Bethlehem Press

Wednesday, March 20, 2019
Children busy at play in the shadow of Tank Park's giant water reservoir, sometime in the late 1940s. Children busy at play in the shadow of Tank Park's giant water reservoir, sometime in the late 1940s.
This week in Bethlehem history: Tank Park This week in Bethlehem history: Tank Park

This week in Bethlehem history: Tank Park

Thursday, January 17, 2013 by The Press in Opinion

Friendship Park, 231 East North St., has heard the shouts and cries of children at play for well over 120 years.

As one of Bethlehem's many different playgrounds, surely there's nothing more to it than what's obvious: recreation. But for this lot of land still known by many as "Tank Park," its past holds more than meets the eye.

The park, nestled tightly in a North Bethlehem neighborhood, is not your average playground. What other park can claim direct ties to the city's early water supply, the Great Depression and shockingly, even death? While not officially a park until 1890, Tank Park's roots go much deeper.

Though it seems of little significance today, a great concern for early pioneers was finding an ample supply of pure water. When the Moravians settled here in 1741, they built their community above a large spring which provided Bethlehem with water for almost 200 years. In fact, it wasn't until 1912, when the spring became contaminated, that another source had to be found.

Initially the water was carried uphill by bucket. This arduous task was put to an end quickly with the construction of the water works, begun in 1754 and completed by 1762.

The system, designed by Johann Christensen and John Böhner, forced water through pipes up the steep hill into a wooden reservoir located where Central Moravian Church now stands. From this tower, water was distributed throughout Bethlehem.

The wooden water tower was in use until 1802, when it was replaced by an octagonal stone reservoir. This new reservoir served Bethlehem until 1832, and then it became necessary to supplement it with smaller reservoirs scattered throughout the growing community.

In 1872 an iron storage tank, considerably larger than the other reservoirs, was erected on a high spot of land on North Street. This is the event from which Tank Park finds its origins, and where our story begins.

On an interesting side note, a routine cleaning and repainting of this tank in 1883 led to the discovery of 10 fish and several crabs living inside it. The aquatic specimens, all "alive and kicking," were transferred to the aquarium of Bethlehem photographer P. Leidigh Gross.

In 1889 the borough council authorized a new iron tank to be built on the North Street lot. The new standpipe was increased in height in order to supply water to the upper stories of homes located on Market Street, Broad Street, North Street and other areas with high elevations.

The standpipe, 50 feet high, 50 feet in diameter and containing 800,000 gallons of water, is the same tank that many residents still can recall. However, few, if any, Bethlehemites know that this tank played host to a terrible tragedy.

Early one October morning in 1889, the monotonous sound of tapping, which had become familiar during the erection of the standpipe, was suddenly and horribly interrupted by a loud crash, spreading fear and panic throughout the neighborhood. An appalling accident had occurred.

Scaffolding inside the tank, under which a dozen men worked, suddenly gave way, plummeting eight crewmen to the bottom of the reservoir – a distance of 40 feet. As if this were not enough, their heavy tools and forges came crashing down on top of them.

Foreman George W. Murphy and Louis Rayeur, a young apprentice, both died as a result of the mishap. Others suffered broken arms, legs and jaws. The deaths were ruled an accident, caused by too much weight placed on the interior scaffolding.

In April 1890, the Globe Times announced that for the people's pleasure the reservoir lot would no longer serve as a cow pasture. Under the care of Bethlehem's water committee, the land was graded and improved. Gravel walks were laid out and more than 60 shade trees were planted on Arbor Day. Bethlehem had a new public park.

In 1919, James C. McIntyre, master of the old South Side Market, opened an indoor market at Tank Park. For a brief period it was called the "Tank Park Market," but over time the park had developed an unfavorable reputation and merchants strenuously rejected the name.

By the early 1930s, the park had become an eyesore and an embarrassment to the city. What once was a lovely spot from which to enjoy nature was now nothing but a mound of dirt and a trash dump; a prime spot for mischief and crime.

In the spring of 1932, the park was transformed once again into a beautiful place where kids could play and anyone could come to find rest. Best of all, the project was accomplished with little cost to the city.

In Depression-era Bethlehem, the project provided much needed work for the unemployed, who were supplied and paid by the Family Welfare Association and the Woman's Club. Paths were laid out, flower beds made and benches were placed here and there. Retaining walls and steps made of mountain stone were also built. The walls are still standing to this day, a testament to their great craftsmanship.

In the time between the Great Depression and today, countless children have spent carefree days playing at Tank Park. For years Tank Park hosted Franklin School's annual May Day celebrations.

During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, more than likely the heyday of public parks, kids enjoyed playing games of basketball, ping-pong and box hockey. Movies were once projected on the side of the tank, much to the enjoyment of neighborhood families.

The huge water tank, from which the park received its name, was finally razed in 1965. The 70s brought additional improvements to the playground, and the park was rededicated with a new name, "Friendship Park."

Though there hasn't been a water tank on the property in more than 45 years, locals still fondly call the playground by its old name, "Tank Park," a name steeped in history.

Please share your memories of Tank Park by writing to me at bethlehemhistory@gmail.com.