat our water, and also with that we moved our water intake to upstream of the populated water so we would no longer be getting our sewage into our drinking water."

RELATED: What lies beneath downtown Cincinnati?

Still, why is the intake tower so ornate? Looking at it, you almost expect Rapunzel to let down her hair from one of the windows. Swertfeger says 130 years ago, Cincinnati was one of the biggest cities in the nation, and flush with cash.

"That's just the way they did things at that point. The public work projects, they were works of art. People were proud of their community," he says. "Think of something like that, you think of Elsinore Tower, you think about City Hall Downtown. That's just the way they did things back then. They took a lot of pride in the architecture."

If you have a thirst for knowledge and don't know where to find the faucet of facts, ask 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 ever since.