The Big Well
The story of the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well began in the 1880’s when both the Santa Fe and Rock Island Railroads were laying tracks across the plains of Kansas and needed a reliable water source. In 1887, the city granted a franchise for a water works system to cost approximately $45,000, a huge sum of money in those days. The well served as a source of water for the city until 1932.
Construction of the well was a masterpiece of pioneer engineering. Workers were engaged at sun-up and paid at sun-down, fifty cents to a dollar a day. Crews of 12 to 15 farmers, cowboys, and transients worked using shovels, picks, half barrels, pulleys and ropes. The stone used for the well casing was brought in wagons from the Medicine River 12 miles south of Greensburg, over roads that were little better than cattle trails. Dirt from the well was hauled away by the same wagons which had slatted beds. By opening the slats and dumping the dirt in low spots, streets and roads to the quarry were leveled.
A wide shaft was cribbed and braced every 12 feet with rough two by twelve inch planks that reached from wall to wall in a wagon wheel type support as the digging progressed. This was done for safety of the workers as they shoveled soil into barrels and hoisted the barrels to the surface. The braces were sawed off after the stones were fitted around them. When the desired depth was achieved, numerous lengths of perforated pipe were driven horizontally at the bottom of the wall into the water bearing gravel. This served to increase the flow of water into the well basin.
When the well was completed in 1888, it was 109 feet deep and 32 feet in diameter. The well was covered and opened as a historic attraction in 1937.
In 1972, the United States Government designated the Big Well as a National Museum and in February of 1974 it was awarded as an American Water Landmark by the American Water Works Association.
Over three million visitors from every state in the nation and many foreign countries have descended the metal stairway into the cavern of the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well.
On January 29, 2008 the Big Well was named one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas awarded by Governor Kathleen Sebelius.
On May 4, 2007 95% of Greensburg was destroyed by an EF5 tornado, including the Big Well Gift Shop & Visitors Center. The Big Well survived with little damage, but was closed to tours until the new museum was completed.
The new Big Well Museum re-opened on May 26, 2012 allowing visitors to once again descend in the Big Well via a new spiral staircase. The museum features exhibits about the founding of Greensburg and the digging of the Big Well, the tornado that devastated Greensburg May 4, 2007 and the rebuilding as a sustainable community.
'Space Wanderer' Pallasite Meteorite
In February of 1886, Frank Kimberly and his wife Eliza recorded a homestead claim in Kiowa County. Eliza began to find unusually heavy black rock which she believed to be meteorites. Professor Cragin from Washburn University risked his money and time to travel the miles with his farm wagon and returned with stones that he was confident were a rare type of meteorite.
In 1949, H.O. Stockwell, with the aid of modern metal detector and equipment rigged at the Peck farm, uncovered the largest pallasite found to date, the Space Wanderer, weighing 1000 pounds. A number of local persons expressed the desire to keep the meteorite in the vicinity and through the urging of a member of the Greensburg Chamber of Commerce, the organization made an offer of a reasonable price for the stone. The pallasite was placed in the Big Well Museum in 1949, where it has been on display and is seen by thousands of tourists each year. Following the May 4, 2007 tornado, the meteorite was recovered and spent time on display at Exploration Place in Wichita then at the Sternberg Museum in Hays. The Meteorite is now available for viewing inside the Big Well Museum.