High Lift Building of the Detroit
Water and Sewerage Department

10100 East Jefferson Avenue

This is one of the most frequently seen and attractive governmental buildings in Detroit. However, few people comment about it or could describe its importance. And, at present, it is very well guarded and closed to the public so few of us will ever get inside or even walk on its large green campus.

There is a fascinating history of water service in those cities that reached a substantial size in the Nineteenth Century.  One great need for a water system was the threat of fire.  Most buildings were constructed of wood or some combination of wood, stone and brick.  Most large cities experienced tremendous fires that destroyed many homes and structures.  Detroit was burned to the ground on June 11, 1805 when an unattended fire in a bakery spread quickly.  By the 1890s, developments in civil engineering and building design led to a decrease in the number of large fires that destroyed many blocks.

And then there were the tremendous contributions of Dr. John Snow. In 1849, Dr. Snow, in London, challenged the commonly accepted idea that contagious diseases such as cholera were spread by miasmas, that is, spread by breathing foul and contaminated air such as that emanating from dumps and swamps.  He proposed what is now known as the germ theory of contagious disease but he did not use that term.  Cholera was a major killer in many American cities before the advent of clean water systems.  The outbreak in Detroit in the 1836 killed numerous Irish immigrants and hastened the death of Father Gabriel Richard.

Dr. Snow sought evidence to disprove the miasma theory. In the 1850s, he carefully studied deaths by cause throughout the neighborhoods of London, looking for geographic patterns. By 1854, he found that residents of a Soho neighborhood who drew their water from a particular pump on Broad Street were exceptionally likely to suffer and die from cholera.  He determined that the company supplying that pump drew their water from the Thames River at a point after the city’s sewage drained into the river.  The clientele of water companies that drew their water from the Thames prior to its being polluted with sewage had much lower rates of cholera.  At first, Snow’s conclusions about the health benefits of drinking clean water and the disastrous consequences of drinking water polluted by sewage were debated.  Quite quickly, his evidence was recognized as convincing. Cities around the world accelerated their efforts to purify water and lay down comprehensive water and sewage systems. Generally, prosperous neighborhoods were served with the expensive new pipes long before low-income neighborhoods.  Urban historians in a few cities have shown the differentials in mortality that were linked to the differentials in when water and sewer lines were put in place in the late Nineteenth Century.  Olivier Zunz describes such difference in Detroit in his University of Chicago Press book, The Changing Face of Inequality: Urbanization, Industrialization, Development, and Immigration in Detroit: 1880-1920.

There are interesting questions about when does a government takeover or begin to provide a public service.  Roads in Michigan were originally privately-owned toll roads but with the coming of the auto, the state began building and owning roads. In older American cities, the first water systems were developed and owned by for-profit concerns that secured charters from a local government.   You might a find a few cities now that still have private firms supplying water, but after Dr. Snow’s epidemiology evidence became widely accepted, most municipalities began to own and operate the local water and sewer systems.

For almost two decades after baker John Harvey’s fire destroyed the village of Detroit, residents drew their water from their own wells or from the Detroit River. Changes occurred slowly, but on August 5, 1824, Territorial Governor Lewis Cass and the territorial legislature granted Peter Berthelet of Montréal the right to erect a wharf and pump water from the river for the city’s residents.  Residents were taxed $1 per year for the right to use Berthelet’s water system. Apparently, Berthelet did not have an exclusive right to supply water since City Council granted licenses to several other individuals to provide water, primarily by drawing it from the river.  In the late 1820s, Rufus Wells and Bethuel Farrand built a 10,000-gallon reservoir on the river bank using horse power to pump the water. By the end of the 1820s, households were taxed $10 per year for water service.  In 1835, Detroit voters approved the sale of $50,000 in bonds to purchase Berthelet’s system.  A new waterworks was built in 1841, apparently the result of both governmental and private investments.

In 1852, City Council and the state legislature enacted laws creating the agency that has become the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, an organization that now provides water and sewer service to about 40 percent of Michigan’s population. That is, the water system founded by the city of Detroit in 1835 and still owned by the city supplies water and provides sewerage services to the city and to most of the suburban ring.

In many cities, an entrepreneurial individual took over leadership in providing water and sewage system.  In Detroit, I believe that person was Chauncey Hurlbut.  Born in Oneida, New York in 1803, he migrated to Detroit in 1825, the year when the Erie Canal opened.  That event led to Detroit’s first era of rapid population growth.  Hurlbut started working as a harness maker, but soon joined his brother-in-law in establishing a grocery firm.  I believe he became a prosperous wholesale grocer. At that time, many prosperous businessmen took on civic responsibilities.  Hurlburt became fire commissioner for the city and, presumably, in that job, he realized the need for a good system of water distribution.  He served on the Board of Water Commissioners from 1861 to 1863 and again from 1868 to 1884, many of those years as President of the Board.  This was the era in which Detroit’s modern water system grew rapidly laying the groundwork for the city’s industrial development.  Chauncey Hurlbert died in 1885 and designated that much of his estate be used to improve Waterworks Park.  I believe his estate funded both the construction of the Chauncey Hurlbut gate and its recent renovation.

Prior to 1880, the Board of Water Commissioners purchased a 56-acre tract on East Jefferson where the building you see is located.  This is known as Waterworks Park. It became clear that the area’s population and industrial activities were growing rapidly and that a vast amount of clean water would be needed. Indeed, by 1907, the city’s system was supplying an average of 160 gallons of water per day for every resident. Of course, much of that water was used by industries. There was a Nineteenth century pumping station on the grounds of Waterworks Park but a much larger facility was needed.   Officials commissioned the Field, Hinchman and Smith architectural firm to design a massive building for the pumps. The result is the very large, but appealing, High Lift building that you see.

Romans were famous for their extensive water system. Indeed, aqueducts they built millennia ago remain standing in the former Roman Empire. Some of them may still be in use as bridges. So elements of classical architecture from the Roman era helped inspire the design of this building and several of the other massive buildings that the Water and Sewerage Department commissioned over the last couple of centuries. The budget for building this massive structure must have been suitably generous.  I do not know who carved the bas reliefs that are on this building.  The structure was completed about 15 years before the famous Carrado Parducci came to Detroit to work with Albert Kahn. One of the bas reliefs on this High Lift building shows a Roman architect designing an aqueduct; another portrays a Native American drinking from a stream, while the third shows workers digging a water tunnel.

Shortly after the Board of Water Commission purchased this property in the 1870s, it became a popular public park. It provided access to the Detroit River but was also used for many recreational purposes. Indeed, pictures from the 1920s show not only picnicking families, but pools for swimming and small lakes for boating, as well as facilities for other recreational activities. This must have been a busy and popular public park in the era before almost universal car ownership.

Waterworks Park was closed to the public during World War I because of a fear that enemy agents might disrupt the city’s water supply. Once again in World War II, it was closed to the public with the hope of protecting the water supply in the "Arsenal of Democracy." City officials closed the entire Waterworks Park in 1951, but I do not know the reason. Citizens protested the closure. In 1957, I believe that a strip of land along the Detroit River in what had been Waterworks Park was opened to the public. Then in 1961, a few acres close to East Jefferson were opened. They did not remain open to the public for long.  Perhaps due contemporary concerns about terrorism, security has been substantially increased in recent years and many signs have been erected warning of the dire consequences of trespassing in what was once one of the city’s finest parks. Unless you have a close friend who holds a powerful appointment in the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, you will probably not be able to appreciate the Parducci bas-reliefs or the other details of this impressive building that will celebrate its centennial birthday in 2010.

Architects: Field, Hinchman and Smith
Architectural style: Strong classical Roman influences
Date of Construction: 1910
Use in 2011: Pumping station used to provide southeast Michigan with fresh water
Website for a fascinating and detailed history of the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department written by Michael Daisy: http://www.dwsd.org/history/complete_history.pdf
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
National Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; July 23, 2007
Description updated: October, 2010

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