Just a Pipe Dream: The use of Wooden Water Pipes at MSU

Just a Pipe Dream: The use of Wooden Water Pipes at MSU

One of the most important infrastructural aspects of buildings today is how to get water to and from the building. Plumbing, of sorts, has been archaeologically visible and investigated at sites throughout the world. The earliest evidence of plumbing dates back to the civilizations of ancient Egypt and the Indus Valley in India, each at around 4000 BC. Since then, plumbing innovations and techniques have been refined into the elaborate systems we see today, such as using AI and Machine-Learning technologies in water management. However, it might be surprising to learn that just over 100 years ago, many water pipes on MSU’s campus were constructed of wood.

Different views of a 3D model of the Wyckoff wooden water pipe found during Faculty Row excavations.
Different views of a 3D model of the Wyckoff wooden water pipe found during Faculty Row excavations. (3D model will be view-able 3-18-2019)

Former MSU Campus Archaeologist Dr. Terry Brock excavated one of these wooden water pipes in 2008 along Faculty Row and wrote an initial blog post about it, linked here [1]. Dr. Brock analyzed the water pipe and concluded that it was a specific type of water pipe called a Wyckoff pipe, from the Wyckoff Pipe and Creosoting Company. Moreover, this pipe was likely manufactured at the Michigan Pipe Co. in Bay City, Michigan, one of the largest producers of wooden pipes in the entire country. Wooden water pipes using the Wyckoff augur started being produced in Bay County, Michigan in 1871 with the Northwestern Gas and Water Pipe Company. Ten years later, this company was succeeded by the Michigan Pipe Company [2]. Since buildings on Faculty Row were constructed throughout the last half of the 19th century, it is likely that the college bought their wooden water pipes from the Michigan Pipe Company.

Sketch of the North Western Gas & Water Pipe Company (that eventually became the Michigan Pipe Company) in Bay City, MI, ca. 1870s. Image from “History of Bay County”.

Other CAP excavations have revealed water pipe fragments, most commonly made of salt-glazed ceramic material. So why would the college have been using wooden water pipes? The answer likely lies in what was happening at the college at the time as well as Michigan’s climate.

As the (then called) State Agricultural College greatly expanded in the last quarter of the 19th century, partly as a result of the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, cheaper materials were favored in some areas of construction to aid in this rapid expansion. Wooden water pipes were generally thought to be out of use or favor by this time, having their hey-day in the early to mid-19th century. However, the Michigan Pipe Co. was actually flourishing. They claimed that their improved Wyckoff wooden water pipe was cheaper in terms of material and upkeep, resistant to frost due to the thick nature of the pipes (the logs), maintained cleaner water due to their tarred insulation, and being constructed of wood made the pipes more elastic and less resistant to burst or breaking [2,3]. It appears that this sales pitch was convincing enough for the college at the time as these pipes were installed along Faculty Row. The overall cheaper nature of the wooden pipes compared to iron pipes were no doubt a positive for the rapidly expanding college. Additionally, Michigan’s harsh winters meant that water pipes needed be able to flow in some of the coldest conditions. The claim that the wood water pipes decreased the likelihood of frost within the pipes would have also been a major draw.

Wyckoff Wooden Water Pipe advertisement an 1896 edition of ‘The Michigan Engineers’ Manual’. Original image linked here.

Despite the upsides to these cheaper and seemingly more efficient wooden pipes, the college decided to put them out of commission just a few years into the 20th century. Former CAP Fellow Nicole Raslich posted a blog on water sanitation at the university (linked here [4]), and reported that members during a board meeting in 1902 discussed that the wooden pipes did not provide safe water during the warmer months when water was most in demand. The minutes from this meeting show that they wanted to “replace the present system of wooden water main which have been in use about twenty years, with new iron pipes” [5]. They argued that in warmer months, the wood led to a constant danger of bacteria in the water unless it was boiled after coming out of the tap. So despite the fact that these wooden pipes may have been better for frost prevention, it made the water unsafe over time as the wood aged!

The iron pipes would have been much more expensive to buy and install (and would later lead to problems of their own – many of which the university and the city of Flint are still dealing with), but would have been a better investment overall. This just goes to show that even though water pipe technology is about 6000 years old, this doesn’t mean we’ve perfected it. Technological advances are all trial-and-error, and we will no doubt continue to uncover evidence of this early practice in MSU’s archaeological record.

[1] – Brock, T. Wood Pipes. 2008. Blog post (URL: https://msu.edu/~brockter/files/dc576f2f0bdf61c8f2e164ba5f17e576-76.html)

[2] – The Michigan Pipe Company, InHistory of Bay County, Michigan with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent men and pioneers. 1883. Chicago: H.R. Page.

[3] – Wooden Water Pipe. The Manufacturer and Builder, Vol. 18, Issue 1, pp. 4-5, 1886.

[4] – Raslich, N. Water Sanitation at MSU. 2016. Blog post (URL: https://campusarch.msu.edu/?p=3974)

[5] – Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes – 1902, p. 66. (Link to meeting minutes: http://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/3-F-22B/meeting-minutes-1902/)

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