Traverse City Record-Eagle

Record-Eagle 150th Anniversary

September 28, 2009

150 Years: Bay served as sewer, water supply


Ironically, typhoid epidemics across the nation helped cure that myth, especially after an 1891 outbreak claimed 1,997 lives in Chicago. The Windy City's sewage ran from the Chicago River into Lake Michigan near city water intake pipes.

Chicago's epidemic apparently attracted notice in Traverse City, as typhoid reports grew in the 1890s and prompted local leaders to question continued use of West Bay as the city's water supply. Grand Traverse Herald publisher Thomas Bates called it the "most important question the people of Traverse City had to solve."

In 1897, the city hired engineer George Rafter to identify other possible water supply sources, such as East Bay, Long Lake, artesian wells, Boardman Lake and the river. Rafter spent two months here and recommended East Bay and a reservoir system.

His recommendation proved to be a controversial topic at an 1899 sanitary convention called by city leaders with the help of the state health board. The convention was sparsely attended, but a long report in the Aug. 24, 1899, Grand Traverse Herald, another Record-Eagle forerunner, offers insight into arguments of that day.

"Suicide," is the term Elvin Sprague, longtime publisher of the Traverse Bay Eagle, used to describe continued use of West Bay for drinking water. State. Sen. J.W. Milliken, a pioneer businessman, favored pumping fresh water from East Bay to a hillside reservoir.

"We are not seeking a water that will do, but the one that is absolutely the best for us and the generations that shall succeed us," he said, the Herald reported. "We are seeking a system that will be best for cooking, for fire protection, for drinking purposes" ... and industry.

H.D. Campbell, who founded the city water works 20 years before, opposed the East Bay plan. Never had there been a single case of typhoid fever or other contagious disease caused by the use of bay water in his 47 years of living in Traverse City, he argued.

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