In a city of symbols, the one that most emphatically says “Chicago” is the historic Water Tower. One of the few buildings to remain standing after the great Chicago fire, the tower and pumping station are portrayed as representatives of the city’s indomitable spirit. Their symbolism goes deeper than surviving the fire, though. Sixty-four feet deeper.
It didn’t take long after Chicago incorporated in 1837 for its citizens to realize they had a water problem. With a river flowing around and through the city into an inland sea, you’d think water would be the least of their worries. However, that river, and the fact that it emptied into the lake, was precisely the issue.
When the town began, its riparian location probably seemed perfect. Well, not exactly perfect. It was still a stinky swamp. But easy access to fresh water was certainly a selling point. Not only could they drink it and bathe with it, but they could also dump stuff into it—like trash, offal, and sewage—and watch it flow right into that giant body of water, never to be seen again.
Using the river as a dumpster sounded like a good idea at the time, but the population kept growing. In 1842 there were 4,500 residents. In 1851, 35,000. And by 1860, more than 100,000 people lived in Chicago. All of them needed to drink water, and all of them put things, dirty things, back into the water.
Read more about this landmark in Living Landmarks of Chicago.
Architect: W. W. Boyington
Address: 806 N. Michigan Ave.
Sources for Water Tower & Pumping Station
This is a selection of specific sources used to provide details while researching this landmark. Additional sources, including books and websites, can be found on the Resources page.
- Chicago Historical Society. Charter, Constitution, By-laws, Membership List, Annual Report. 1918.
- Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator, and William W Boyington. Chicago Water Tower, 800 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Cook County, IL. Chicago Cook County Illinois, 1933.
- “Ask Geoffrey: White Castle Inspired by Chicago Water Tower?” WTTW, October 18, 2017.