Friday, January 8, 2016

Night Watchman Found Drowned

At 8:00 pm sharp, on a warm Sunday evening in late July 1919, William Kirk - the night watchman at a suburban Denver reservoir - made his hourly report to water company headquarters. It was the last anyone heard from him.

Kirk, who lived a brisk 10-minute walk from the reservoir, had been "employed as a watchman for some time." 

There had been a reservoir at the site since the 1890s. It supplied drinking water to the growing city of Denver, which in 1920 had a population of just over a quarter million people. 

Initially an open air reservoir, the facility was modernized during the 1910s when a concrete floor was installed and a wooden roof built overhead. 

Workers build wooden roof 1914
Photo courtesy of Denver Water

Eventually, the complex was named the Ashland Reservoir and still operates today. 

When William - who was alone - failed to make his 11:00 pm telephone call, headquarters dispatched William Mace, another employee, to check on him. Mace saw Kirk's hat floating on the water's surface beneath the wooden floorboards. He immediately informed his supervisors and collected help from nearby neighbors.

Ashland Reservoir Guardhouse
The police soon arrived and climbed down to the pool's edge, which could only be accessed through steps inside the guardhouse. The Denver Rocky Mountain News offered readers a suspenseful play-by-play.
"The policemen went down this to the tare, which is about twelve feet deep, and poked around with poles until an obstruction was found. The body was then drawn to the surface at about midnight."
After conducting their examination, doctors determined that Kirk had "been dead about three or four hours." He must have fallen into the water shortly after he made his final report to the water company.

The city coroner determined there was no foul play and speculated that Kirk had slipped into the reservoir and drowned. In his assessment, it was an accident and an official coroner's inquest was "unnecessary." The official explanation published on the death certificate was "Accidental drowning."

No autopsy was conducted to determine if there was a contributing factor that may have caused him to slip such as a heart attack.

The following morning, the headlines splashed across the city newspapers told of Kirk's accidental drowning at the age of 68.

Denver Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post headlines 28 July 1919 

His wife and eight children were left to mourn his sudden loss. It was a particularly difficult tragedy following the 1918 death of William's son Thomas who succumbed to the Spanish Influenza pandemic.

William's death created a financial burden for the family since he was the primary provider and died intestate. His widow, Nancy, petitioned the probate court to release to her the funds in his bank account, so she could make ends meet. The court determined that his estate would be divided among each of his heirs.

In probate records, William's children relinquish inheritance
His eight children notified the court that they relinquished their right to an inheritance, and asked that any funds or property be disbursed solely to their mother in "...consideration of her love and affection toward us..."

Among the children signing away their inheritance was my great-grandfather Samuel Kirk.

In a strange twist of fate, Samuel Kirk would land himself a position as watchman at the same Ashland Reservoir in 1928.

Readers of this blog are already familiar with the shenanigans that Kirkguard Sam would get up to with a reservoir neighbor lady (see A Family History Mystery Revealed).

In the late afternoon on Friday, August 1st, my 2nd great-grandfather was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery just a mile west of the reservoir.

His granite marker overlooks the plots for his widow, five of their children including Thomas, and one grandchild.

Walking among the headstones, one would have no idea of William's tragic end just a short distance away.

The quiet shaded spot offers no clues about the sorrowful tragedy nearly 97 years ago.

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