The Tunnel Under the Lake recounts the gripping story of how the young city of Chicago, under the leadership of an audacious engineer named Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough, constructed a two-mile tunnel below Lake Michigan in search of clean water.
Despite Chicago’s location beside the world’s largest source of fresh water, its low elevation at the end of Lake Michigan provided no natural method of carrying away waste. As a result, within a few years of its founding, Chicago began to choke on its own sewage collecting near the shore. The befouled environment gave rise to outbreaks of sickness and cholera, and became so acute that even the ravages and costs of the US Civil War did not distract city leaders from taking action.
Chesbrough’s solution was an unprecedented tunnel — five feet in diameter, lined with brick, and dug 60 feet beneath Lake Michigan. Construction began from the shore as well as the tunnel’s terminus in the lake. With workers laboring in shifts and with clay carted away by donkeys, the lake and shore teams met under the lake three years later, just inches out of alignment.
When it opened in March 1867, observers, city planners, and grateful citizens hailed the tunnel as the “wonder of America and of the world”.
Benjamin Sells narrates in vivid detail the exceptional skill and imagination it took to save this storied city from itself. A wealth of fascinating appendixes round out Sells’s account, which will delight those interested in Chicago history, water resources, and the history of technology and engineering.
“Benjamin Sells offers an interesting, meticulous, and thoroughgoing addition to the trove of books on Chicago.” —David Solzman, author of The Chicago River
Historical context that reads like a novel. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
Well written, engaging account of the great engineering feat that made Chicago possible as a modern metropolis.
Great book. I loved it.
Excellent historical read for Chicago residents who sail or have ever wondered about the water intakes (cribs) on Lake Michigan.
This is one of those books about a topic I never even knew I was interested in. Indeed, I had barely even heard of the subject before I saw the book description. But during the mid-19th century, one of the biggest issues limiting the growth of Chicago was the issue of clean water — and its nasty cousin, sewage disposal. This book outlines the construction of a tunnel under Lake Michigan which helped solve that problem. Sells has a easy to read writing style, and the narrative keeps moving. I read the book in a single sitting and was left wanting more.
I would recommend the book to anyone with a curiosity about how things work, especially in the 19th century, and anyone curious about how Chicago went from a mud flat to the “second city”.
This is an excellent history of the Chicago water and sewage problems in the early 20th century. Benjamin Sells covers the difficulties of providing water to a community doubling in population every couple of years, with no outlet for sewage except into nearby waterways — the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, which of course were also the sources of available water. The solution, as proposed by engineer Ellis Chesbrough, was a two-mile long, 6-foot tunnel dug out into Lake Michigan, taking the water outlet out past the contamination of the local sewage outlets. They said it couldn’t be done. Nearly everyone said it couldn’t be done. Chicago proved that not only could it be done, it could be expanded over the twentieth century as needed to keep up with the continually exploding population of Chicago. A very interesting and informative read.
Benjamin Sells tells a remarkable story in The Tunnel under the Lake. At once, Sells weaves together the narratives of individuals, society, natural history, economics, and health and government policy. While that may sound boring in a review, when he does it he makes it seem like magic. The Tunnel under the Lake is more relevant now than ever, with water shortages taking place all over the world and, more and more, within the United States. It tells the story of what happens when cities are built without regard for where their water will come from, and the lengths they must go to to correct their mistakes. While more of a historical critique than a cautionary tale, I think most readers will find this book timely. Ultimately, the book is a fantastic read for anyone interested in cities, history, and natural resources, as well as urban planning. I will be using it in outdoor education capacities whenever the chance arises.
I was fascinated with the feat of trying to get fresh water to a city that was constantly growing by leaps and bounds by being brave enough to bury a tunnel two miles out to into lake Michigan, then a shaft right back up to the water level and build a structure (called a crib) that was so large that it required its own lighthouse to serve as the intake. Not only that, but that particular engineering feat was working and in place for almost 70 years. Think about that, something designed by an amazing man, Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough… a man with no formal college level education, just years of assisting and looking over the shoulder of man who had such education, came up with an ingenious solution to the fundamental problem that was keeping Chicago from being one of our great cities. Not only that, but he convinced the powers that be that it would work and to back his idea. Chesbrough wasn’t just responsible for Chicago becoming a great city, his thinking, and projects touched upon and brought modern sewage and water supply systems throughout the world.