August 18, 2022

Reflections: Oswego’s 137-year quest for a good drink of water

Pioneers had a lot of problems when they began trekking west of the eastern forests onto Illinois’ tallgrass prairies, but finding sufficient water wasn’t among them.

The region’s numerous creeks and rivers, plus the wetland remnants of Ice Age lakes, and the natural springs that dotted river and creek banks provided plenty of good water. But it didn’t take long for many of those sources to become less than satisfactory, especially in the towns that began springing up. Concentrations of people and animals and the waste they generate tended to pollute those numerous natural water sources.

In towns, especially, the exposure of drinking water with animal and human waste was a problem early on. That didn’t only affect the taste and smell of the water, it also generated a lot of deadly waterborne diseases, primarily typhoid.

Most of those early villages were surveyed and laid out based on the measurement of one rod, a surveyor’s measurement equaling 16.5 feet. Lots generally measured 4 rods wide by 8 rods deep, 66 by 132 feet. In 1835, Oswego’s founders, Lewis B. Judson and Levi Arnold, settled on a rectangular town plan of 20 blocks, each block containing eight lots and bisected by two alleys running perpendicular to each other, each measuring 16.5 feet wide. Most streets measured 66 feet wide.

In the days before the germ theory of disease was generally accepted, keeping hand-dug wells a safe distance from outhouses was considered an esthetic, not a vital health issue. Nobody wanted water that smelled and tasted bad, and the connection between contaminated water and disease wasn’t well understood. An additional problem was that Oswego sat atop a relatively thin layer of soil covering a hard limestone underlayment, although the depth of that soil varied from place to place around town. What that meant was that the hand-dug wells of the era genrally tapped into groundwater springs that ran in channels atop that limestone cap. When cesspits under outhouses were dug, they generally stopped at the limestone bedrock, as well. As a result, it was unavoidable for human waste to contaminate drinking water, especially as towns developed and more and more people moved in.

Interestingly enough, Oswego’s initial efforts to produce municipal water supplies were aimed at benefiting the customers of downtown businesses by providing watering troughs for the teams of their wagons and buggies. The village’s first municipal well was dug on the vacant site of the old National Hotel on the east side of Main Street between Washington and Jackson streets. The hotel had been destroyed by fire in 1867. In 1875, the village financed the well, a windmill to pump its water into a holding tank and a watering trough on Main Street fed by a pipe from the holding tank.

Residents of the downtown area, most of who lived above the stores that lined Main Street, also used the town well’s water. But like many early government public works projects, problems resulted from the failure to fund the system’s maintenance. By Sept. 1, 1881, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent undoubtedly echoed the thoughts of many village residents when he complained: “Our public watering tank is a nuisance … Facts are facts. The thing is either dry or else it will contain some water slimy enough to make an alligator puke to drink it.”

The link between contaminated water and cholera had been demonstrated by Dr. John Snow in England in 1854. By the 1880s, the linkage was being accepted more and more widely. In an effort to create a safer water supply in Oswego, in 1885 the Village Board financed digging a new well on the brow of the Washington Street hill in the area of Van Buren Street. The spring-fed well apparently had enough flow to power a hydraulic ram that forced the water into a 3-inch iron water main that was then run down the Van Buren Street hill to Main Street and then north through the downtown business district. But water flow depended on the spring-fed well’s flow and often was undependable.

Then in 1895, a new village administration promising a modern water system and concrete sidewalks was elected. The board decided to carefully plan their new system, soon arranged the financing for the village’s first true municipal water system, complete with a new, deeper dug well, a lofty water tower and a gasoline engine-powered pump to keep the tower filled with water. In addition, a larger network of water mains was laid throughout the village, replacing the old, limited 3-inch downtown-only system.

Chicago Bridge & Iron built the water tower and drilled the well, and other contractors installed the water mains over the next two years. The tower itself consisted of iron legs supporting a wooden tank measuring 20 feet in diameter and 25 feet high. The Record announced from Oswego on July 10, 1895 the new system had gone online, and was judged a great success, especially after its water was used to fight a major blaze when the grain elevator caught fire.

In 1906, the water tower’s wooden tank was replaced by a larger 65,000-gallon steel tank that also provided more water pressure for the system. The old tower served Oswego well for years before it was replaced by a much larger tower at Madison and Douglas streets in 1958.

Oswego’s single water tower served the village well until the era of growth drove its population ever upward from about 1,500 residents living in town in 1958 to today’s current population of more than 34,000. These days, Oswego’s municipal water system consists of eight water wells serving five water towers.

And more changes are coming as Oswego and other area municipalities look at replacing the wells that pump from disappearing deep water aquifers with water piped from Lake Michigan.

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