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In the limelight

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By Christine Tailer
HCP columnist

My Nana was a magical person. Her blue eyes always sparkled with sweet mischief, and her laughter sounded like singing wind chimes. She told the most wonderful stories about fairies and forest people, and she spoke with words that sparked my imagination with fanciful images. When I’d twirl around the room in a new spring dress, she’d smile and call me a “Waltzing Matilda.”

When I had to decide how to deal with a particular situation, she’d suggest that I put on my “thinking cap,” and when I was impatient and interrupted my elders, she would shake her head and say that I it was not my turn to shine in the “limelight.”

In time, I learned that the lyrics and tune to the song "Waltzing Matilda" were actually written as an advertisement for an Australian tea back in 1903. The melody and words were catchy, and as we all now know, the song spread worldwide.

When I was in law school, one of our professors would start class by telling us all to “put on our thinking caps” much as 17th century jurists would don their “considering caps” before deciding the weighty legal issues before them, but as for the phrase “in the limelight,” I simply imagined that it had something to do with the theatre as spotlights followed the actors movements across the stage, I had no idea why a theatrical spotlight would be considered a limelight, until just this past weekend.

I have mentioned it before, and will no doubt mention it again, but Greg and I are really quite grounded to our life here in the creek valley. We would not have it any other way, but it is difficult for us to leave for long periods of time. We cannot let the fire die down during the winter for fear the pipes will freeze, and all throughout the year, we need to care for the horses, goats, rabbits, chickens and pigeons. Accordingly, most of our travels only take us away for a few days at a time.

This leads me to search for interesting day trips, and so this past weekend we traveled down river to the once monthly tour of the Cincinnati Water Works’ pumping station, the home of four, 104-foot tall, triple-steam engines. The entire facility and its towering steam engines are absolutely amazing. 

Construction of the pumping station began back in 1901 and lasted until 1907, when installation of the towering engines was completed and the station became fully functional, pumping water from the Ohio River to quench the thirst of the ever-growing city of Cincinnati. The engines worked flawlessly, up until 1963 when more efficient electric pumps took over, but the four massive triple-steam engines were left in place, dwarfing the electric driven pumps that sit by their sides. The entire process of building the pump house and installing the massive steam engines remains a true engineering marvel, not only because of the size and weight of the engines, but because the floor of the engine house actually sits six feet below the bottom of the Ohio River. This feat of construction, however, is another story. 

This story, today, is about how these amazing engines relate to what I had always considered to be the metaphorical limelight.

Before Greg and I toured the actual pumping station, we toured the water works’ purification facility, and there we learned that the water pumped from the river is allowed to sit in, what was to my eye, countless settling tanks where the larger debris and muck are allowed to settle to the bottom. After a measured time, the water flows out of these tanks through sluice gates and into large outside holding large basins, but before the water enters the basins, calcium is added. 

The calcium acts as a coagulant that causes smaller debris particles to bind together so they can be more easily removed from the water. The entire purification process is lengthy, and continues on to include carbon filtration, and ultraviolet treatment, but it is the massive quantity of required calcium that fascinated me. I stood totally amazed inside a white coated building, white dust on every surface, everywhere, watching as white water flowed past me, down a grate and into a sluice way. Where, I wondered, did the Cincinnati Water Works ever procure such massive quantities of calcium. I had previously thought that the piles of agricultural calcium that Greg and I spread on our fields, were a massive quantity, but not so.

I was enthralled to learn that industrial, or agricultural, calcium is made by heating limestone up to a temperature of 1,250 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat causes the carbon dioxide in the fossil rock to be released, leaving a behind a substance called quicklime, or calcium oxide. Oh, how well I know that our creek valley is nothing but an ever-deepening cut through what was once ocean bed, and now consists of layer after layer of bedrock limestone. The Cincinnati Water Works clearly has an ample supply of nearby limestone with which to create the quantities of calcium they need to cleanse to the river’s water.

This then, leads me back to the “limelight.” I learned that in the early 1900s, oil lamps and electric light bulbs were dull by our 100 watt standards. Large office buildings and factories were built so that windows could let in the daylight, but what of factory and office workers, and water works’ engineers, who toiled after dark? What of theatre goers who attended shows that did not start until late evening? 

Well, I learned, quicklime is flammable, and burns very brightly, and when its bright light passes through prisms, or is directed by reflective clamshell fixtures situated around the edge of a stage, the engineers could work through the night, and the show could go on.

As Greg and I walked out the door of the century old pump house, the four triple-steam engines resting quietly behind me, I thought of my Nana. I so wished that I could call her up, and tell her about my amazing day and the 104-foot tall engines that had been constructed inside a pump house that rests six feet below the river’s bottom. I would remember to ask her if it was a good time to talk, my lesson about not interrupting having been well learned, and then I would let her know that on this day, it was not I who had been in the limelight, but was rather the century old marvel of the towering, four triple-steam engines I was so thankful to have met.

Christine Tailer is an attorney and former city dweller who moved several years ago, with her husband, Greg, to an off-grid farm in Ohio south-central Ohio. Visit them on the web at

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