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Water System History

Special Exhibit: History of Nashville's Drinking Water

Open May 2015 at Metro Archives, Nashville Public Library, Main Branch, 615 Church St.

This exhibit describes the history of drinking water in Nashville, from the early 1800's to the present. Artifacts are on display, including original documents, photographs, wooden water pipes from the early distribution system, and laboratory equipment.

The History of Nashville's Drinking Water

In 1819, the Corporation of the town of Nashville purchased the rights to a Double Forcing Pump (diagram from patent shown below), marking the beginning of the first water system in Nashville.

Double forcing pump drawingAround 1878, in response to several cholera outbreaks, the Health Department, Medical Profession, and Waterworks urged the city to install an island filtering gallery to reduce the amount of waterborne bacteria in the drinking water.

The City Reservoir, completed in 1889, was constructed as a settling basin, allowing mud to settle out of the river water before the water was distributed. The reservoir, now known as the 8th Avenue Reservoir, is still in use today and holds 50 million gallons of treated water.

In 1912, part of the wall of the 8th Avenue Reservoir slipped and broke open, destroying homes and other property. The Metro Archives at the Nashville Public Library houses the Historic record of personal losses from 8th Avenue Reservoir breakrecord of personal losses and proof of payment made by the Waterworks (seen in photo at the right).

Curious? More to come soon!

The early days

Nashville’s water system has a long and interesting history. The first settlers of Nashville chose the Fort Nashboro site because of the availability of pure water from a spring at that location. By 1826, water was being pumped from the Fort Nashboro spring to a public square reservoir through a water main crafted from hollowed locust and cedar logs.

Fire and a New System

After a fire destroyed the first water facilities in 1829, a new system was built in the Rolling Mill Hill area east of downtown. This new system, completed in 1833, satisfied the area’s needs until the population increased at the time of the Civil War. With the support of the community and the Nashville Academy of Medicine, the

picture: historical picture, steam water pump

George Reyer Pumping Station (located on Omohundro Drive) and the Eighth Avenue Reservoir were built in 1889. Both the pumping station, powered by steam until 1953, and the Eighth Avenue Reservoir are still in operation today and picture: historical picture, aerial view of metro water services plantare included in the National Registry of Historical Places. A water filtration plant was completed at Omohundro Drive in 1929. The K.R. Harrington Water Treatment Plant, located on Heartland Drive in Donelson, joined the Omohundro Treatment Plant in supplying safe, clean water to the Nashville area in 1978.

View additional history of Nashville Water's beginnings

Sewer System History

The history of the Nashville Sewerage System

1823 - Brick and Clay Sewers

picture: historical picture, construction of a sewer system

Central Wastewater Treatment Plant Beginning in 1823, brick and clay sewers were constructed and conveyed both stormwater and sanitary sewage for discharge into the Cumberland River. Some of these sewers were constructed directly in Nashville’s streams. In more rural areas, outhouses gradually gave way to septic tanks as the primary method of disposal for sanitary waste.

1950 - Population Growth

By 1950, as Davidson County’s total population grew to more than 300,000, the discharge of untreated waste and failure of septic systems represented a significant threat to the environment and a challenge for a growing community. The sewer system had evolved to nearly 400 miles of sanitary sewer lines that emptied into a network of combined sewers, which discharged directly into streams and the river. The need was recognized for a system that would capture and treat the sewage.


The Central Wastewater Treatment Plant was built just north of downtown and began operation in 1958. As Nashville and Davidson County continued to grow, so did its wastewater system. The Dry Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant was built in the Rivergate area and began operation in 1961. The Whites Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in West Nashville was placed in service in 1975.


The 1980s marked the beginning of an aggressive sewer expansion program to help eliminate more septic systems in Davidson County. Even with three treatment plants, this aggressive expansion resulted in a need for additional improvements to control overflows that resulted from the amount of excess water entering the sewer system during rain events.


The Overflow Abatement Program, launched in 1990, was an aggressive program designed to upgrade pumping stations and treatment plant capacities, repair leaking sewers and address combined sewer overflow impacts. Nashville has spent more than $700 million on overflow abatement projects and has made tremendous progress toward improving water quality in the Cumberland River watershed.