Athens has the Acropolis, Cairo has the Pyramids, London has Big Ben, New York has the Statue of Liberty, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, all icons that are synonymous with the cities they represent. These things are instantly recognizable and universally understood to represent the city they belong to. Chicago has the Water Tower.
We’ve all seen it, standing proudly near the corner of Chicago and Michigan, a street named for the city and one named for the Lake, both intwined with the Water Tower. It’s one of the longest-used icons of the city, gracing postcards, inhabiting snow globes, adorning T-shirts, mugs and key chains. Capping off the north end of the Magnificent Mile, it is a survivor, landmark and fairy castle wrapped into one. But what do we really know about this symbol, other than it purportedly being the only building to survive the great Chicago Fire of 1871? That is not entirely true—a brewery close to the tower and two mansions north of present-day Oak Street also remained after the devastation. Those structures were torn down later, and although threatened many times, the Water Tower still stands.
In “The Chicago Water Tower,” John Hogan gives personality to the structure that was built to disguise a 150-foot-tall standpipe, which became an icon. His telling of the Water Tower’s history reads like the script of a documentary made for WTTW. By skillfully mixing historical facts with local lore, he takes the reader to shortly after the Civil War when Chicago was the new frontier, when it was drawing in people who were looking toward a new future and a new fortune. He explains that the Water Tower was not built by the city, but by entrepreneurs who sought their fortune by supplying Chicagoans with clean drinking water pumped in from intake cribs three miles out in the lake, where sewage did not get mixed in, stopping the spread of deadly diseases, such as cholera and dysentery. Boyington’s legacy includes the gothic revival Second Presbyterian Church of Peoria and the fortress-like gate at the original Stateville Prison.
Hogan also explains how the Water Tower influenced the transformation of Pine Street, which was full of manufacturing and warehousing to the Michigan Avenue and Gold Coast as we know today. He also outlines the many attempts to tear down the Water Tower before and after the standpipe became obsolete.
As a historian and former broadcast journalist for WGN-TV and radio, and author of five previous books with The History Press, Hogan’s writing is entertaining. The only thing he didn’t discuss was that, although the Water Tower is designated a landmark, it isn’t considered an official city symbol. But don’t tell that to the tourists or the souvenir makers.
“The Chicago Water Tower”
By John F. Hogan
History Press, 128 pages
L. D. Barnes writes mystery, historical fiction and poetry. She is working on the second novel in her Chicago Street Crime series while living on the far south side. Barnes is a member of FLOW (For Love of Writing), Longwood Writers Guild and Mystery Writers of America. She performs locally.