Water treatment in Marquette

A water fountain at the Marquette Waterworks is pictured. Note the cup attached to the chain. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

Early water supply, sanitary waste disposal

MARQUETTE — Prior to municipal water, wastewater systems, and indoor plumbing, water use in the home was facilitated through the use of water pitchers and chamber pots.

A water pitcher and basin would have been used on a washstand in a bedroom. The pitcher would be filled by a bucket or kettle for washing one’s self. The basin may have been emptied out the window and thereby watering the plants growing along the house.

The chamber pot was common in many households before bathrooms to avoid going outside at night or during inclement weather to visit the “outhouse.” Of course this meant that someone had to carry the chamber pots to the outhouse to empty them in the morning.

Virtually all water had to be carried into and out of the house. This job was often done by the woman of the house, or if she was lucky, her servants, who were also likely to be women. Besides bathing and cooking, laundry required lots of water. One estimate of the water needed for a household’s weekly laundry (for washing, boiling and rinsing) is 50 gallons or 400 pounds.

Flanigan Brothers is shown working on the Marquette city sewer and water infrastructure in 1905. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

The work could be dangerous as well as arduous. One winter day in the late 1800s, Mrs. Peter Anderson, who lived with her husband and young adult daughters near the breakwater, was drowned in Lake Superior when she slipped on icy rocks while getting water for the household.

Development of a water system

Although you might think–or hope — that relieving women of the work of carrying water might be the impetus for the development of municipal water systems, in fact they were mainly established in response to fires. Following a devastating fire in the downtown business district in 1869, the City of Marquette constructed its first water plant and installed 3.2 miles of water main serving 271 customers. The intake was located inside the breakwater.

In 1877 the intake was relocated outside the breakwater to access “cleaner” water. In 1891 a new water plant (the present day Maritime Museum) was constructed. Following a bad outbreak of typhoid fever in 1910 chlorination was begun along with an extension of the intake to 3,000 feet offshore at a depth of 60′. With the advent of electricity, electric powered pumps were installed in 1912.

Since its early start, the water system has expanded to the present day to include more than 80 miles of piping, serving a population in excess of 25,000 in both Marquette and Marquette Township. It boasts a modern water treatment plant providing filtration, chlorination, and fluoridation.

Development of a wastewater system

But getting clean water to homes was only half the battle. There was still the problem of waste water–those basins and chamber pots . As residential districts expanded, street construction and water main extension required sewers to be installed to handle both sanitary flow and storm runoff. These “combined sewers” ran directly into Lake Superior.

In the early 1900s, following the typhoid fever outbreak, the City installed an “interceptor sewer” to collect sanitary waste discharges located north of the breakwater and route them to a discharge point inside the breakwater near the present day Coast Guard Station. This discharge location required the wastewater to have to migrate around the end of the breakwater (while diluting) before it could impact the drinking water intake.

In 1952 the city of Marquette built its first wastewater treatment plant which consisted of screening, settling tanks, and chlorination. In 1978 the city added secondary treatment (biological), and in 2008 upgraded to an advanced “activated sludge plant.” The plant presently serves the communities of the City of Marquette, Marquette Township, and Chocolay Township.

On-going challenges

There are still many parts of the county that rely on well water and that can be precarious. In 1976/77 a drought dried up wells in the western part of the county, requiring some residents in Champion and Michigamme to haul water in buckets and barrels from schools and fire stations for home use. Even more recently, firefighting chemicals have been found in groundwater and wells in areas of former air force bases, including K.I. Sawyer, with the result that some residents have had to switch to bottled water for drinking. The work of providing clean water is indeed never done.

Come see the Marquette Regional History Center’s upcoming exhibit “Women’s Work is Never Done” (Jan. 14 – April 13) to learn more about these and other challenges and changes of housework in Upper Michigan since the mid-1800s. The exhibit looks at specific women in our community from the past and present, both housewives and servants, telling their tales in their own words. It explores a pioneer in the mid 1800s, a Victorian in Marquette in the late 1880s, a farmer’s wife during the Depression and more.

Artifacts on display will include a variety of household appliances and tools as well as elegant and everyday handwork from the 1850s to the 1970s.

The opening reception is from 5-7 p.m. Jan. 30.


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