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Chicago Sewers Collection

Identifier: spe-nhrc-csc

Scope and Contents

The Chicago Sewers Collection contains historical sketches, maps, photographs, plans and reports. The bulk of the materials contains photographs that depict the construction and repair of Chicago’s sewers with views above and below ground from the 1920s to the 1950s. The sewer systems span neighborhood sites across the city with multiple view of projects at 31st Street, 53rd Street, Addison Street, Anthony Avenue, Berteau Avenue, Beverly Calumet, Broadway Street, Bryn Mawr Avenue, Kostner Avenue, Lamon Avenue, Leamington Avenue, Monroe Street, Polk Street, Vernon Avenue and Wrightwood Avenue. A few of the projects were done as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). A selection of photographs from this collection is available in the Library’s Chicago’s Sewers Digital Collection.

Boxes 2-3 and Oversize Folders 1-2 form the supplement added in 2019.


  • Creation: 1855-circa 2004
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1922 - 1969


Conditions Governing Access

Materials are open without restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Please consult staff to determine ability to reuse materials from collection.

Biographical / Historical

From the establishment of Fort Dearborn in 1803 along the Chicago River to the present day, water and sanitation have always been crucial to Chicago. In the 1830s soldiers from Fort Dearborn cut a new channel through a sandbar that had blocked the mouth of the Chicago River. This channel provided direct access to the river, creating a navigable harbor for ships. The recently incorporated village of Chicago began to grow rapidly on both banks of the Chicago River. Chicago’s new settlers brought livestock and waste. These residents kept hogs and cattle in the alleys. Manure from barns was dumped into the streets and dead livestock were piled along the waterfront. As the village grew, the new residents built further back from the river. When rain fell on Chicago’s low-lying soil, filth collected in shallow bogs and sinkholes. As conditions worsened, the frontier town dug ditches and built streets slanted toward the river, so that waste would drain away when it rained. Garbage was hurled into the ditches and clogged drainage. Even when this primitive system of sanitation worked, it merely shifted the sewage into the river, creating thick, smelly cesspools. By 1845, Chicago was facing an environmental crisis.

Cholera struck Chicago in 1849 and again in 1854. Six consecutive years of cholera and dysentery epidemics impelled the establishment of the Board of Sewerage Commissioners in February 1855. William B. Ogden (Chicago’s first Mayor) was chosen to head the commission, and later, in 1855, Ogden brought Boston engineer Ellis S. Chesbrough to Chicago to design the first comprehensive system of underground sewers in the United States. The Board of Sewerage Commissioners adopted Chesbrough’s plan to drain sewage into the Chicago River, in order to limit the cost and extent of the proposed sewer system. By the spring of 1856 Chesbrough had convinced the Commissioners that the level of Chicago’s streets was much too low to adequately drain the city’s new sewers. He proposed raising the grade of the streets six to ten feet. In this way sewers could be laid on top of existing streets and covered with dirt, and guttered streets could be paved at the new level. Raising the street level created space, not only to accommodate sewer pipes, but gas and water mains as well. Having established a new grade, the process of lifting the city out of the muck began. The Chicago River was dredged to deepen it for sewage, and the soil from the river bottom was used to raise the level of the streets. Owners lifted buildings to meet the new street level; in some cases whole blocks were raised at a time.

The city has faced and overcome many sanitation challenges since Ellis Chesbrough’s arrival in Chicago. In the latter part of the 19th century, the dynamic growth of Chicago’s industries produced an acute industrial waste problem in the Chicago River, which was unsuccessfully combated by a series of enlargements to the Illinois and Michigan Canal, intended to cause the River to flow southwest down the Canal. Later, the establishment of the Chicago Sanitary District in 1889, one of the first regional authorities in the nation, led ultimately to the January 2, 1900, reversal of the flow of the Chicago River, so that waste is carried away from Lake Michigan. Through the years, as new housing was constructed further away from the center of the city, Chicago’s sewers were extended to meet it. By 1930 Chicago’s sewer system was the most extensive in the world.


13.5 Linear Feet (in 16 boxes, includes 951 photographs, 121 glass plate slides)

Language of Materials



The Chicago Sewers Collection contains historical sketches, maps, photographs, plans and reports. The bulk of the materials contains photographs that depict the construction and repair of Chicago’s sewers with views above and below ground. The sewer systems span neighborhood sites across the city and include several Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects. A selection of photographs from this collection are available in the Library’s Chicago’s Sewers Digital Collection.


The collection is arranged into two series: Series 1: Documents, 1855-2004, undated and Series 2: Photographs, 1905-circa 1990, undated.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

John Waller of the Chicago Department of Sewers transferred the collection to the Library in 2008. A supplement was donated by Lynne Crawford and Cora Mae Hawkins in September 2013. They purchased it at a thrift store in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Related Materials

Chicago City-Wide Collection

Chicago Department of Public Works. Bureau of Engineering Photographs

Chicago Department of Urban Renewal Records

Chicago Department of Water Management

Washington, Harold Archives & Collections. Mayoral Records. Infrastructure Sub-Cabinet Records

Guide to the Chicago Sewers Collection
Original author unknown, 2008 October. Updated in 2019. Updated and ingested into ArchivesSpace by Michelle McCoy, 2022.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Unit at Harold Washington Library Center Repository

Harold Washington Library Center, 9th Floor
Chicago Public Library
400 S. State Street
Chicago IL 60605 United States
(312) 747-4875