Early history of Pekin’s water works

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in March 2015 before the launch of this weblog.

Early history of Pekin’s water works

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Running water piped into our homes is something we take for granted today, but it’s something that Pekin residents have only been able to enjoy for 128 years.

The construction of Pekin’s water works was one of the major community improvement projects of the 1880s, the same decade that saw the founding of Mineral Springs Park and the building of Pekin’s original plank bridge over the Illinois River. The decision to install a public water works system was made in the administration of Mayor J. L. Smith, and the system was completed under Mayor A. R. Warren.

Here is the account of the construction and characteristics of the water works as told in Ben C. Allensworth’s 1905 “History of Tazewell County,” pages 945-946:

“The Water Works system in the City of Pekin was completed early in the year 1887, under a franchise granted in May of the previous year, to Charles A. Lamb and Henry S. Raymond.

“The system, as originally projected, called for 8 ½ miles of cast-iron mains and 100 fire-hydrants. Since then the street mains have been added to from year to year and, in 1904, the Company controlled 16 miles of cast-iron mains from four to sixteen inches in diameter, with 159 fire hydrants and 12 miles of galvanized iron street-mains of from one to two inches in diameter.

“The pumping machinery consists of two compound-duplex pumps, of the George F. Blake pattern, with a daily capacity of three million gallons. The pumps take water from a system of driven wells sunk to a depth of 127 feet, which furnish a bountiful supply of clear and pure water at all times. The water is raised to a stand-pipe 137 feet high, having a capacity of 127,000 gallons, which furnishes a domestic pressure of sixty pounds. In case of fire, pumping is direct into the mains, when a fire pressure of 120 pounds is maintained.

“Water is furnished to nearly 1,500 customers, a population of approximately 7,000 people, being nearly eight-tenths of the population within the corporate limits of the City. This is a very large percentage for a city of the size of Pekin, and the fact would tend to show that the local water supply is quite satisfactory in quality as well as quantity.”

The Water Works pumps and water tower were located at the southwest corner of Capitol and Court streets, where the water company is still located today.

This photograph from 1912 shows Pekin’s old water tower and water works located at the southwest corner of Broadway and South Capitol.

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Pekin from the old water tower

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Following up on our comparison last month of two old aerial views of Pekin from circa 1950 and 1988, this week let’s stretch our view even further back in time – all the way back to the last couple decades of the 1800s.

Around that time, Richard Acton of Chicago prepared and published a collection of photographs of Pekin buildings and vistas, in a book entitled, “Pekin and Environs.” As we noted about a month ago, recently the library received a donation of Benjamin S. Prettyman’s own copy of “Pekin and Environs.”

Among the photos in this book are two aerial views of Pekin – or “semi-aerial,” because in those days it wasn’t that easy for photographers to get themselves airborne, so instead they would have to settle for perching atop tall buildings or towers or hills.

In this case, the photos – called “birdseye views” – were taken from the old water tower of the Pekin Water Works, which was located exactly where the “water works” of Illinois-American Water are still located today – at the southwest corner of Broadway and Capitol.

Whereas the 1950 and 1988 aerial views start at the Illinois River and look eastward over downtown Pekin and beyond, these two birdseye views look westward toward the river. One of them looks somewhat northwestward over downtown Pekin, while the other looks southwest toward the industrial district (still an industrial area today).

The downtown view encompasses an area from around Broadway out to Court St., and from the 300 block of Pekin’s downtown streets down to the river. Then as now, railroad tracks ran parallel with Third St., but there’s not much else that is the same or similar. You may notice that the streets were unpaved and much narrower than they are today. The tall white building in the middle of the photo is the old Illinois Hotel, which can be seen in the circa 1950 aerial view of Pekin, but was torn down in the 1960s. The block in the center of this photo, packed with homes that had sheds, pens and coops for livestock, is now occupied by the State of Illinois Driver’s Facility, while the block to the east of that is now occupied by Davison-Fulton-Woolsey Funeral Home.

The birdseye view to the southwest looks toward some of Pekin’s old alcohol distilleries, once the backbone of the city’s economy. As you can see, the way the factories belched out smoke and fumes over the city indicates that this was long before the Clean Air Act. Even in those days, prevailing winds carried the exhaust of factory smoke stacks out over the city – but placing the distilleries downstream at least meant Pekin’s residents wouldn’t have to drink the effluent which factories discharged into the river.

These two photographs above from the circa 1890 volume “Pekin and Environs” show two “birdseye” views of Pekin looking northwest and southwest from the old water tower that was located near the southwest corner of Capitol and Broadway.

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