“U” is for Underground

Gazette Article by: Phil Hoza
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring/Summer 2001

Several years ago when the Minnesota Historical Society reopened its exhibit area, a unique approach was taken to interpret its history from “A to Z.” Various objects and topics were depicted by “letters,” and visitors moved through the gallery “alphabetically.” The editorial board of the Winnetka Historical Society Gazette has decided to adopt a similar technique and has added a new feature, “WINNETKA HISTORY: A to Z.”

Clearly, the “U” word most applicable to Winnetka is not “Ugly.” One of the main reasons why that’s true is because so many of the necessary mechanical systems that make life here so comfortable exists “underground.” This was a city planning decision that can be traced back to Winnetka’s earliest settlers.

The settlers originally had artesian wells and outhouses. In the 1890s, due to the rapid growth of our community, a battle began for underground village sewers and water. Moving into the new century was going to offer a big change in underground comforts and in 1890 sewers were dug and routed to empty into Lake Michigan and the west Skokie swamps.

By 1910 we rapidly reached a population of 3,168 residents. Thus began a continuing pattern of growth followed by necessary improvements. Between 1913 and 1916, more sanitary changes were needed to handle the increased flow and a master plan was designed to connect our underground sewer system with the Sanitary District of Chicago. This now diverted the sewage from all of the North Shore towns through large underground pipes away from Lake Michigan and the Skokie swamp. Today, these large improved sewer lines run deep underground down Green Bay Road, Sheridan Road and under many west Winnetka homes.

The Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad was established in 1854. In 1909 there were 177 local steam engine trains per day passing and stopping in Winnetka (today we have 62 trains a day). All of these trains loudly huffed and puffed their way through town at street level, stopping at numerous crossings. Unfortunately, with so many trains there were many fatalities occurring over the years. From 1910 to 1921, there were 44 people killed or seriously injured. In 1937 an extremely bad accident occurred as four mothers were struck and killed at the Pine Street crossing by a late, unscheduled steam engine returning backwards to the city. The Village Council, after studying the project of depressing the tracks for more than 20 years, now took immediate action. This underground improvement has saved numerous lives and provides peace and quiet to the community.

A safe and easy supply of power and water was initiated to the residents of Winnetka in 1893 with the creation of a municipal water and electric plant. Originally the power was used for street lamp lighting, with a very limited 50 kilowatts. Streetlights were spaced one every quarter of a mile and they shut off at midnight. We now depend on two underground 24 megawatts three-phase connections. These conduits provide wholesale power to our own self-sufficient electrical plant. Even today, (See February Winnetka Report) we continue to work to move more of our utilities underground.

Winnetka’s water plant provides the water throughout our community for home use and fire protection via mains linked underground. There are in excess of 71 miles of water main beneath our streets including 2 storage tanks, a 2 1/2 million-gallon underground tank located at the main Tower Road Beach plant and the 3 million underground tank located at Willow Road.
Today, we take for granted these underground utilities installed by the early residents of Winnetka. It is our role to remember the past and to continue improving our community for the future generations. Civic mindedness is what makes Winnetka such an “u”nusually wonderful place to live.

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