One-shot #27: Interior of the Chicago Water Works Pumping Engine House in 1875

I love old water works facilities. In fact, I have photographed one the the USA’s most important such facilities, the New Milford Plant of the Hackensack Water Works. It’s absolutely stunning inside there – the 5-story-tall 1915 Allis-Chalmers VTE engine alone is worth the trip to Van Buskirk Island in Oradell, NJ. That old equipment is breathtaking to behold. It’s also mostly gone – there are several preserved waterworks in the States, but sadly, the majority have either been gutted (with the machines removed for scrap) or simple demolished. Thankfully, in some cases, a record remains, in the form of a photograph – or if we’re very lucky, a stereoview:

An 1875 interior stereoview of the Chicago Avenue Pumping Station, with engines of unknown manufacture depicted. An irregularly sized (4×7″) Holmes-style card from Chicago manufacturer Lovejoy & Foster.

Built in 1869, the Chicago Avenue Pumping Station faced the great fire of 1871 shortly after its completion – and just like the water tower across the street, was one of the few buildings to escape the conflagration entirely unscathed. Fortunately, on the same block (and now within the same U.S. Landmark Historic District) was the oldest firehouse in Chicago – and in that firehouse was a German immigrant fireman by the name of Frank Trautman. This brave man realized that the nearby buildings could be saved by covering them with canvas tarps and ships’ sails, constantly being doused with water from the lake until the flames no longer threatened the lovely structures.

Remarkably, the pumping station is still in use to this day. Sadly, the machine pictured in this stereoview is long-gone. Unlike the aforementioned plant in New Jersey, they didn’t just add on to the structure to accommodate the much more powerful (and much smaller) electric engines that replaced these, nor the more efficient engines which replaced those. Rather, when newer technology became available, these gorgeous steam-powered giants were simply discarded in the name of efficiency. The space they occupied is now repurposed into a performance space for a theatre company – the engines currently in use fit into smaller areas of the building.

As to this stereoview, it was one of several Lovejoy & Foster views of the Water Works, both during and after the fire. The company had really made a name for itself with its 1871 stereographs capturing the conflagration and its aftermath, and by the time of this 1875 view, were a prominent purveyor of 3D photos of the Windy City. They were primarily a local outfit, though like most stereo photographers they shot other subjects, such as Yosemite. And they captured this painterly image of the pumping station interior when steam was still powering just about everything – which is a wonderful thing, because although we can never see these engines, we can look at this view and imagine ourselves right there in the room, looking at these Victorian-era behemoths.


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