By Terri Jo Ryan
Tribune-Herald staff writer
By the late 1800s, Waco, which had been known as “Six-Shooter Junction” for its street violence, had gained fame as a health resort. It earned the nickname “Geyser City,” thanks to the natural springs in the area, said Wilton Lanning, a local history buff.
During the 1880s and ’90s, Waco’s naturally occurring springs were expanded into artesian wells, and two natatoriums built — one of them in a hotel constructed by famed Dallas architect J. Reily Gordon, who designed the McLennan County Courthouse in 1901.
An artesian well is a deeply drilled structure through which water is forced upward, under natural pressure, from an aquifer (layers of spongy rock or sediment). Aquifer water is virtually contaminant-free, making it a popular source of drinking water.
Because of the town’s wells, the Artesian Manufacturing and Bottling Co., which owned Dr Pepper and Circle A Ginger Ale, established its national headquarters and a bottling facility at Fifth Street and Mary Avenue in 1906.
As part of the building’s design, the water source for the bottling process flowed into the first floor of the building, Lanning said. Beverages like Dr Pepper are between 86 percent and 93 percent water, so a readily available supply is crucial to the success of a bottling plant.
The water was pumped up to the third floor of the plant, purified through distillation and stored. Through gravity and a series of hoses, the water traveled down to the second floor for use in making syrup, then to the first floor, where it was chilled, carbonated and mixed with the syrup in the bottles.
Workers also used well water in the bottle washer to clean the returnable containers.
“The deeper you go, the hotter the water coming from the Earth,” Lanning said. “The trouble is, it’s not an infinite source. As the city grew, the quality, purity and safety of the water supply became a municipal concern.”
Around 1928, the city ordered the company to close the well. City officials also sought to seal all open wells downtown, according to Dr Pepper company history. Plant employees swept trash into the now useless hole before it was sealed.
The well area was covered with a 4-inch-thick concrete pad on top of the floor. But the location was concealed for more than half a century due to the numerous renovations at the bottling plant, and company record-keepers lost track of it.
Years later, the former plant was reborn as the Dr Pepper Museum. While the museum was undergoing renovations in 1992, workers uncovered the old brick artesian well.
After the top of the well was exposed by workmen for the first time in more than 60 years, Lanning said, some 47 barrels of broken glass and other debris were retrieved from the well. The bottles that were found are now on display at the Dr Pepper Museum.