I was fortunate enough to attend an eight-state conference on the Ogallala Aquifer up in Garden City, Kansas, a couple of weeks ago. Whenever I head to Kansas, I check on how close one of my hydrologic bucket-list items—The Big Well in Greensburg—will be. With Greensburg an hour forty from Garden City; I had just enough time to visit the well before catching a flight back to Austin.
The Big Well has been on my bucket list since the 1990s when I worked on hand-dug wells near the ill-fated Superconducting Super Collider Site south of Dallas. I surveyed these shallow, wide-mouthed wells around the accelerator ring and even published a few papers about testing them and their history.
Wells, in and of themselves, are not exciting. As my bride says when we visit a historic well: “Really? We came all this way to see a piece of pipe sticking out of the ground?” However, hand dug wells are more romantic with their Jack-and-Jill brickwork and wishing-well good looks. But a well you can descend into with room to ballroom dance? Who wants my money?
The Big Well is, indeed, pretty dang big: dug in 1887-8, it’s 32 feet in diameter and 109 feet deep. At depth, the diggers drive perforated pipes into the saturated section of the well to increase yield. When first dug, the well held 11 to12 feet of water. It needed to be that big since pumps at that time were suction pumps: they pull water up to a pump (generally steam operated at that time) before pushing the water to its final destination. A suction pump can only pull water from about 25 feet down before the water gets too heavy to lift and “boils,” breaking suction (these wells are still used today, generally on construction sites [and I used one back in the day to test shallow, hand-dug wells]).
Since the depth to the water table in Greensburg was about a hundred feet down, the well needed to reach that depth and have a hefty diameter—a pit—to hold the substantially-sized pumping equipment. The well sports a concrete platform near its bottom that I reckon was used to hold this pumping equipment.
I didn’t know this until our visit (I went with a friend from Texas), but the Big Well taps into the Ogallala, fitting into the focus of the conference. Even more, the depth of water in the bottom has declined to about 8 feet today, a further focus of the meeting.
A tornado some ten years ago nearly blew Greensburg off the map, destroying most of the town, including the previous visitors’ building and the iron water tower at the well. Much of Greensburg has been built back in a way that fits its name: using green technology. The new building at the Big Well is a fantastic replacement.
Although sometimes billed as the largest hand-dug well in the world, there are at least two bigger ones from antiquity: Joseph’s Well in Cairo and St. Patricks Well in Italy.