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Texas | Architecture | Water Towers

Forty Years
in the Water Tower Business

Does the Ladder of Success Have to be this High?

Clyde Burns of Huntsville, Texas

by Edward Aquifer
Photos courtesy Clyde Burns

Water tower and crane, Bridgeport, Texas
Water tower and crane

"This is one of the first tanks we erected with a crane, close to Bridgeport, Texas in 1973."

Bridgeport, Texas
You may not have met Clyde Burns in person - but if you've lived in Texas longer than two weeks - you've almost certainly driven by one or more of his projects. You may also have driven by (or under) some of his work in Kansas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Indiana or a dozen other states. Born a stone's throw from the Red River, in Collinsville, Grayson County, Clyde's Texas roots go back to before the Civil War. His great-grandfather was one of Gainesville's first three merchants.

In 1957 having just graduated from high school, Clyde took a job working in the oil fields. It promised good pay, adventure and a high risk of traumatic amputation - what young man could resist? His duties included climbing the rigs and derricks and it was here that he discovered he had no fear of heights - a definite asset in his next job - the one that turned out to be his lifelong career.
Water tower construction using basket pole crane
Construction using a "Basket Pole" crane.
Water tower construction using a guyless derrick crane
Construction using a Guyless Derrick crane.
basket pole crane and water tower
Another basket pole crane job. The crane is suspended by cables from the uprights as they rise.

Jumping Ship

On one particular job, down near Port Lavaca, a water tower crew was erecting a tank not far from the rig where Clyde was working. The drilling crew watched with interest as the water tower took shape - but what really got their attention was Saturday morning when they showed up for work as usual and the water tower men were gone - not to reappear until Monday morning. This was 1958 during the "Eisenhower Recession" and if someone was considering a job change - they had better be sure they were making the right move. A lunch hour conversation with the water tower workers revealed that there wasn't that much difference in pay - so Clyde bid adieu to his oily comrades and never looked back.
Corporate jet to water tower construction
Clyde Burns deplaning near the latest job site.
(Later in his career)
Starting at the bottom (both literally and figuratively) Clyde joined the bull gang and spent his days doing the grunt work similar to that of an oil field roustabout. After a stint as a "scaffold jumper" - grinding burrs on the welded seams and operating a chipping gun, he then started welding and by the Spring of 1963, he had been promoted to assistant foreman.

He worked for one company for 20 years - until the owner started pursuing businesses unrelated to water towers and had to declare bankruptcy. Clyde then joined a company in Kentucky who found a lucrative business in salvaging older tanks all across the United States and then re-erecting them at other locations.
Wamba water tower unfinished, top view of interior

Aerial View (from crane) of the Wamba, Texas water tower.
Wamba, Texas

Close up view of man working on water tower tank
Close up view of the above photo. Inner rim is wooden scaffolding with welder appearing as a gray dot just to the right of the inner pole.
When asked about the inherent dangers of working so far above the ground, Clyde stated that fatalities were rare. His company once went eight years without a one - and when it did inevitably happen, ironically it occurred on one of the shortest tanks the company built - a stubby fifty foot "washwater" tank - the type frequently used by municipal utility districts and water treatment plants.

Even then - the fall from the tank didn't kill the man - the cause of death was an infection from his hospital stay.
Giant City State Park water tower

The 1972 Winner of the American Water Tower Assn's Award of Excellence.

Giant City State Park, Illinois

The "Space Age" Tower of Giant City

When you look past the three rings of any specialized business, there's always something interesting on the midway. We learned from Mr. Burns that the American Water Tank Association recognizes achievement within its industry with an annual award of excellence. In 1972, Clyde won the award for his tank in the Giant City State Park in southern Illinois. The 82-foot three-legged tank holds 100,000 gallons - and its most unusual features (besides it's over-all Jetsonesque appearance) is a spiral staircase leading up to a 50-foot observation deck* - allowing park visitors a panoramic view of the Shawnee Mountains.
Crane at water tower base, Giant City State Park

"Giant City" State Park Crane at tower base. Note spiral staircase.


When asked about tower evolution, Clyde said that the typical municipal water tower was the natural offshoot of the railroad water towers. These went from wood construction to steel tanks sometime around the time of the Civil War.

While doing a salvage job in Gouda Springs, Georgia, Clyde says that he once removed a tower that had a plaque installed in 1954 for the tower's centennial - making it a genuine ante-bellum artifact. The manufacturer was Brown Steel of Noonan, Georgia - one of the oldest companies tank companies in the southern United States.
Wamba water tower nearing completion
Wamba's water tower nearing completion.

The Pittsburg Connection

As one looks back on a career that has spanned so many years - the occasional coincidence becomes inevitable.

Municipalities buy tanks according to their needs. They have scores of options such as catwalks, staircases, ladders, lights, etc. and it's entirely possible to have erected over 200 tanks (as Mr. Burns has done) and to never have had two with exactly the same complement of accessories. Out of these 200 tanks - the option of a spiral staircase had only been requested three times. One was the aforementioned tower at Giant City State Park, but the other two tanks went to towns with the same name. Pittsburg, Texas and Pittsburg, Kansas both requested spiral staircases. What does this mean? Probably nothing. We just like to mention coincidences.

Pittsburg, Texas water tower
Pittsburg, Texas water tower showing the spiral staircase.
Pittsburg, Texas

Photo courtesy Kazu
South Padre Island Water Tower
South Padre Island water tower showing some salt spray weathering.

Photo courtesy Kazu

The photos included within this article are towers that Clyde has erected in Texas over the years. He mentions that his crews were often en route to their next job long before the painting crew ever showed up. Most of these photos were taken well after the fact - as the South Padre Island tank (above) demonstrates.
Hutto, Texas water tower

"The result of poor workmanship at the fabricating plant.."
Note line under "HU"

Photo courtesy Kazu

Mr. Burns also mentioned that "heat buckles" and other irregularities that disturb the symmetry of the tanks were the result of poor workmanship at the fabricating plant and should not reflect on the skill of the erection crew.
Conroe water tower
The former Conroe Airfield Water Tower

Conroe, Texas
On some occasions - salvage is not an option. Removal needs to be swift - as it was for this WWII-era airfield tank in Conroe, Texas. Clyde's expertise brought the tower down in less time than it takes to write this paragraph - although the cutting of the steel took considerably longer.
water tower drop preparation
"Drop Preparation."
Conroe water tower down
The water tower down
The next time you're on a roadtrip and turn on the shower or flush the toilet - give some thought to the water pressure and think of those huge tanks hidden in the clouds. There's a good chance the pressure is coming to you from a Clyde Burns tank.

John Troesser

Related Article:

An Illustrated Water Tank Glossary

by Edward Aquifer
Photos courtesy Clyde Burns

A Salute to Standpipes, "Tin Men", Waterspheres, Torosphericals, Spheroids and Hydro-pillars.

More Texas Water Towers »

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