Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Chicago Water Tower Dedication -- March 25, 1867

The Chicago Water Tower (JWB, 2013)
Ask anyone who has visited Chicago to name his or her five most memorable sights and Chicago’s Water Tower (the fancy stand pipe and not the indoor mall) is sure to be among them.

It was on this day, March 25, way back in 1867 that the complex that made up the little city’s “Water Works” was dedicated and a cornerstone laid at Chicago and what is now Michigan Avenue (Back in those days it was Pine Street).

“Early in the morning the city was all alive,” The Tribune reported at the time.  “No formal proclamation had stopped the people from their labors, to watch the ceremonies which would attend the ushering in of the new water era, but the citizens generally recognized the importance of the occasion and turned out in great numbers to witness the proceedings and participate in them.”  [Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1867]

Despite a brief snowfall in the early morning, the day was “all that could have been desired at this period of the year” and “the ground was not hard, but the mud was only shallow, and it was not painful or unpleasant to walk through it.”  The mood was festive with “Everybody . . . in good humor at the idea that good water was here at last.”

Chicago Water Works (1886), Pine Street separating the two structures
(wikipedia image)
This was a very big deal, marking the culmination of the plan of Ellis S. Chesebrough to make the city a healthier place through the improvement of its sewage and water distribution systems.  In June of 1862 the Chicago Common Council adopted the city engineer’s plan for bringing uncontaminated lake water to the city through a “crib” located two-and-a-half miles offshore.  The first brick was laid at the crib on December 22, 1865. By that date workmen had already constructed a tunnel from the shore that was 4,825 feet long.  Less than a year later, on December 6, 1866 a section of tunnel leading from the crib was linked to the section leading from the shore. 

In a little over two years of work, most of it done with picks and shovels, a project that saved the city was completed.  It was an amazing, almost reckless, plan undertaken by a city that had no other options.  The fact that it worked so well was the highest testimonial to the expertise of Ellis Cheseborough.

The Chicago Water Works from Chicago Avenue, 1896 (Google image)
The Water Works at Chicago and Pine served to house all of the massive pumping equipment as well as the stand pipe necessary to keep the system pressurized.  Built on the site of the former old works, the style was “castellated Gothic, with heavy bottlemented corners, executed with solid rock-faced ashlar stone and cut-stone trimmings, all the details being of a massive and permanent character.”  [Andreas, Alfred Theodore.  History of Chicago from 1857 to the Fire of 1871.  Chicago, 1885. p.67]

The water tower, itself, was 154 feet tall, topped with a cupola with windows surrounding it.  In its interior a six-ton stand pipe was placed at its base.  From that a three-foot iron stand pipe rose to a height of 138 feet.  W. W. Boyington, the architect of the complex, designed a building that was “looked upon as thoroughly fire-proof,” [Andreas] which was borne out when the tower was one of the few structures left standing in the city after the disastrous fire of 1871.

On the day of the dedication a police contingent led the parade, starting out from the Court House on Dearborn Street at 9:00 in the morning, and as it moved north it was joined by various other elements coming from different directions.  The Tribune described the scene . . .

The Fire Department formed on Washington street, east of La Salle.  Before the marshaling and arranging of the constituent parts of the great procession, unutterable excitement prevailed.  Bands came marching from different quarters; Marshals galloped hotly to and fro; Masons with their plain white aprons or their gorgeous trappings hurried singly to the rendezvous; fire engines and hose carts rolled forward covered with sturdy firemen in their great hats and blue uniforms, and drawn by their powerful horses, looking s if they wanted to break into a run to the fire which must have called them out; men, women and children crowded the sidewalks in a state of excited admiration, making pedestrianism almost impossible; whole ominbuses, carriages, trucks and drays, on business met most vexatious delays and obstructions at every rod, and were often forced to work long detours in order to pass the living mass. 

At 11:00 the procession started slowly up Dearborn Street to Lake, headed west to La Salle, south to Washington, and then up Clark Street.  By 11:30 the band could be heard approaching the water tower.  At just about that time an accident occurred. 

According to The Tribune, “In their eagerness to gain an advantageous seat near the platform, a number of men clambered to the roof of a very frail wooden shed used for dressing the stones.  Suddenly the structure gave way beneath them, and about twenty luckless individuals were precipitated into the rubbish beneath.”  No one was seriously injured, but In the midst of the chaos, almost exactly at noon, the head of the procession arrived on the grounds of the dedication ceremony.

After preliminary remarks the cornerstone was raised up and the Reverend O. H. Tiffany led the crowd in a prayer which he ended with these words:

"And now we praise thee oh God, for thy great bounty unto us – we thank thee that thou hast stored our land with plenty, that our fields teem with fertility, and that our waters are glad with health.  We bless thee for the skill of our artisans and of our workmen and we thank thee that this day we are brought together to lay the foundation stone of this structure.  We earnestly pray that our best expectations may be realized, and that by it blessing may ever flow, from this great lake to all the homes of this great city.  We pray, also for Thy blessing upon all those who have been or are engaged in this great undertaking – do Thou protect, and preserve them from evil . . ."

The Chicago Water Works, 1943, now on Michigan Avenue
Virtually the entire dedication was a Masonic production, complete with the consecration of the cornerstone with “vessels delivered in form to the Grand Master . . . poured upon the stone”.  These “vessels” carried a scattering of corn and a flask of wine as emblems of plenty along with oil as an emblem of peace.

The Most Worshipful Grand Master Gorin then intoned, “May the all bounteous author of Nature bless the inhabitants of this place with all the necessaries, conveniences and comforts of life; assist in the erection and completion of this building; protect the workmen against every accident, and even preserve this structure from decay; and grant to us all, in needed supply, the corn of nourishment, the wine of refreshment and the oil of joy.”

At this point the stone was “thrice stricken with the mallet” and the Masonic ceremony concluded.

Then Mayor J. B. Rice got up to end the ceremony with a few remarks which went on and on and on.

Midway through his remarks he hit his stride . . .

. . . but the people were not satisfied with delay.  They could stand on the shore in the centre of the city and look upon the clear sparkling, pure water of yonder mighty lake, the coveted treasure so near – and they cried with one voice, who is the man who can give us this water for our use; the cry was heard; the man was there who, with the modesty that is ever the companion of genius, said he thought a tunnel might be built far under the bed of the lake – two miles in length – and there where the water was thirty-five feet in depth, pure and cool in all seasons, the supply could be obtained . . . It was novel, untried; the expense hardly to be estimated, and failure imminent; but the man of science was not to be moved from his position. 

Ellis Sylvester Chesebrough would not be moved from his position.  The clear sparkling, pure water of yonder mighty lake is still the lifeblood of a great city.  And the water tower still stands, a technological marvel of its time and an enduring symbol of a city that is willing to play the odds if there is the slightest chance for a big payoff.

The Chicago Water Works, 1974, with Water Tower Place
rising to the left (chuckmanchicagonostalgia.files.wordpress.com)

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