Ira S. Davisson becomes Tacoma Public Utilities Commissioner in November 1918.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 1/19/2003
  • Essay 5078
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In November 1918, Tacoma Mayor Crocker M. Riddell appoints Ira S. Davisson (1860-1951) as Public Utilities Commissioner to complete the term of Hamilton F. Gronen who has resigned. Davisson will lead Tacoma's utilities through difficult times during the 1920s and 1930s and manage to improve service while keeping rates down. He will have the greatest influence of any of Tacoma's Public Utilities manager.


Beginning in 1910, Tacoma’s Public Utilities Commissioner was elected to head the light and water utilities and the Beltline Railroad. The biggest immediate problem facing Davisson was the poor state of the City water system. The Green River pipeline was in need of replacement after just seven years of use, the watershed was threatened by contamination, and Tacomans wasted much of the water that they used. Gradually, the 43-mile untreated wood pipeline was replaced, a process that took until 1942.

Davisson and his water superintendent Willibald A. Kunigk were not satisfied in just repairing things. They constructed the 25-million gallon North End Reservoir in 1927, which included a standpipe, spillway, and massive pump. The tideflat area was ripe for industrial development and Davisson worked to extend water service there. Pulp companies in particular needed a great deal of water and would not locate in Tacoma unless the water situation was resolved. A plan to use Lake Kapowsin did not work out, but abundant fresh water was discovered under the tide flats. Beginning in 1929, the five “A” series well field allowed Davisson to shut down older wells in South Tacoma.

The Great Depression stalled pipeline replacement and expansion plans. New Deal recovery programs offered loans and assistance to cities and Davisson proved to be quite skilled at steering more than $1.8 million into water projects. In addition to replacing Pipeline No. 1, Davisson built Pipeline No. 4 as well as other improvements.

Down the Drain

One area where Davisson was unsuccessful was controlling Tacoma’s profligate water use. Customers paid a flat rate for their water and there were no meters. People left hoses running and generally used four times the water used by residents of other cities. Despite promises of federal money and Davisson’s patient advocacy, opposition to meters was widespread and the project died.

Davisson’s last big accomplishment was to obtain $705,000 in federal funds for system improvements. He was finally voted out of office in 1940 at the age of 80.


Dick Malloy and John S. Ott, The Tacoma Public Utilities Story, (Tacoma: Tacoma Public Utilities, 1993), 70-79, 95-109.

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