The cholera epidemic of 1849 was followed by a severe outbreak of typhoid fever in 1850.  With work on the planking of the roads addressing the sewage problem, the public began agitating for an improvement in the supply of drinking water:

“At first, water was pumped in from the lakeshore, to be stored in a cistern and then piped through hollow logs.  In rough weather the water would be muddy.  Neighborhood wells were often contaminated.  Many houses purchased their potable water by bucket or barrel from water-carts.” 

That was, until 1842, when a private company, the Chicago Hydraulic Company, began pumping lake water from an intake at the foot of Lake Street, located a mere 320′ into the lake, into a reservoir from which it was distributed through a crude system of wooden supply pipes to roughly 20% of the population, all located in the South Division.  More importantly, the intake in the lake was only two blocks downstream from the mouth of the Chicago River, the city’s primary sewer.

William McAlpine, Plan for the Chicago City Hydraulic Company, 1852. The water tower and pumping station are shown at the foot of Chicago Avenue, with a water tower dedicated to each of the three divisions. The one on the Rookery site is at the far left. (Heise and Edgerton, Chicago: Center for Enterprise)

Public concern over a potential repeat cholera outbreak eventually forced the state legislature on February 15, 1851, to incorporate the Chicago City Hydraulic Company, a public corporation with the charge of improving the city’s water supply.  Also created was a Board of Water Commissioners, led by the G&CU’s Superintendent John B. Turner, who immediately hired his Chief Engineer, William McAlpine, as the board’s engineer. (In the mist of this furor, Turner would be thrown into the presidency of the G&CU following Ogden’s resignation on June 2.)  In September 1851, McAlpine presented a plan for a new water system for the city, sized to take it to the year 1875, in which he estimated that the population would reach 162,000 (Chicago passed this mark in 1864).  The plan called for a new pumping station and inlet to be located north (upstream) of the mouth of the river at the foot of Chicago Avenue, to minimize any potential contamination from the river via the lake’s southerly current.  Three new reservoirs, one in each division, would also be built in order to ensure a continuous supply.  

William McAlpine, Chicago City Hydraulic Company Water Tower and Pumping Station, Foot of Chicago Avenue, 1852. (Andreas, History of Chicago)

The municipal election on March 2, 1852, therefore, was a referendum on two issues that intimately involved the city’s relationship with its greatest natural resource: the lake.  In addition to the Illinois Central’s proposed solution to the erosion of the lakefront, the voters were also being asked to support the proposed water works.  Of the 4,445 votes, only 513 were against the plans.  Confronted by the threat of a public-supported competitor, however, the owners of the private Chicago Hydraulic Company threatened an injunction against this scheme unless their interests and long-term debt were bought out by the city.  The argument between the two companies was dwarfed, however, by the return of an even greater outbreak of cholera in 1852 when 630 people died from the disease.  That summer during the height of the epidemic, the city settled the water company issue out of court and a wooden crib 20’ by 40’ was sunk 600’ from the shore into the lake, from which a wooden inlet carried the water to a 25’ deep well dug inland.  Construction of a new pumping station, in which was erected a steam-powered pump above the well, and water tower began soon after.  Both structures were completed in the summer of 1853, with the first supply of water being delivered in February 1854.  The three-stage tower was a brick structure with a height of 136.’  In plan it was a square with sides of 14′ at the base, telescoping to 11′ in the top stage.  The interior of the tower was divided by a wall into two chases, one occupied by the system’s iron standpipe, the other by the steam engine’s chimney.  The heavy structure was erected on a foundation of a bed of sand, placed 6′ below grade.  Typical of Chicago’s early towers, the structure eventually settled 14″ out of plumb. Andreas recorded that it was brought back into vertical “by an ingenious method.”

William McAlpine, Chicago City Hydraulic Company Water South Division Reservoir. At the far left, at the southeast corner of La Salle and Adams, the site of the future Rookery. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago: A Pictorial History)

As excavation on the pumphouse got under way, the company also bought the land for the three reservoirs.  The South Division’s was located along the southern frontage of Adams Street, between La Salle and Clark that was purchased from Philip F. W. Peck for $8,750 in June 1852.  The circular brick structure was completed in November 1854, with a height sufficient to hold the top of the stored water at an elevation 75′ above grade.  On November 22, the reservoir was filled to a depth of 28,’ just 10′ short of the top.  An inspection the following morning revealed that the masonry tank had sustained a series of cracks as the weight of the contained water had forced the reservoir to settle at different intervals over its foundation.  The tank was immediately emptied, and a series of repairs were studied.  The tank was eventually reinforced with iron braces and rods to allow it to be used during the upcoming winter, and further strengthened the following June so that it could at least hold a depth of 18,’ less than half of its planned capacity.  The other two reservoirs in the North and West Divisions were completed in 1858.

William McAlpine, Chicago City Hydraulic Company Water West Division Reservoir, Corner of Monroe and Morgan, 1858. In the center is the Second Baptist Church. The building is the old First Baptist Church that was disassembled on the southeast corner of Washington and La Salle and re-erected on the southwest corner of this intersection. (Jevni)

These early attempts at improving Chicago’s extremely unhealthy physical conditions were too few and too late, however, to prevent the massive onslaught of the 1854 cholera epidemic.  On June 29, as the new water tower and its corresponding system was being fine-tuned and construction on the South Division’s water reservoir was moving toward completion, a train pulled into town that contained a number of Norwegian immigrants bound for Wisconsin.  Unfortunately, the disease was rampant among this group, six having already died on the train en route.  In spite of appropriate quarantine precautions, within a week of the scourge’s arrival, the mortality rate in Chicago due to cholera skyrocketed to 60 persons a day.  The city’s streets were especially clogged with hearses on July 8 and 9, leading to a general exodus from the city on the following Sunday.  Many retreated to Milwaukee in hope of escaping from the pestilence.  The final body count in 1854 reached 1,424, two percent of the total population, giving Chicago the unenviable record of having the highest death rate due to cholera in the country that year.


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago- vols. 1&2. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Heise, Kenan and Michael Edgerton, Chicago: Center for Enterprise. Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1982.

Masters, Edgar Lee. The Tale of Chicago. New York: Putnam, 1933.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago– II. New York: Knopf.  1940.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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