Early Chicago, 1833–1871
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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June 9, 1848

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In 1836, the state legislature issued a charter to the Chicago Hydraulic Company allowing it to supply water to the town. This was done without the permission of the town's trustees. By the spring of 1842, the company's mains covered a large portion of the city and hydrants were available for the use of the city's fire companies. Water was pumped from the lake by steam powered engines into two large reservoirs. From the reservoirs it flowed into wooden pipes which lay in the streets. Rates for private homes with no more than five inhabitants were $10 a year while taverns and hotels were charged between $50 and $200. The city purchased the company in 1855, and introduced various improvements including construction of the Water Tower and Water Works, extension of the intake valve two miles out into Lake Michigan, and addition of more efficient filters (1869). Before these improvements were introduced the water piped into homes and businesses contained small fish, newts, and accumulations from slaughterhouses, tanneries, distilleries, and glue factories. Many households in the city did not have plumbing and relied on well water. As part of the effort to cleanse the water supply, the flow of the Chicago River was reversed in 1871 to carry its pollution south.

Points to Consider

What was the Chicago Hydraulic Company?

Why was an ordinance passed to prohibit washing animals between the Hydraulic Works and the South Pier?

Which kinds of pollutants could have been found in Chicago's water supply in 1848?

How was drinking water purified at that time?

See Related Document:

2, 12, 14, 17, 21, 30, 31, 32, and 41

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