"City Water, City Life"

How Water Defined 19th Century Cities


As Chicago debates whether nonprofits should be allowed free water, we discuss the origins of the city's water system. Northwestern University's Carl Smith joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm with stories from his latest book, City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Read an excerpt from the book below: 

Chicago: The Tunnel Beneath the Lake

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One might assume that access to an abundant quantity of good water would be the last problem Chicago would face, given the presence of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. But there was a catch: as was frequently the case with lake cities, Chicago took its water and dumped its waste in the same place. Since the river flowed into the lake, to pollute the river, as Chicagoans most spectacularly did, was to risk ruining both as healthy water sources.

The young town of Chicago’s first small step in constructing a water supply ignored both the river and the lake. On November 10, 1834, the town trustees allocated $95.50 to dig a public well just north of the river’s short Main Branch (this and the North and South Branches divide the city into its North, South, and West Sides, then called divisions). It was at this time that Chicago’s population began to climb very rapidly, from a few hundred people in 1833 to 4,170 by 1837, when the town was incorporated as a city. The numbers kept rising, approaching 30,000 by 1850, 110,000 a decade later, and 300,000 only ten years after that. Water needs grew even faster, making Lake Michigan—rather than the small, sluggish, and, by this point, filthy Chicago River—the obvious choice for meeting them. As in Philadelphia and Boston, however, there was a very significant gap between the idea of constructing a water system and its successful accomplishment.

The first Chicago waterworks was privately owned. The 1836 charter of the Chicago Hydraulic Company allowed it four years to begin construction. The company needed the entire period because of the same hard times that delayed Boston in the late 1830s, but building finally commenced in 1840, and the works was running two years later. The system consisted of a steam-powered pumping station located at Lake Street and Michigan Avenue, just east of the expanding downtown. Thanks to landfill projects that began later in the century, this intersection is now about a half mile from the lake, but at that point it was very near the shore. The engine drew the water through a 320-foot intake to two holding tanks, both raised high enough for gravity to push their contents through wooden pipes to the second floor of buildings. The steam engine was more than equal to the job—indeed, it had enough surplus power to run an adjoining mill (as Latrobe had vainly hoped to do with excess engine capacity in Philadelphia), but the system had other liabilities. Within a year the lake level dropped unexpectedly, which limited the effectiveness of the intake pipe. And since water near the intake was turbid as well as shallow, it required filtering. Customers of the Chicago Hydraulic Company were also dismayed to find not microscopic animalcules but all-too-visible small fish in their water. They were still better off than the many residents who lived outside the company’s modest service area, which covered mainly the South Division, reaching only a few people in the West Division and none in the North. As a result, in 1850 about 80 percent of Chicagoans had to get their water by some other means. This usually meant fetching it from the polluted river or the lake, or purchasing it from watermen.

As Chicago’s leading nineteenth-century historian, A. T. Andreas, recollected, “For a large and rapidly growing city this state of affairs was alarming, especially as the general health was perceptibly suffering.” The state of Chicago’s water moved from being a source of annoyance to one of ridicule, shame, and danger, the last because of the vulnerability of much of the city to fi re and to the outbreaks of cholera in 1849 and succeeding years that caused dramatic spikes in mortality. The irony of the situation was obvious. “With an unlimited quantity of the purest water upon the continent of America, in the closest possible proximity,” the Tribune complained, “our city is nevertheless but poorly supplied with facilities for an abundant and cheap supply of the article.” The paper hoped that the state legislature would soon approve a plan to empower Chicago to build a public system, one worthy of its ambitions, which were as limitless as the lake. “Among the many other subjects which address themselves to the earnest attention of all who take a laudable interest in the welfare and prosperity of our beautiful city,” the paper’s editors declared, “none are fortified by so many considerations that would be likely to move a man, as that of the cheap and abundant supply of pure water.”

This view enjoyed much influential support. In April 1850 a group of citizens, similar to those who had campaigned for a public water supply in Philadelphia and Boston, determined to do likewise in Chicago. Records of the unicameral Chicago Common Council (the name was changed to City Council in 1875) include petitions and remonstrances asking it to provide better water service. As in Philadelphia, if not in Boston, results followed rapidly. The state incorporated the public Chicago City Hydraulic Company on February 15, 1851. Its three original commissioners were appointed, but their successors were to be popularly elected. The commission’s first duty was to “examine and consider all matters relative to supplying the city of Chicago with a sufficient quantity of pure and wholesome water, to be taken from [L]ake Michigan, for the use of its inhabitants.” The charter empowered the commissioners to “adopt such plan as in their opinion may be the most advantageous for procuring such supply of water,” and to “ascertain as nearly as may be, what amount of money may be necessary to carry the same into effect.” They hired the capable engineer William J. McAlpine to prepare a plan.

McAlpine’s proposal resembled the private system it replaced, though the new works was to be better situated and far larger. He presented two choices for where to locate a new lakefront water intake: at Chicago Avenue (about a half mile north of the Main Branch of the river) or at Twelfth Street (now Roosevelt Road, a little less than two miles south). In either case, Chicago could distribute water from a single raised reservoir near the intake point or one in each division. The commissioners selected the Chicago Avenue site and the three reservoirs option. McAlpine hoped to place the intake six hundred feet from shore in order to be certain that it was always well below the water’s surface, but “the boisterous condition of the lake” made it impossible to go out that far. On March 2, 1852, Chicago voters endorsed this design by a majority of over 80 percent. Construction began that summer, and the works were pumping Lake Michigan water by early in 1854.

While acknowledging many unexpected costs, Chicago officials emphasized what a bargain their system was compared to waterworks in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit, Albany, Boston, Buffalo, and New York. Like other new systems, at first the hours of operation were limited—there was no city water available on Sundays except in case of fi re—and until the reservoirs were constructed, service could be erratic. In time the pipes (first wood, but soon iron) reached more and more customers, and delivery became more reliable. By 1856, with demand for water approaching the capacity of the high-pressure steam engine in the pumping station, the city decided to install a bigger and more powerful machine without interrupting service, a tricky feat that was accomplished the following year. On January 1, 1858, Waterworks Superintendent Benjamin F. Walker proudly stated, “It is a source of gratification to me to be able to represent the works in a perfect state of repair and their ability to supply the demand made upon them, to fully equal the anticipations of those who designed them.” A year after that the commissioners announced, “The Water Works with unimportant exceptions, are throughout in good working order, and as a whole were never in so serviceable condition.”

“Serviceable” did not quite mean “satisfactory,” however. The city was expanding so fast that it was outstripping both the larger capacity engine and the pace at which pipes could be laid. But the quality of the water was the more distressing problem. First of all, the presence of fish in the pipes persisted. In April 1855 the Tribune predicted: “Unless a finer strainer be put upon the reception pipe of the Water Works, there won’t be any fish left in the Lake shortly, judging from the rate at which they are being sucked in at present.” The paper claimed that “little juvenile white fish” were “alive and kicking in different parts of the city, after they have passed for miles through the pipes and into the houses.” It warned readers to be “careful in drinking not to get fish bones in your throat.” This was meant to be an amusing exaggeration, but the situation that prompted it was disconcerting and unacceptable. In their report for 1859, the water commissioners admitted this in a section candidly titled “Fish in the Pipe,” in which they discussed the problem and possible solutions.

The fish were a minor inconvenience compared with Chicago water’s other defects. The river, which by this time was appallingly fouled by slaughterhouses, distilleries, tanneries, tallow renderers, and soap and candle makers, was contaminating the water by the intake. The supply was described as “a villainous compound of decomposed animal and vegetable matter, titurated with sufficient water to give it a semi-fluid consistency.” Chicago’s new sewerage system—one of the first in the nation, constructed in the mid-1850s to counter flooding and cholera—made matters worse. This system was designed by the most important figure in the city’s early water history, Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough. Chicago’s sewerage commissioners had lured Chesbrough away from Boston, where he had been in charge of the section of the Cochituate waterworks between Long Pond and the holding reservoir in Brookline from 1846 to 1850, when he became city engineer. His sewers greatly improved Chicago’s drainage, but they did so by sending effluent into the lake, both directly and via the river.

Well aware of the worsening situation, the Chicago water commissioners passed a resolution in March 1860 asking Chesbrough to propose how the city might secure clean water. He submitted five alternatives: extending the intake pipe a full mile out into the lake and presumably beyond the reach of contamination, building an intake tunnel of the same distance under the lake’s clay bottom, moving the intake about twenty miles north to a point near the lakefront suburb of Winnetka, constructing a system of filtering beds, and erecting a subsiding reservoir to allow the water to clear before it was pumped to users. Other ideas briefly considered included placing the intake five miles up the lakefront by the town of Lakeview (later incorporated into Chicago) or bringing water by aqueduct from Crystal Lake, about fifty miles northwest of the city. Chesbrough said that it was not immediately necessary to take any of these steps, but that the situation needed to be monitored.

In 1861 the newly constituted Board of Public Works assumed responsibility for Chicago’s water. The board consolidated the supervision of what had previously been separate administrative areas: sewers, public parks, streets, river and harbor, public buildings, and public lighting, as well as waterworks. Chesbrough became the board’s chief engineer—he would be appointed city engineer and then, when the Department of Public Works was created in the mid-1870s, the city’s first commissioner of public works. In its first report, the board stated that the fish problem would be readily dealt with—as it was—by a modification of the intake opening, and that it was time to do something about the more serious hazard caused by the “large quantities of blood and other waste and foul substances that find their way into the river” from the city’s constantly growing number of manufacturing concerns. While board members insisted that the terrible quality of the supply had been exaggerated, that “ordinarily the water of the city is as good as that furnished to any city,” and that “statements that the daily drink of our citizens is the discharge of the sewers, the refuse of the slaughtering establishments, etc.” were “wholly untrue, and cannot fail to do harm,” they agreed that the current system was no longer viable. A recent freshet—a sudden rise in water level due to heavy rain and rapid thawing—had flushed a large volume of Chicago River water into the lake at a time when the river was in “an extremely offensive state.” This had turned the city’s supply “very bad” for several days.

Acting on Chesbrough’s advice, the board decided that the best alternative was to build a tunnel under the lake to a point not one but two miles out, which members believed was surely farther than river pollution could reach, thanks to the diluting effects of the massive amount of water in the lake. The superiority of this strategy over the other choices lay in the fact that the tunnel seemed to combine “greater directness to the nearest inexhaustible supply of pure water” along with “permanency of structure and ease of maintenance.” The board predicted, however, that carrying out this plan was not going to be easy. Some Chicagoans thought that it would be impossible.

Reprinted with permission from City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boson, and Chicago by Carl Smith, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2013 by Carl Smith. All rights reserved.

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