I was probably ten before I realized that the primary function of a water tower was to hold water. As the first thing a traveler spotted on the highway horizon, it took on a special significance, like a rustic Statue of Liberty alerting all comers that just ahead was civilization—or at least a Dairy Queen. The town name blazoned on the tank reflected, even in the dreariest little burgs, a certain pride of self; the iron legs braced against the earth seemed to symbolize the victory of man over West Texas. And the tower meant water, too—a commodity no native Texan can hold too dear—so its lofty perch was somehow only fitting.
The practical reason water towers are towers, though—particularly in dead-flat terrain like that of the Panhandle—is that they can use the pull of gravity to keep the mains full and the pressure high. Since every town has periods of peak demand for water, such as early in the morning when everyone wants to shower at once, the extra thousands of gallons in a water tower ensure that no one is left low and dry. Usually the tower is placed either in the middle of the peak-demand area (the center of town in most small towns) or opposite the municipal pumping station, with the heavy-use area in between. When demand slacks off, the station quickly pumps the tower full again in preparation for the next crunch.
The industry name for a water tower is “elevated tank.” The granddaddy of elevated-tank makers, and the company that has built by far the majority of Texas’ thousands of water towers, is Chicago Bridge & Iron. CBI began building water towers here in 1902, first using riveted steel and later welding the tanks. CBI’s Houston plant—temporarily shut down because of the recession—rolls steel for new towers in the state and directs a traveling team of workers who specialize in the risky business of