Jan 15 2018

A water history moment

Did you know?
The first water service in Morgantown was established and operated by an ex-slave named John Edwards.

Edwards: A man of motivation and courage
Born a slave in Danville, Virginia in 1840, Edwards was the son of slaves Daner and Sofa Edwards. After traveling to Beverly, West Virginia with the Union Army, he moved to Morgantown at the age of 25. In 1865 Edwards married Sarah Elizabeth Evans (Jackson) who resided in nearby Preston County.

In 1877 Edwards purchased a piece of property in Morgantown along White Avenue that stretched to Deckers Creek. Edwards eventually built a house at what was then 79 White Avenue (now 477 White Avenue). Unfortunately, the home was demolished in 1989.

John Edwards passed away in 1904. Sarah Edwards died in in 1926. They reared five sons and three daughters.

Edwards: A man of vision and ambition
Edwards founded his water-hauling business sometime around May 1865 and operated it until 1889 when a water works was established in Morgantown.

During that time, Edwards hauled water from Deckers Creek and the Monongahela River using a mule-driven cart. He sold water from the Monongahela River for ten cents a barrel and water from Deckers Creek for fifteen cents a barrel.

The service was invaluable to the residents of the area because prior to Edward’s service, people had three options for obtaining fresh water. The first was to collect and haul the water themselves, which was impractical for most people. The second was to collect rain water in barrels, which many people did. The third was to use the water from private cisterns.

While catching rain water for washing clothes, bathing, etc. was viable, sitting water was problematic in that it served as breeding grounds for insects. So common was this problem that it was referred to as ‘wiggle-tail water’ due to the presence of mosquito larva. Of course, the barrels also needed repaired or replaced as they would eventually leak.

Wiggle-tails were also an issue with cisterns; however, cisterns faced a much dire contamination threat.

Prior to the installation of a city-wide sanitary system, residents of Morgantown maintained private sewage pits. These pits eventually leaked and sewage seeped into the water cisterns. This issue is best described in two Morgantown Weekly Post articles on May 16, 1885 following a vote to develop a public water works (from The Story of Bringing Clean Water to Morgantown by Michael Caplinger and Barb Howe). The articles stated that with a public water works there would be….

“No danger of drinking nasty woolly water worms in Water Works water!”

“No more washing in ‘wiggle-tail water’ now. How nice to have sprinkled streets and pavements! Washerwomen will save hundreds of dollars every year for soft water. Poor John Edwards! His occupation will soon be gone; but, John can hitch to a cart and work on the railroad. Step this way into our new bath room, please, you old fogy who voted against Water Works, and let us wash the moss off your back! Throw away that brick-bat that you use to hammer on the hoops of leaky old barrels at the approach of a rain storm. Our people will hereafter take pure water from the bowels of the earth, in preference to impure drainage from the bowels of humanity – so to speak. . . .”

Edwards: An inspiration to us all
In today’s world it’s difficult to fully appreciate the mettle of John Edwards. Here was a man that that traveled from the Virginia – North Carolina border all the way to Morgantown without any assurance of success or even a safety net on which to depend. Here is a man that shook the bounds of slavery and unimaginable racism to establish a successful business that spanned decades. Edwards is a man that had nothing on which to depend but his own grit and determination yet worked his way into the history of our area.

Edwards’ story is more than some historical tale. It’s a story of inspiration and perseverance for us all. This is why we’re proud to not only share his story but share in his story.

The Photos
Click on a photo to view on the West Virginia and Regional History Collection website (be sure to click on the top-right "Description" button for additional information on the photos). Photos will open in a new window.

John Edwards
Sarah Edwards
The Edwards' Home

(The house on the far left still stands)
The water cart
 On the cart is Edward's sons
James Arthur Garfield Edwards* (left)
and Charles Daniel Edwards (right)

* ​From a family history website at http://www.eddieb26mileman.com/family_history_6587.asp 
James Arthur was born August 24, 1880 in Morgantown, WV.  He died on July 7, 1965 in Morgantown, WV.  J.A.G. Edwards possessed many of his father’s traits. He went into the garbage collection business. He used horses and a wagon in his garbage collection business. The garbage collection business lasted until the City of Morgantown took over the garbage collection. His next endeavor was the restaurant business. “Edwards Quick Lunch” was first on Beechurst Ave. and later on University Ave. near the West Virginia University Campus. ​Additional photographs available at http://www.eddieb26mileman.com/photo_history_6588.asp

​Information for this article was gleaned from these sources…

  • The Story of Bringing Clean Water to Morgantown
    by Michael Caplinger and Barb Howe
    for the West Virginia Botanic Garden, Inc.
  • A family history website…
  • West Virginia and Regional History Collection
    West Virginia University Libraries