Riverhead Water District employee Nick May with the 'Tin Man' plaque he restored for the water tower on Pulaski Street. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Growing up in Riverhead, Nick May always admired the “Tin Man” water tower on Pulaski Street.

“It’s a landmark in Riverhead,” May said. “It’s a cool old tower. You don’t see a lot of them these days.”

The 34-year-old father of two took a job with the Riverhead Water District in April 2017 as a water treatment plant operator.

May has a hobby of “restoring antiques” — “bringing things back from the dead,” he says.

The plaque attached to the base of the old water tower caught his eye. It read: “1915 — Chicago Bridge & Iron Works Builders— Chicago, Ill.— Patented June 1907” May asked former water district superintendent Mark Conklin if he could take the plaque home to restore it.

“As long as you bring it back,” Conklin told him.

May said the first thing he did was a test for lead paint. It came back negative. Then he used paint stripper to remove the old paint. Then he soaked the plaque in a rust removal solution. After that, he worked on it with a wire brush. There was “some pitting on the back,” he said, so he used Bondo body filler on the back of the plaque. Once that was sanded smooth, he applied several coats of primer, followed by several coats of Rustoleum flat black. Then he used Testors gold and silver paint — “and a very small paint brush” — for the lettering and edging. When he was done with that, May applied several coats of clear matte finish.

May said he got to work on the plaque just before Christmas. He re-installed the finished product on Thursday.

File photo: Peter Blasl

“Tin Man” water towers, which date back to the late 19th Century, once dotted the landscape of rural and small-town America. They are referred to as “Tin Man” towers because of their resemblance to the Tin Man in the “Wizard of Oz” — although most of them, including Riverhead’s, pre-dated the release of that movie.

“Tin Man” towers are obsolete and have been replaced almost everywhere by much larger tanks. Most have even been demolished. Some have been saved by listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

But the “Tin Man” is an iconic structure and communities that have the remaining “Tin Man” towers all regard them with affection.

Riverhead’s “Tin Man,” standing 125 feet tall today functions mostly as a cell tower, of sorts. The water district leases it to various cellular companies, which use it as a host for antennae.

Photo: Denise Civiletti

The riveted-steel tank holds 150,000 gallons of water. It was erected in 1915, following the establishment, on April 14, 1914, of the Riverhead Water District. The original boundaries of the water district took in the village of Riverhead, from Merritt’s Pond to west of Raynor Avenue. The water district’s original map and plan — first proposed in 1911 — included the water tower on what was then known as Cemetery Street (now Pulaski Street) wells and a pump house immediately to the east of the tower, as well as water mains and fire hydrants throughout the village.

The total cost of the original district’s infrastructure was $100,000 — $2.57 million in today’s dollars. The town issued bonds to cover the cost. Suffolk County Trust Company purchased the bonds, financing the project.

Prior to the establishment of the water district, the privately owned Riverhead Water Company provided water to the area now known as downtown Riverhead. The company erected a water tower (in 1892) and pump house (in 1907) in the park now known as Grangebel.

Problems with water quality and water pressure led some residents to petition the town, starting in 1911, to establish a municipal water district. It took three tries, but the district was finally established three years later.

“A heart is not judged by how much you love; but how much you are loved by others.” – the Tin Man, in the Wizard of Oz.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.