For a city that sits beside one of the world's largest sources of fresh water, Chicago's drinking water in its early years was scandalously bad. The water, drawn mainly from the Chicago River, which was also the city's sewer, at best tasted foul and at worst carried such deadly diseases as cholera and typhoid fever. The ground-breaking on this date for something as prosaic as a new water tower was understandably the occasion for civic jubilation.
"To a people so long habituated to quenching their thirst by unnatural beverages, to quaffing bumpers of diluted animal matter, the outflowings of sewers and the distillations of graveyards, the (ground-breaking) event must be a happy one," noted the Tribune. The paper went on to mention the tiny silver minnows that wriggled through hydrants and said, "Everyone will hail the announcement as being indeed tidings of great joy . . . their tea, coffee and other beverages will be no longer fishy."The pumping station and water tower, built on Chicago Avenue on either side of what became Michigan Avenue, were connected to a tunnel that reached two miles out into Lake Michigan, where an octagonal crib collected water from the lake's "pure and limpid portions," the paper reported.
Lady Duffus Hardy, a British novelist and travel writer who toured the city in 1880, wrote: "The new water works are the most beautiful illustrations of the vagaries of the architectural brain. . . . Never were so many cupolas and buttresses, pinnacles and towers grouped together on one spot; none but a true artist could have arranged them into so harmonious a whole."
Two years later, Oscar Wilde, the Irish aesthete but not yet the famed playwright, arrived at a quite different conclusion. The Tribune reported that at a lecture at the Central Music Hall, he called the structure a "castellated monstrosity with pepper boxes stuck all over it" and wondered why anyone would make a water tower masquerade as a miniature medieval castle.
The pumping station has remained in use, but the Water Tower outgrew its original function. Instead, as one of the few buildings to survive the Chicago Fire of 1871, this flamboyant piece of plumbing became a civic symbol of the city's will to survive.
March 25, 1867