This week in civil engineering history: Ellis S. Chesbrough, noted Chicago civil engineer, ASCE president, and namesake of the “Chesbrough Sewers,” was born in Baltimore, Maryland, July 6, 1813.
Having no formal education after the age of nine, Ellis Chesbrough, at 15, became a surveyor for the city of Baltimore, through his father’s job as a surveyor for the Baltimore and Ohio Railway. By the later 1840s, Chesbrough was in Boston where he engineered much of the city’s water system, including the Cochituate Aqueduct and Brookline reservoir. In 1851 he was the sole commissioner of the Water Works and was named the first city engineer.
The city of Chicago, founded in 1833 with a population of 200, saw rapid growth in its first two decades due to its position as a transportation hub and its economic allure to rural Americans and immigrants from abroad. Twenty years later, with a population greater than 60,000 and flood-prone topography, the circumstances demanded improved sanitary conditions as standing water and a lack of drainage infrastructure contributed to six consecutive years of epidemic outbreaks. The topography, just 4 feet above the elevation of Lake Michigan, not only inhibited natural drainage but limited the ability to install engineered drainage systems. The Chicago Board of Sewage Commissioners selected Ellis Chesbrough to solve Chicago’s public health crisis.
Chesbrough designed and constructed a tunnel extending 2 miles into Lake Michigan, beyond the point where the water had been fouled. Then Chesbrough devised a plan to build a sewer system above ground and fill the grade over the sewers, while raising buildings as much as 10 feet to accommodate them. For the next decade, the first comprehensive sewer system in the United States, the "Chesbrough sewers," were constructed. During this time, engineers displayed their inventiveness by raising buildings, rows, and blocks of structures as tall as six stories, many of which remained occupied as commerce continued during the lifting.
Ellis Chesbrough served ASCE as president in 1878, and in the following year resigned his position as Chicago’s public works commissioner. Through his civil engineering work, the sanitary and structural ingenuity that he envisioned elevated Chicago, not only physically out of the muck but culturally into a world-class city.
Reuben Hull, P.E., PMP, M.ASCE, is civil regional manager for LaBella Associates in Albany, New York, and a self-made historian who has penned numerous articles on civil engineering history. An active ASCE member, Hull is a corresponding member and former chair of the History and Heritage Committee, serves as vice president of the Mohawk-Hudson Section, served as president of the New Hampshire Section, 1999-2000, and was named New Hampshire Young Engineer of the Year in 1997.
Follow his daily Civil Engineering Almanac series on Twitter: @ThisDayInCEHist.