The story of the world’s largest hand-dug water well began in the 1880s when both the Santa Fe and Rock Island railroads were laying tracks across the plains of Kansas. A large supply of water was needed for the steam locomotives and for the people of the area. The only dependable source of water was from a well.
In 1887, the city of Greensburg, Kan., granted a franchise for a water works system, to cost approximately $45,000 – a huge sum of money in those days. The Santa Fe terminated its track at the west Kiowa County line and removed it eight years later. Construction of the well was a masterpiece of pioneer engineering. Hired on a day-to-day basis for 50 cents to a dollar a day, crews of 12 to 15 farmers, cowboys and other local men dug the well. Some of the men lived on location in a camp of tents while working on the well. Other crews quarried and hauled the native stone used for the casing of the well. This stone was hauled in wagons from the Medicine River, 12 miles south of Greensburg. Dirt from the well was hauled away by the same wagons, which had slatted beds. By opening the slats and dumping the dirt in low spots, streets and roads to the quarry were leveled.
The well was dug, cribbed and cased. As the dirt was removed, it was cribbed with stone to prevent caving in. Every 8 feet, it was braced from wall to wall with 2-foot-by-12-foot planks. When the well was down to water, a ring (called a boot) was built, constructed of heavy oak bridge timbers. The timbers were mortised and dovetailed together in such a way that no nails were used.
When the well was completed in 1888, it was 109 feet deep and 32 feet in diameter. It served as the city’s water supply until 1932. The well was covered and opened as a tourist attraction in 1939. Since then, more than 3 million people have visited the “Big Well.” People have been tossing money and other items into the Big Well since its beginning. In 1990, the town hired divers to clean the bottom of the well. A silver onyx crucifix, shoes, coins and other items were found.
Visitors brave enough to walk the 105 steps to the bottom will be impressed with this century-old feat. The lights in the 15 feet of water enable one to see all the way to the bottom.
The Big Well viewing canopy was damaged in the tornado that struck Greensburg in the spring of 2007. Much of the town was destroyed. Efforts are underway to repair the canopy and develop a new museum that will include the Big Well’s history. The museum now has a small gift shop and visitor reception center where you can purchase souvenir items. This year, the Big Well was voted one of the eight wonders of Kansas.