City Hall Stories: The Well
From New Babbage Department of Records and Archives
City Hall Stories: The Well
It was near quitting time on a Friday, the time when you least want something unexpected to happen. The sand hogs hired to bore out the basement for the new Babbage City Hall were finishing their last scrapings for the day, wiping their brows with their neckerchiefs and contemplating the kidney pies waiting for their evening suppers.
It was muddy in the pit - Babbage is damp even at the height of summer, and as we all know, the water table for the city is quite high - something about being built on top of a knurl of brown limestone (an unusual porous rock whose chocolatey color is what most of our local cobblestones are made of). That means mud. No surprise there.
And the sand hogs knew it, which is why the shallow sticky pool of the stuff hadn't raised much concern when it had been discovered earlier in the day. They did like they always did - call the pump boy over with his canvas hose, and let him and the newcomen engine mounted atop the retaining wall suck the muck up and out into the city's sewers.
Except that the pump boy was standing to the side of the puddle fidgeting and looking nervous, and had been in the same place for most of the day. "'At muck ain't pumpin' clear-loike, boss, no matter how hard I tries," he kept mumbling. "I dinna know whoy." The pit boss chewed his cigar butt, long extinguished, and stared down at the puddle. He prodded it with his boot. "Shin-deep, she is," the pump boy said. "An' she's roight watery, through and through."
The foreman was called, and then the engineer. If anything, the mud puddle was getting bigger as they watched. The sun started to edge behind the First Deposit Bank building on the western side of the excavation, and the vision of supper started to fade as the workers gathered around in a knot to watch. The shift-end whistle blew and the steamshovels fell silent, which gave the bottom of the pit an almost eerie feeling. Had it not been so quiet, no one would have heard the bubbling.
But bubble the mudpool did, slowly at first, then recognizably. And as the crowd of workers watched, the mud became unmistakably clearer.
It was a few days later, following the arrival of the hydraulics and tunneling specialists, who both gleefully took turns wallowing in the puddle in gutta-percha waders, when the truth was realized: the digging had exposed a freshwater spring directly beneath City Hall.
"No surprise, really," the hydraulics engineer commented. "Babbage is full of fresh water seeping up to ground level. That's why the canal water gets fresher the farther one gets from the sea - all the seepage from beneath the retaining rocks. It's good water, mostly." No one speculated aloud as to how the engineer had discovered this fact. The idea of voluntarily tasting canal water makes most Babbagers queasy.
And the spring was a powerful one. Further excavation revealed an ancient clay pipe of unknown origin, capped and leaking slightly but still holding back the natural pressure. "Artesian well," one expert explained. "Could be many pounds per square inch." Despite its age, it took six men with prybars and the help of the old steamshovel Vera to uncap the old pipe, for which the workers were rewarded with a drenching from a gusher many feet high. The spring had clearly been there for centuries, sealed shut with the weight of dirt and rock and previous City Halls pressing down on it. No one could tell how far the old clay pipe reached down into the aquifer beneath it, or how on earth whoever built it had gotten it down there.
As the pit began to fill slowly with water, the foreman eyed the newly constructed retaining wall and judged it to be in danger of undermining. "Whot the devil do we do with all that bluddy water?" he breathed.
It was Greg Merryman, arms folded and cigar clamped firmly between his teeth as he watched the proceedings, that provided the obvious answer. "Cap it and make it drive an engine, you silly twots," he muttered. "What else would you do with it?"
And they did. The City's finest mechanologists were summoned on an emergency basis, and within days a Waterworks were constructed directly above the old clay pipe itself.
Intake jets funnel fresh, naturally pressurized water upward into holding tanks, from which it descends in a series of cascades, driving waterwheels, until it drains in a sheet though a gap in the floor and into the canals below. A massive flywheel was constructed to store energy and keep the gears turning during the inevitable maintenance periods, and the whole thing encased by glass and proscribed by catwalks for easy access and maintenance. Gearage was extended from the Waterworks up the clocktower to power Tenk's clock, but that spoke for only a portion of the generated torque, which was made available to the City as a public service. Babbage's best scientists believe that a the current rate of pressure, and at conservative estimates of the size of the aquifer it drains, the spring could easily gush - and the wheels turn - at the present rate for several centuries.
Perhaps in unconscious homage to the discovery, the workers who later built the public auditorium in the center of city hall came to nickname their portion "The Well." A name, like some which find the right time and place to emerge, which seems to have stuck.