A Short History of Cebu's Osmeña Waterworks System

Fuente Osmeña Fountain, American Colonial

William Cameron Forbes started working in the American Colonial Period in 1904 as he was appointed by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1909, he was named Governor-General by President Howard Taft. He would serve as governor until 1913. One of his key projects was to develop the waterworks system in the Philippines. The cholera epidemic of 1909 hastened the decision to go ahead with the projects. 

The year 1910 would be pivotal to the first waterworks project in Cebu. It would be led by Harry F. Cameron of the Public Works System in Central Visayas. His Chief Assistant was E.J. Halsema who would design the dam and the reservoir. 

Halsema described the Buhisan project as such, "a concrete dam 27 meters high that blocked the gorge and a long spillway that allowed overflow water to escape safely when the gates in the dam were raised. A pipeline over two kilometers long led to a distribution reservoir through tunnels and viaducts. From this reservoir, a pipeline over four kilometers long went to the northern part of Cebu City. Over twenty-one kilometers of pipes were laid to distribute water in the city."

The entire cost of the dam and reservoir project was pegged at Php 550,000 in 1911. 

The Osmeña Waterworks System (Aguas Potables de Osmeña) in Cebu will be completed by February 1912. It brought piped water from the Buhisan Dam to Tisa, Labangon, and then onwards to the other northern parts of Cebu City.

It was years later at the insistence of Manuel L. Quezon that the Cebu Waterworks System would be named after Osmeña.

They tested the piped water coming from Buhisan Dam in Cebu City through the newly-installed fire hydrants on January 3, 1912. The Cebu governor and other government officials were on hand to be witnesses of this engineering marvel. 

Buhisan Dam spillway

In her book, Life in Old Parian, Concepcion G. Briones detailed the day of the inauguration on February 13, 1912. 

Governor-General Forbes arrived in Cebu to celebrate the official opening of the Waterworks, a public holiday was declared on that February day. Great fanfare, parades, and speeches marked the special occasion. He was accompanied by Cebu's leading politician, Sergio Osmena Sr

Cebu Governor Dionisio Jakosalem, Jaime C. de Veyra, Venancio Concepcion, Isauro Gabaldon, Manuel Roa, Adolf Wislizenus were just some of the politicians who welcomed and accompanied the inauguration party. 

It was a jampacked day for Governor-General Forbes. Upon arriving in Cebu, he proceeded to the Forbes bridge located on Magallanes street to mark the opening to the public. The bridge linked the city proper and the San Nicolas district. He then visited the Buhisan Dam and reservoir, had a luncheon and siesta. And in the afternoon watched a baseball game and checked on the progress of the new Southern Islands Hospital.

The fountain that is now a familiar landmark in Fuente Osmeña was the star of the celebration. Governor Forbes led the way in turning on the fountain to signify that the Osmeña Waterworks was now operational.

A grand ball in the evening culminated the day-long festivities. 

In his diary, Forbes wrote: "the water spurted high and the spray carried right over the ladies. The American ladies were seated in an open automobile near the speakers, surrounded by the dense crowd, so that they couldn't get away but sat in pleased surprise, getting wetter and wetter until the crowd dashed forward and dragged the machine from its plight. I think this incident pleased the populace more than the speeches.

At that time in the early 1910s, the area where the Fuente Osmena fountain was located was still considered no man's land. It would become notorious because of a murder incident. 

William Cameron Forbes was a lifelong bachelor

On the New Design Series/BSP Series (1985- 2017) of the Philippine Currency, the fifty-peso note shows President Sergio Osmeña Sr. on the obverse or front. And in one corner of the banknote, the Fuente Osmeña fountain is depicted.

There were already American expatriates who lived and worked in Cebu during this time. Most of them had positions in the American Colonial Government. An example would be district health officer, Dr. Arlington Pond. Most of the funds that were used to finish the project came from American financing through a bond issue that was floated in New York. It was spearheaded by the International Banking Corporation, the predecessor of Citibank, in the Philippines.

American engineer, Eusebius Julius Halsema, would oversee numerous public works all over the Philippines. He supervised both the construction of the Manila and Cebu waterworks respectively. From 1919 onwards, he became mayor and city engineer of Baguio. The Halsema highway that connects Baguio to Bontoc was named in his honor.

Another trivia worth knowing: the father of National Artist for Music, Lucrecia Kasilag, was Marcial Kasilag who was among the pensionado returnees who became part of the team of engineers under Halsema.


Citibank: The Philippine Century (1902-2012)

Life in Old Parian: Concepcion G. Briones, Copyright 1983. Published by Cebuano Studies Center, USC

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