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Benton County, Iowa ~ Biography and Family Information

William Weir
William Weir was born on the family farm in Otonabee Township, Peterborough County, Canada, the son of Robert and Catherine Weir. The family appears on the 1851 Canada West Census with place of birth given as Ireland. William married Melissa Ann Way Young 26 March 1856, in Trenton Canada West. She was born 13 March 1836, the daughter of Samuel and Sarah Young of Mary, Canada West. William and Melissa began married life, according to the 1861 Canada Census West, as farmers near a farm of his parents in Otonabee Twp. Peterborough, Canada.

Family tradition indicates Weir was a successful businessman in Peterborough, rather than a farmer, but the nature of his occupation is not known. Good times did not last, and in 1865 William suffered a severe financial loss, caused according to his obituary, by "the failure of a trusted friend whom he endorsed for a large amount." William, his wife and four children left Canada and came directly to Monticello, Jones County, Iowa. Three more children were born in Monticello.

The 1870 Federal Census of Iowa gives William's occupation as "plasterer" and 10 years later in the 1880 Federal Census he is listed as a "stone mason". From his obituary we learn he was, "enthusiastic over the subject of artesian [sic] Wells." There are claims that many of the artesian wells in northern Iowa were brought into being due to the interest of "William Weir and Sons."

The town of Belle Plaine, Iowa, contracted a well digger from Monticello, Iowa, to drill an artesian well to provide water and fire protection to a section of the town. The sum of $175 was offered to "bring in" the well and work by William Weir and his sons began upon receipt. They were not strangers to the citizens of Belle Plaine for they had recently successfully drilled several other artesian wells in the same city.

What happened thereafter made the news, not just in Iowa but from coast to coast! The Belle Plaine artesian well erupted into a monster -- more than 3,000 gallons of water per minute boiled into the streets, threatening to flood the homes and businesses in its path. Weir and his sons worked frantically to stem the flow and cap the well, until all their supplies were exhausted and darkness was falling. William Weir and his sons left Belle Plaine, presumably the terrified townspeople thought, to gather necessary material with which to stop the furious flow of water. Weir and his sons were never seen again in the town of Belle Plaine. Fourteen months and many thousands of dollars later "Jumbo" was brought under control by experts from as far away as Chicago.

By [the spring of] 1890 William was drilling in Cherokee, Iowa, so apparently the Belle Plaine disaster had not harmed his business. Custom at that time demanded the well digger must drink the first cup from any newly dug well. He honored this tradition, contracted typhoid fever, and died June 1890 of what was often called in those days, "the well digger's disease." He was buried in Lowell Township Cemetery.

Melissa Weir was survived by 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, all of whom lived in Iowa at the time of her death August 1, 1940 at Davenport, Iowa.

The maximum flow of water is estimated to have been at 5,000,000 to 9,000,000 gallons per day. This enormous flow of water caused the surrounding wells to stop flowing. The attempt to control the well continued from August 26, 1886 to October 6, 1887 when it was finally accomplished. The well was finally tamed by sinking one large pipe with a smaller one inside it, the space between was caulked, and the outside cavity filled with rock and cement. A granite marker now identifies Jumbo at the intersection of Eighth Street and Eighth Avenue, Belle Plaine, Iowa.

  • Belle Plaine, Iowa 1862-1962, Centennial History, by Jean Newland Swailes. The Belle Plaine Century Corporation, Belle Plaine, IA.
  • Weir Family Bible published 1873. In the possesion (October 1995) of Arthur L. Sears. Photo copies of the Weir Bible Records are in the files of the Iowa Genealogical Society, Des Moines, Iowa, and the Davenport Public Library, Davenport, Iowa.
  • 1870 and 1880 Federal Census, Benton County, Town of Monticello, family of Weir.
  • Monticello Express Newspaper, Monticello, Iowa, 5 June 1890, p. 5. Obituary of William Weir.
  • Davenport Democrat and Leader, Davenport, Iowa, 19 December 1918. Obituary of Melissa A. Weir
  • 1851 and 1861 Canada West Census. Peterborough CO, Otonabee Twp., Families of Robert Weir and William Weir.

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