Although on a smaller scale than the devastation caused by the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma, in Greensburg, Kansas, on May 4, 2007, a tornado destroyed the Big Well Museum and Gift Shop as well as the nearby water tower. No longer could visitors descend the stairway 109ft into the cavern of the world’s largest hand-dug well.
The new Big Well Museum re-opened on May 26, 2012 allowing visitors to once again descend in the Big Well but this time on a new spiral staircase. The museum features exhibits about the founding of Greensburg and the digging of the Big Well, the tornado that devastated Greensburg, and the rebuilding as a sustainable community.
At its Kansas City, Missouri, plant, Chicago Metal Rolled Products curved stair stringers of 27 tons of angles and rectangular tube for the spiral staircase and the surrounding round building. A sketch of the old stairway indicates that it was straight, not circular. And that the building above ground was nothing special.
The new circular staircase is elegant both above and below ground. And the new building is impressive.
The history of the Big Well begins in the 1880’s when the construction of railroad lines being built nearby required a reliable water source. Crews of 12 to 15 men hand-dug the well from sun up to sun down. Bricks were brought to the site by special wagons that in turn carried the dirt away. Slats in the wagons could open to discharge the dirt and level the roads that were being used.
During the digging, two-by-twelve planks arranged like a wagon wheel were used as horizontal bracing every 12ft across the 32ft diameter shaft. The workers could then safely shovel dirt into barrels that were hoisted to the surface. Once the brickwork was completed, the bracing was removed.
At the desired depth, many pieces of perforated pipe were driven into the gravel outside the side walls to facilitate the flow of water into the reservoir at the bottom of the well.
Over three million visitors from every state in the nation and many foreign countries have visited Big Well.