Ask McGehee

Although converted to a recirculating fountain in 1967, this Downtown fixture was originally designed to be a trough, providing water to passing humans, horses and dogs. Six decades earlier, it had been installed on Water Street, just east of the Duncan Place median of lower Government Street.

This trough, costing $1, 000, was not unique to Mobile. Its design and creation was part of an effort by the National Humane Alliance of New York, an organization founded in 1897 by Herman Lee Ensign, a man who had made his fortune patenting a printing device. Ensign’s alliance sought to instill “humanitarian ideas among the people — especially the young — ideas about humanity both to animals and each other.”

After Ensign’s untimely death at age 48 in 1899, the alliance began offering these watering troughs to cities around the country, as well as Mexico City and San Juan. Between 1906 and 1912, 125 communities were given one of the fountain-like structures made of polished granite quarried in Maine. The recipients had to agree to place the 5-ton troughs “20 feet away from streetcar tracks and telephone poles and (have it) continuously supplied with water.” 

While there were some subtle differences, each trough had three lion heads spouting water into the upper basin. Humans could capture a drink from the spout while the height of the basin allowed dray horses to quench their thirst without having to be unhitched from their wagons. And man’s best friend was not forgotten: Four arched openings at the base served as water bowls for dogs.

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It’s unclear exactly when Mobile’s example was removed from Water Street, but with the surge of automobile traffic in the 1920s, it surely could not remain in the middle of the roadway. At some point, it was placed within the courtyard of City Hall (now the History Museum of Mobile). Then, in 1966, it was discovered adorning the grounds of the city incinerator on Owens Street and was brought to the attention of Mayor Joseph Langan.

The following year, thanks to a $1, 600 gift from Helen Meaher (Mrs. Augustine Meaher Sr.), the trough was brought to its current location. The lion heads were either damaged or missing, so they were replaced with handsome and appropriate horse head spouts, along with a plaque noting the assistance of the Meaher family.

After five decades at its present location, the granite basin is now empty except for leaves and faded Mardi Gras beads. Perhaps water will flow once more from those horse heads after changes take place at the nearby Civic Center and the area is revitalized. This monument to the humane treatment of animals deserves better.

My thanks to Mary Lou Meaher for her assistance.

Text by Tom McGehee

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