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Establishment of the Minneapolis Waterworks, 1867–1910

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Sewer crew at work, Minneapolis

Minneapolis manhole and sewer work crew, c.1905.

In 1871, Minneapolis built the first public waterworks in Minnesota to pump water from the Mississippi River. The city's attempts to provide clean, safe water led to decades of efforts to improve and expand the waterworks.

In 1867, the Minnesota Legislature expanded the Minneapolis city limits. With a population of 17,000 Minneapolis was suddenly the largest city in the state. At the time Chicago was the model for modern cities. Other cities were copying Chicago's state-of-the-art water and sanitation systems. Minneapolis had no public utilities and the waterworks were needed to support its growth.

The main industries in Minneapolis were lumber, flour, and woolen mills. These all used hydropower from the Mississippi River. As a result, the banks of the river were densely covered by mills and housing for their workers. Owners and officials were worried that in these conditions a fire could consume entire neighborhoods if not controlled. Therefore, when Minneapolis built a pump house in 1867 to draw water for the Mississippi it was used only for firefighting. This system was small and could only draw enough water for emergency use, not for public consumption.

In 1871, Pump Station No. 1 was built as Minneapolis' first waterworks. The waterworks had multiple pumps that provided the city with drinking water. Water pressure from the Mississippi River was used to pump two and a half million gallons into the city daily. Public water was a source of pride for the city and the system grew with its population. In 1885, another pump station was added and forty three million gallons could be pumped daily.

However, the new waterworks was the first in the state and it was built crudely and quickly to modernize the city. By 1880, the city was receiving complaints about the color and taste of city water. Concerns grew when tests in 1882 found dangerous amounts of animal and vegetable matter in the water. Wealthy citizens began importing spring water at a high cost. However, most citizens were forced to continue to use public water since old city wells were destroyed when the waterworks was built.

Water contamination was a major concern in cities at the time since it led to epidemics. Minneapolis regularly had outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, typhoid and yellow fever. From 1870 to 1910, annual typhoid epidemics occurred throughout the city. During the largest of these in 1897, over 3000 cases were reported. Typhoid had a ten percent mortality rate in Minneapolis and citizens and newspapers blamed the deaths on the city's waterworks.

The origins of typhoid were unknown in the late 19th century, but citizens blamed public water because it was contaminated by sewage. Before the waterworks were built, water use was limited since it needed to be carried from its source. The waterworks increased water consumption from two gallons a day per person in Minneapolis to fifty gallons. Greater use increased waste, so the city used its storm sewers for sewage. This brought sewage into contact with water from the waterworks. Pump stations were also contaminated by sewage that upstream storm sewers dumped into rivers.

To ease concerns, the city closed pump stations where sewage was found and opened one upriver in 1888. To improve the entire system the city built settling basins in 1897. These basins allowed large particles to settle and increased water clarity. However, the basins did not remove bacteria or sewage so water remained contaminated.

After the 1897 epidemic and a wartime epidemic in 1898, the U.S. army studied typhoid in Minneapolis. Through the early 1900s, Minneapolis averaged 950 cases of typhoid a year. As late as 1909, city reports found fecal matter in every cubic centimeter of city water. Based on the army's earlier study it was known that human waste spreads typhoid and in 1910 editorials in the Star Tribune said the city should be sued.

Minneapolis responded in 1910 by building a sterilizing plant. The plant was successful, chlorinating public water and killing the bacteria in it. The only typhoid epidemic to occur after 1910 was due to low chlorine concentration. Chlorination became a standard for water quality in the state and is still used in Minneapolis. By 1910, the city's struggles with sanitation and epidemics had resulted in the most advanced public water system in the state.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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  • Related Resources

Anfinson, John O.A Fickle Partner: Minneapolis and the Mississippi River. The City, the River, the Bridge: Before and After the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse. Edited by Patrick Nunnally. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Baldwin, Rufus. History of the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Volume II. Minneapolis: Munsell, 1893.

Minneapolis Water Works. The Water Works of the City of Minneapolis: A Brief Historical Sketch of the Present Water Works. Minneapolis: Water Works, 1919.

RA644.T8 M6
Report of Investigations of the Typhoid Fever Epidemic, Minneapolis, 1935, Minnesota Department of Health, Minneapolis, 1936.
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Catalog of the Department of Health's typhoid epidemic patients and statistics from 1888 to 1935.

TD225.M6 P87 1909
Report of the Pure Water Commission: to the Common Council of the City of Minneapolis, 1909.
Manuscript Collections, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Describes water quality in the city prior to 1909 and the city's attempts to improve it with filtration.

Related Images

Sewer crew at work, Minneapolis
Sewer crew at work, Minneapolis
East side pumping station, Minneapolis.
East side pumping station, Minneapolis.
Pumping Station number three, Minneapolis.
Pumping Station number three, Minneapolis.
Minneapolis sewer system under construction.
Minneapolis sewer system under construction.

Turning Point

In 1909, water quality tests discover fecal matter in all tests of Minneapolis public water. The contaminated water is linked to decades of typhoid epidemics in the city and citizens consider action.



Minneapolis constructs a pump house to provide city water for firefighting.


Pump House No. 1 opens and makes Minneapolis the first Minnesota city with public drinking water.


Minneapolis residents begin to complain to public officials about the color and taste of public water.


Water quality test find large quantities of plant and animal contaminants in city water.


Pump Station No. 2 is built and allows Minneapolis to pump forty three million gallons of water a day.


A pump station is built four miles above St. Anthony Falls to avoid sewage from the city.


At least 3000 people fall ill from a typhoid epidemic in Minneapolis. The epidemic is the worst in Minneapolis history.


Fecal matter is found in Minneapolis public water samples and is tied to the spread of typhoid.


Minneapolis eliminates waterborne diseases and infections by chlorinating water.