A public water supply system was first discussed in the 1850's when Keokuk's population was increasing dramatically, but with the financial panic of 1857 no action was taken. Most home owners had a cistern, and huge cisterns in the business district provided a water supply for volunteer firemen's efforts.
After editorial prodding from the Daily Gate City, meetings were held early in 1876 to organize a Keokuk Waterworks Company. A consultant estimated the cost of the system at $100,000,and numerous businessmen subscribed to stock in the project, to the extent of $20,000. E.H. Worrall, an engineer with Keokuk's canal construction project, participated in planning the waterworks, but the leadership role was taken by William C. Stripe, a self-trained civil engineer who in twenty years of residence in Keokuk had participated in many civil projects.
Stripe calculated a need for ten and three-quarters miles of mains, using stand pipes in preference to a reservoir. An office was opened in September on 1877, and construction began the following February. In July a "triumphant trail" of the system was held. A steam engine housed at the foot of Concert Street powered the pumps capable of shooting a stream of water two hundred feet in the air from each of the several hydrants tested. Keokuk firemen threw a party for the contractor's work force to celebrate the project's completion.
With Keokuk Waterworks running smoothly, Stripe took an interest in organizing the American Waterworks Association of 1881. A commemoration of his role was made at Washington University's School of Engineering in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1968.
In 1935 during the Great Depression, Keokuk's City Council determined that the water system should be publicly owned, as an upgrade of the facilities was sorely needed. The private company, long controlled by absentee owners, resisted these efforts, but the City won the legal battle, taking possession of the system for $262,500 on June 1, 1938. The City of Keokuk immediately began selling $550,000 in revenue bonds to rebuild the entire system.
A new water treatment plant was located at the foot of Main Street - where Keokuk had begun with a trading post known as "Rat Row." Located at 22nd and Main Street, the all-steel 1,000,000 gallon reservoir tank was said to be the largest in Iowa. However, with continued growth in water usage, particularly for corn refining, the municipal system has subsequently been expanded several times.
Edward W. McManus, the attorney who had shepherded the legal aspects of the takeover and construction, gave the dedication address for the new municipal water system in June 4, 1939.
The Mississippi has been a reliable source of water, in Keokuk, with few exceptions - like the sudden freeze in December of 1983 that trapped tow boats above the dam and clogged the water intake with slush. Just down river is the original, blond brick 1938 filter building, still in use today.