clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Five little-known facts about the iconic Chicago Water Tower

New, 3 comments

The historic Chicago Water Tower is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2019

With a fish eye lens, a photo of the small, square stone building with a tall spire. People walk past the structure on a busy downtown block.
Chicago Water Tower

The Chicago Water Tower is turning 150 this month and the city is celebrating its sesquicentennial in style.

A day-long festival at the Near North Side neighborhood around the 150-year-old structure at 806 N. Michigan Avenue is set for Saturday, September 14 and more than 25 five-foot custom replicas are being temporarily installed along North Michigan Avenue.

Though it’s an iconic symbol representing the city’s post-Great Chicago Fire resilience, the Water Tower’s true history remains shrouded in mystery or misinformation. Here are five facts you probably didn’t know about the Gothic revival style tower built in 1869 from Joliet limestone by architect William Boyington.

The Water Tower is actually taller than listed

Historically, the Water Tower has been listed as 154-feet-tall in literature. Search “Water Tower height” and it’s the first result that comes up. But in 1994, the National Parks Service measured the tower and found that it’s 182 feet, six inches to the tip of its spire.

No, it wasn’t the only building to survive the Great Chicago Fire

As legend has it, the Water Tower was the only structure left standing after the city was ravaged by the Great Fire of 1871 and it quickly became a rallying point for Chicago’s ability to rise phoenix-like from the ashes. But that’s an exaggeration—four other structures in the neighborhood also survived the fire’s path, including the nearby Chicago Avenue Pumping Station, St. Ignatius College Prep, and St. Michael’s Church in Old Town, and a police constable cottage at 2121 N. Hudson. In addition, there were plenty of sections of Chicago on the West and South sides never touched by the fire.

It was probably saved by a German immigrant fireman

The Water Tower would likely not have survived without a firefighter named Frank Trautman, according to the Chicago Architecture Center. During the Great Fire, he covered the building in woolen blankets and discarded canvas sails soaked in lake water—protecting it from the cinders and flaming debris as the rest of the city burned.

Oscar Wilde wasn’t a fan

While in Chicago to give a lecture in 1882, Oscar Wilde famously referred to the ornate stone building as “a castellated monstrosity with pepper-boxes stuck all over it.” But the owners of White Castle had a much higher opinion. When the fast-food chain came to Chicago in 1928, the design of the first local store was a homage of the Water Tower.

The “hanging man” ghost story is a tall tale

One of the most infamous Chicago ghost stories is the one about the city worker who was manning the water pumps in the Tower during the Great Chicago Fire. As the fire encroached, he reportedly hung himself from the top floor rather than be burned to death. According to the popular myth, you can sometimes still see a shadowy hanging figure through the upstairs window. It’s a great tale, but there’s no documented proof of a tragic suicide during the fire.

Chicago Water Tower

806 Michigan Avenue, , IL 60611 Visit Website