Ancient pipes in courthouse on the way out

COLUMBIA CITY — Beneath tons of brick and Indiana limestone, snaking through the catacombs and tunnels of the Whitley County Courthouse’s crawl space are the cast iron sewer and gas pipes that were installed as original equipment in the building back in the late 19th century.The courthouse was built over two years from 1888 to 1890.Much of the original plumbing is still being used and county officials say it’s time to replace the century-plus-old pipes.At Monday’s meeting of the Whitley County Commissioners, Tom Rethlake, Don Amber and newly-elected member George Schrumpf talked about the deterioration of the sewer and gas lines.At Tuesday’s meeting of the Whitley County Council, Rethlake reported the need to upgrade the building’s plumbing, adding a bit of his signature humor to the report.“I’m pretty sure the warranty is up,” said Rethlake.“Our first projections is that it could cost anywhere from $40 to $45,000,” said Rethlake.“It will replace all the old pipe that’s down there that has the possibility of leaking.”Rethlake said the commissioners hope to have a tighter cost estimate in the next couple of weeks.According to Courthouse Maintenance Supervisor Dennis Fenker, the pipes have been repaired piecemeal in recent years as evidenced by the random sections of modern plastic PVC pipe tied into original cast iron.Fenker said about six or seven years ago, sewer lines leading away from the courthouse plugged between the building and the street, causing raw sewage to back up into the crawl space.Evidence of that flood can still be seen under the building. Pieces of old plumbing removed during repairs still litter the crawl space due to the logistics of hauling the remnants out from the tight subterranean confines.The same holds true for items used during the original construction. In one of the largest open areas of the crawl space, the wooden frame used to form bricks into an arch shape, possibly for doorways or even floors still rests in the dirt under the building.Floor joists of the courthouse are made of steel I-beams and Fenker said there is concern about corrosion of those all-important supporting structures.Between each steel I-beam is the floor’s foundation, made from arched brickwork, formed in a convex pattern from the floor — concave if looking at the work from underneath in the crawl space.“It was formed that way to support people walking on it,” said Fenker.According to a document at the Whitley County Historical Museum, the city of Columbia City requested permission from the county around 1916 to run utility lines (steam) under the courthouse. Some of the infrastructure of that system still remains in the crawl space.At Tuesday’s council meeting, Rethlake, who was named chair of the commissioners, said replacement of the pipes is part of a multiple phase program of improvements to the building that began last year with several projects that included window replacement.“The pipes are our number one priority for this year,” Rethlake said.During his report to the county council Tuesday, Rethlake was told by Councilman Jim Bayman that the county’s Accumulated Capital Fund existed for just such projects.“That’s what that’s for,” said Bayman.Rethlake said Wednesday that the fund is available for anything but wages.