Illinois: Chicago Water Tower

This building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was designed by W. W. Boyington. It housed the 138-foot stand pipe necessary for the adjacent pumping station and survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; it is no longer in use as part of the waterworks of Chicago. The history of the Chicago Water Tower is featured in a program at the information center in the pumping station.

Site Office

Pumping Station

163 East Pearson Street

Chicago, IL 60611

ph.: (312) 280-5748

Dwarfed by the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center, two soaring examples of Chicago’s present-day architectural flavor, the Chicago Water Tower is still one of Chicago’s best-loved landmark towers. It stands at the top of Michigan Avenue, forcing the straight avenue to bend slightly in order to accommodate it. It is built of buff-colored Lemont limestone and is built in a fanciful neo-Gothic style, slightly reminiscent of a medieval European castle.

It is most famous for being the only municipal building in Chicago to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. As the flames subsided on Tuesday, October 10, 1871, and gave way to a view of charred embers for miles around, the Chicago Water Tower provided a vital landmark for the survivors trying to find their way through the devastation. In subsequent years, the Water Tower has consolidated its role as the foremost Chicago landmark. It initially was seen as incorporating the “I will” mentality of the early Chicagoans: the determination of the city’s population not to be defeated by the most devastating of all nineteenth century metropolitan fires, but to rebuild their thriving city bigger and better than before. Now, standing amid some of the finest architectural accomplishments of the twentieth century, it serves as a reminder of Chicago’s nineteenth century history and of the city’s beginnings.

Improving Chicago’s Water Supply

In the pioneer days of the 1830’s Chicagoans had to rely upon water taken from Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, and from a few wells in the city. This water was then transported through the streets in barrels sold to the citizens for ten cents a barrel. In 1839 a municipal water company was formed and a reservoir was built on the lakeshore near the present Michigan Avenue and Water Street. From here, with the help of a small steam-powered engine and an elementary network of wooden pipes which had been hollowed out of tree trunks, water was drawn from Lake Michigan and pumped to those within the city willing to pay for the service. However, the Chicago River also carried the city’s sewage, including the effluent from the stockyards, tanneries, distilleries, and other industrial plants, into the lake. The inadequate separation of the city’s clean water supply from its waste disposal led to a heavy annual death toll from cholera and typhoid.

In 1862 the water commissioners embarked upon plans to improve the water supply to the city’s population of 330,000. The first move on the part of the water commissioners to address this problem was to lay a brick pipe five feet in diameter in the heavy blue clay sixty-six feet under the lake, letting it emerge two miles away from the shore where the water was clean. This in itself was hailed as an engineering feat and elicited intense interest elsewhere in the United States as well as in Europe, where plans of the construction were exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1867. Others called it “Chicago’s folly,” predicting that it would never last. However, it was still in use in the early 1930’s and proved to be the beginning of what in the early twentieth century became the world’s largest water system and involved further famous engineering achievements, such as the subsequent reversal of the Chicago River: Through a system of locks the river was made to flow away from the lake, thus eliminating the potential for contaminating the fresh water supply with sewage.

The tunnel beneath the lake was started in 1864 and completed in December, 1866, but as it was only the first step of a three-part project, it was not until 1867 that Chicagoans were able to enjoy the fresh lake water it could supply. The three-part installation included the tunnel, the water tower, and a new pumping station. In order to draw the clean lake water through the newly constructed tunnel, a pumping station had to be constructed on the east side of the present Michigan Avenue. This housed the pumping engine which was capable of pumping eighteen million gallons of water in a day. Until then the maximum that had been pumped from the lake was 11,610,864 gallons, so that the new supply was at the time considered far in excess of the city’s current needs and that therefore the installation would prove to be a sound investment for the future of the quickly expanding city. The contract for the new engine was received by the Morgan Iron Works of New York in July, 1865, and by August, 1866, most of the machinery had been shipped to Chicago.

The final part in this new water supply system was a standpipe. In the proposed method of pumping water from the lake a vertical pipe was inserted into the horizontal one in order to relieve the pulsating pressure caused by the engine’s pumping action. The design of the engine meant that water was pumped in regular bursts and the resulting pressure could prove too much for the network of pipes to bear. With the installation of a standpipe the excess water could simply escape from the horizontal pipe and rise up inside the vertical one, thus relieving the pressure.

In the Chicago installation it was determined that a standpipe 138 feet tall and 3 feet in diameter would be needed to relieve this pressure. Public officials believed the steel standpipe should be concealed by a building of “more than usual architectural beauty.” Prominent Chicago architect W. W. Boyington was appointed by the Board of Public Works to design the Chicago Water Tower in which the standpipe would be housed.

The Architect

W. W. Boyington (1818-1898) was born in Southwick, Massachusetts, and came to Chicago in 1853. Buildings of his design included the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet and the Sherman House hotel in Chicago. For the Chicago Water Tower he chose a style known as Castellated Gothic, giving the construction the air of a medieval fortress or tower. The locally quarried buff-colored Lemont limestone was hewn in large rusticated blocks, further adding to the “fortress” feel of the building. The exterior of the tower is decorated with turrets and battlements. The actual shaft encompassing the standpipe is octagonal and rises 154 feet from the ground. At the top of the shaft there is an iron cupola. By March, 1867, the foundations had been laid and the tower was ready for the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone. This was done by the city’s Masons and was preceded by an elaborate procession of members of various Masonic Lodges.

The parade began at Dearborn and Randolph Streets, moved north on Clark Street, and finally proceeded up Pine Street (now Michigan Avenue) to the site of the Chicago Water Tower. The ceremony, which culminated in the lowering of the stone and the ritual handing of the tools from the Principal Architect to the Grand Master and various other Masonic dignitaries was described vividly by a contemporary Chicago Republican reporter: “These officers tested the perfection of the stone by the square, level, and plumb. On their satisfactory report, the stone was consecrated with corn, wine and oil, the proper addresses being made by the representative officers; the Grand Master struck it three times with a gavel, and the ceremony was over.” Upon completion in 1869, the Chicago Water Tower was architecturally the most imposing of the new waterworks buildings. When all the bills had been paid for it in 1870, the tower had cost $95,587.37 to construct.

The Great Chicago Fire

The tower was constructed entirely of stone, brick, and iron. The construction was proudly announced to be completely fireproof, and within less than two years this boast was put to a terrible test. On Sunday, October 8, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire broke out in the cowshed to the rear of 137 DeKoven Street–as legend has it, by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocking over a lantern. The inferno lasted until the evening of Tuesday, October 10. During these two days flames swept across three and one-third square miles in the heart of the city, leaving nothing in their path except the Chicago Water Tower, the Mahlon D. Ogden residence at Dearborn and White (now Walton) Streets, and the cottage of a police officer at 2121 North Hudson. In the most destructive fire in U.S. history, eighteen thousand buildings–property valued at two hundred million dollars–turned to rubble, ninety thousand people were left homeless, and an estimated three hundred people died. The exact mortality has never been conclusively established, however, due to the difficulty of determining who fled the city and who perished without trace in the flames.

Several factors contributed to the fire’s swift grasp of the city and its subsequent relentless destruction. The entire Great Lakes area had suffered a drought throughout the summer and fall of 1871, leaving the land dry and parched. Before the fire, Chicago was largely built of wood, with very few stone or brick buildings. This was typical of a nineteenth century booster town of the American West, of which Chicago was the supreme example. Many of its streets were dangerously overcrowded, leaving no space between the wooden buildings. In the light of these hazardous realities the city fire brigade was hopelessly inadequate–and was to be sorely put to the test.

Prior to the Great Chicago Fire there had been several smaller fires, which the municipal fire brigade had managed to bring under control. One fire in particular, however, had a crucial effect on the brigade. On Saturday, October 7, a planing mill on Canal Street, on the near west side between Jackson and Van Buren Streets caught fire. The entire fire department had to be called out and several pieces of its apparatus were put out of commission. When the fire was finally extinguished, more than half the firefighters were too tired to work any longer. No sooner had disaster been averted at the planing mill than the cowshed on DeKoven, also on the west side of the city, caught fire. The Great Chicago Fire started three-eighths of a mile west of the southern branch of the Chicago River. Before midnight it had crossed the river branch moving toward the northeast side of the city. Then it crossed the river itself, moving through the north side. By 3:30 a.m. on Monday the waterworks at Chicago Avenue and Pine Street (now Michigan Avenue) were blazing so fiercely that firefighters had to abandon them. The fire proceeded north as far as Fullerton Avenue, then the city limits. Rain extinguished the last smoldering embers of the fire, which by this stage had all but burnt itself out.

The ferocity of the fire lodged itself in the imagination of the city’s population. Many eyewitness accounts spoke of walls of fire being blown across the city, causing new areas to be ignited in advance of the main body of the fire reaching those areas. It also is well documented, however, that the weather during the two days of the fire did not include strong winds. The phenomenon described by the eyewitnesses is that of so-called “fire devils,” or convection heat, balls of flame hurled forward simply through the heat generated by the main body of the fire. Against such odds the wooden structures of the city were doomed. One famous testimony to the fire, a letter written by Mary L. Fales to her mother, speaks of burying the family’s most treasured objects that were too heavy to carry in their escape. In the hope that they would be preserved both from the fire and from any subsequent looting, her husband buried her piano and some other things in their garden. When they returned to the charred remains of their house they discovered that the piano had “burned under the ground; nothing was left but the iron plates.”

The devastation was on such a grand scale that of all the great U.S. metropolitan fires of the nineteenth century, Chicago’s really caught the imagination, not only of Chicagoans but also of the nation as a whole. Within days after the fire the Chicago Relief and Aid Society had been organized and began accepting the generous donations which began to flood into Chicago from elsewhere in the country and later, when news spread, from Europe as well. As a result the city was able to start rebuilding immediately, and makeshift shelters were erected as a matter of priority. When the winter came, the city could proudly claim that none of the fire victims was homeless or without food.


The aftermath of the fire has contributed to the lore of the city as much as the fire itself. Due to the total destruction caused by the inferno, the fire in the long run provided Chicago’s watershed–life in the city before and after the fire. If before the fire Chicago had been characterized by the booster spirit of the American West, afterward its population was motivated to start again and build a bigger and better city. The fire demonstrated that the booming city of Chicago was destined to become one of the foremost U.S. cities. Within days work began to clear the rubble and real estate speculation commenced. Soon land in the center of the city was more valuable laid to waste than it had been before the fire.

Although two hundred million dollars worth of property had been lost, new construction was far more costly. All this was financed not only through insurance claims, which were for the most part met, but by fresh entrepreneurial money which flooded into the city. Within three years after the fire, Chicago once more dominated its region. After 1871 Chicago became the fastest-growing city in the United States, attributable to its commercial strength in commodities trade, as well as to its favorable location at the crossroads of the transcontinental railway and the Great Lakes and other major waterways. The pride in the city’s survival and resurrection is commemorated to this day in its flag and in the landmark status accorded to the Chicago Water Tower.

Decline of the Tower’s Usefulness

Though the Water Tower survived the inferno the pumping station was destroyed and had to be rebuilt. By 1906 the pumping system that required a standpipe had become obsolete. Consequently, the Chicago Water Tower had a relatively short useful life and in 1918 faced demolition. Architectural tastes had changed and more people were inclined to agree with author Oscar Wilde, who is said to have called the Chicago Water Tower “a castellated monstrosity with pepper boxes stuck all over it.” Furthermore, the tower stood in the path of the planned widening of Michigan Avenue as Pine Street had been renamed in 1917. The tower’s proposed demolition, however, produced public outrage, and alternative plans to move the Chicago Water Tower and reconstruct it out of the way of the Michigan Avenue expansion proved impracticable. City officials relented and ordered that Michigan Avenue be bent a little to accommodate the tower. Other later attempts to have the tower demolished met with similar outrage, and efforts were made to secure a supply of limestone with which to keep the tower from falling into a state of disrepair.

In 1967, as a measure of the Chicago Water Tower’s symbolic importance to twentieth century Chicago, at the one hundredth anniversary of the tower’s construction, Mayor Richard J. Daley presented a piece of surplus stone from the tower to Robert E. Slater, president of the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company. Slater promised the stone would be embedded in the John Hancock Center, which was then under construction.

Landmark Status

In 1971 the entire area of valuable publicly owned real estate known as the Water Tower District, comprising the Water Tower and its small park on North Michigan Avenue, the Chicago Avenue pumping station, Engine Company 98’s fire station, and the ten-acre Seneca Park, was designated a city landmark. The Water Tower was placed safely out of reach of any further threats to its existence and its position in the hearts of Chicagoans was firmly established. The tower itself is not open to the public, but a tourist information center exists opposite the Tower on East Pearson Street at the site of the old pumping station. The one-hour long “Here’s Chicago” show can be viewed here daily, giving the visitor a graphic idea of the early history of the city, the devastation of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and of the role of the Chicago Water Tower within that history.

For Further Information

  • Angle, Paul M., ed. The Great Chicago Fire. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1971. Another excellent source, with an introduction and notes by Angle. It is a compilation of eight eyewitness accounts given by men and women who lived through the horrors of October 8-10, 1871, and testified to the courage of the city’s inhabitants.
  • Bales, Richard F. Did the Cow Do It? A New Look at the Great Chicago Fire. Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1997. A history of Chicago and the fire in 1871 that examines its causes and outcome.
  • Lowe, D., ed. The Great Chicago Fire in Eyewitness Accounts and Seventy Contemporary Photographs and Illustrations. New York: Dover Press, 1979. Gives a vivid introduction to the scale and devastation of the Chicago fire of 1871.
  • Miller, Ross. American Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Myth of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. An excellent excerpt from this book was published in the Spring/Summer, 1990, edition of Chicago History, the Chicago Historical Society’s magazine. It puts forward the thesis that the Great Fire was quickly given mythical proportions as part of the booster spirit on the back of which Chicago rose again so swiftly after the disaster.