Water, water everywhere, but not enough to drink

A new book explores how Chicago’s first planners dealt with this lakeside conundrum.

May 24, 2013

The story of Chicago’s founding as a modern American city sometimes reads like the creation myth of some bygone animist religion. We were meant to settle here, the story goes, because this is the spot where the winding Chicago River empties cleanly into the great blue expanse of Lake Michigan. This is the place where the prairie meets the water, where the water meets the prairie.

Great news – especially the water part – for a booming metropolis, right? 

“It would seem that Chicago would have no problem,” said Northwestern University historian Carl Smith. “Twenty percent of the world’s surface water is right there. . . What more could you want?”

Actually, Smith says, Chicago’s natural landscape proved a huge disadvantage to early settlers.

The ground was soggy and drained poorly. The river deposited silt in the lake and made navigation around the mouth of the river nearly impossible. And crucially, the city made the grave mistake of dumping its waste and pulling its drinking water from the same source.

Can you say cholera? It took an outbreak of the waterborne disease (and the surfacing of dead bodies in the shore-side cemetery) for city fathers to figure out what a bad idea this was.

Smith has studied of what came next, and the resulting book, City Water, City Life (University of Chicago Press, 2013), outlines the Chicago’s early attempts to build the kind of water infrastructure needed to support the Windy City’s rapid growth.

The bigger Chicago got, the more desperate its water problems became. The city had 330,000 inhabitants by 1870, and over a million just 20 years later, making it the second largest in the country and ushering in a kind of urban density the country had never known.

You can’t just let people fend for themselves at that point, Smith argues – especially if you need them.

“As a matter of principle you cannot deprive people of water, and [in] practice you need these people, particularly to work the jobs in the city,” he said.

In the audio above, Smith explores Chicago’s first few attempts to lick this problem. It’s a shockingly juicy tale for a bit of urban planning history.

My favorite part? The one where fish came right out of the taps!

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Carl Smith spoke at an event presented by the Newberry in May of 2013. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.

Robin Amer is a producer on WBEZ’s digital team. Follow her on Twitter @rsamer.