Water war erupts in Monroe on October 9, 1903.

  • By Nellie E. Robertson
  • Posted 10/09/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8317

On October 9, 1903, the war between two Monroe water companies erupts when J. E. Dolloff, one of the town’s two water suppliers, starts laying pipe to supply water to a new home on Blakely Street.  Dolloff connects through the Main Street water line.  S. A. Buck, another supplier, attaches a hose to a fire plug, turns it on, and  blasts Dolloff and a worker out of the ditch where they are working.  Dolloff has Buck arrested. Monroe's water war continues from there. It will not truly end until 1923.

Water for Monroe 

To kick off Monroe's two-decades-long water war, in early June 1901, J. E. Dolloff and A. W. Borden formed the Spring Water Company to give Monroe a gravity water system for home use and fire protection. Water came from the springs that fed the creek on Borden’s ranch. A dam built across the gulch on the hill fashioned a reservoir big enough to hold sufficient water for all purposes.  The height of the dam and the elevation above the town created a hundred-foot free fall. The company supplied water to everyone who wanted it.

In mid-July, the pipes were ready for consumers, who paid a dollar a month. Henry Dennis, the barber, tapped the water main of the new water system first. In consequence, he reduced the price of a bath to 25 cents, a drop of a dime. When a fire company formed, the water company offered to furnish water to its full capacity whether the fire occurred in a place where the building owner was a customer or not. All the public had to do was put in the plugs and get the fire-fighting apparatus.

More Water for Monroe

In 1903, the new Monroe City Council received three offers to supply pure, fresh water in abundance for all purposes including fire protection. The proposals came from J. E. Dolloff, S. A. Buck, and Mr. Orchard of the Tacoma Pipe and Foundry Company. The committee appointed to investigate the proposals granted the franchise to Buck, who guaranteed ample water for fire protection in 30 days, and good water for all purposes in 90 days.  Water from Buck Island wells and filtered water from the Skykomish River would flow through his pumping plant at the Monroe Mill Company. The council reserved the right to take over the system at any time at actual cost plus 10 percent, or buy the pipes without the pump after two years, on the same terms.

Councilman H. E. Pearsall cast the only dissenting vote. He objected because Dolloff had invested a considerable amount of money in furnishing the town with water and was entitled to the franchise. Pearsall, appointed by the mayor to investigate Dolloff’s source of water, found a sufficient amount from the spring on the hill back of Fern Bluff to supply a town three or four times the size of Monroe. Because the council believed the town would grow much larger than that, they gave the franchise to Buck.  

A Question of Quality

The quality of Buck’s water disturbed Pearsall. Buck pumped out of wells and sometimes out of the river. The townspeople still cried for water, not for quantity but for quality. The suggestion that Monroe had poor-quality water could be seen written on a restroom wall in Index: “Pull the chain, Monroe needs the water.”

With the new water supply imminent, the city ordered a thousand feet of hose, nine hydrants, and a hose cart. In early September 1903, water from the new well coursed through the system.  

Washing Out the Opposition

War between the two water companies erupted on a Friday, October 9, 1903, when Dolloff started laying pipe on Blakely Street to Henry Arp’s new house. He made the connection with the Main Street water main near Dr. Stephens’s new hospital. Dolloff and James Frazier were working in the ditch. Buck attached a hose to a fire plug on the opposite corner and threw the water in the workers’ direction, blasting the men out of the trench.  

The town marshal arrested Buck at noon on a warrant sworn out by Dolloff. In the meantime, Buck doused the workers two more times. At 1:30 p.m., the council met to determine Dolloff’s rights under his previous franchise, appointing a committee to investigate. Buck’s defense at his 2 p.m. trial hinged on the authority given him by the town to flush his main. He appealed his $10 fine and costs.

After the trial, Dolloff put Tom Dunstan and James Frazier back to work. Again Buck drove them out, nearly starting a fight. Both workers swore out warrants and Buck went to court once more. He applied for a change of venue. The Snohomish court heard the case, with many Monroe onlookers. Buck again appealed his fine.

A week later, Dolloff petitioned the council for permission to extend and repair his Spring Water Company system within town limits. The council resolution forbade Dolloff to extend his system or to dig up the streets. Council members instructed the marshal to arrest anyone found doing so. Again, Pearsall cast the only dissenting vote.

Fusilades Fired Off 

Front-page letters appeared in the Monroe Monitor, the first from Councilman W. J. Williams saying that the council had gone into the proposition thoroughly. This only added fuel to the water war. Dolloff’s reply appeared the following week saying Williams was mistaken and that 65 voters had signed a petition in favor of his water company.

The next week, Williams countered that the water war was a campaign issue in the upcoming December council election, a statement Dolloff refuted. On December 3, both Williams and Mayor Heintz replied to Dolloff’s charges with front-page letters. Williams suggested that it would be appreciated if kickers would make their remarks to the council instead of on street corners. An uneasy peace followed for the remainder of the month while citizens concentrated on the election. 

In 1904, Dolloff’s Spring Water Company sued the town for its denial of the company’s right to excavate town streets and make water connections. The Snohomish County commissioners had granted the franchise and the company had invested $3,500 in development costs. Superior Court Judge Black ruled against the plaintiff, saying that the county commissioners who had granted the company’s franchise had no right to grant franchises over the highways of the county for purposes outside of those of general traffic. Notice of appeal went to the Washington State Supreme Court in 1906.

Buck’s water came from a well. However, this proved unsuccessful since the well did not extend below decayed vegetation. In September 1905, he extended the intake pipe about 300 feet into a Skykomish River gravel bar.   

The water war seemed to be over in 1907 when the Monroe Water and Light Company sold its water system to J. E. Dolloff, who stated that a gravity system would be installed. He intended to get the water from Richardson Creek above the Wagner and Wilson Mill north of Monroe.

However, in February 1907, the City Council expressed the belief that the water and light systems should be owned by the town. They called for an election in May to vote on the town’s acquisition of the water system and on the sale of bonds to finance the cost.

But then Buck made a counter proposal. In order to consider his proposal, the council repealed its election ordinance.

Battle Lines Redrawn

Again, the water war seemed to be over in August 1912 when Buck bought the Spring Water Company and ended Dolloff’s suit against the town. He operated the two systems separately. An election was set for February 11, 1913, for a municipal water system, long a dream of the founding fathers. Unfortunately, the council failed to pass an ordinance authorizing the election, so it was called off.

In 1914, Buck sold his water systems to outside interests who named the new enterprise the Monroe Water Company. All of the company’s officers were from Seattle. Each time the new company raised its rates, battle lines were drawn and the water war continued.

Finally, in early 1923, the water war victory went to the town. It had its own municipal gravity water system. The storage basin held a million gallons of the purest spring water and a number of old-time Monroe residents today recall the wonderful taste of that water.  

Monroe now gets its water from the Everett system. The water flows to Monroe from Spada Lake north of Sultan.

Sources: “Water War,” Monroe Monitor,  October 15, 1903;  various issues, Monroe Monitor and the Monroe Monitor-Transcript, 1900-1930; Nellie E. Robertson, Monroe: The First Fifty Years, 1860-1910 (Monroe: B. and N. Robertson, 1996); Nellie E. Robertson, Monroe: The Next Thirty Years, 1911-1940 (Monroe: B. and N. Robertson, 2002).

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