This is a story of fresh water, long pipes, and armed conflict. Hygeia Spring is one of the most recognized natural springs in Waukesha County, a county led by a city recognized nationwide for its healthy waters in during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A number of springs still exist around the area, yet Hygeia Spring has a particularly historical distinction; its waters were once piped all the way to Chicago when the city hosted the World Columbian Exposition way back in 1893, where it was sold via automatic machine for a penny a glass at around 300 booths all over the Exposition.
You read that right: the water traveled by pipeline all the way from Big Bend to the south side of Chicago. In 1893.
So what about the armed conflict? The “Water Wars”? Well, the springs in Waukesha County – including Hygeia – weren’t tapped for distant distribution without significant disapproval. This took place because of two entrepreneurs, both originally from out of town: Richard Dunbar and James McElroy.
The natural spring waters in Waukesha and various locales around Waukesha County have been well-known and enjoyed for centuries. Its reputation was bolstered initially by Colonel Richard Dunbar, who hailed from New York and was visiting with his sister-in-law in 1868. Dunbar had incurable diabetes and often had a vicious thirst; his sister-in-law directed him to a spring on her property, which – after a few rounds of six glasses of said spring water – seemingly nursed him back to health. He spent time recuperating under a massive oak tree – now called the Dunbar Oak – and made trips back to Waukesha in the following years to purchase the spring and sell its waters, claiming the water cured his “incurable” diabetes. He named it “Bethesda Spring Water,” after the spring in Jerusalem said to have healing powers in the New Testament. By 1873, he was shipping thousands of bottles of the water to locations around the country; Waukesha’s reputation for healthy water and mineral springs earned it the nickname “Saratoga of the West.” Hotels, mineral bath houses, and more sprung up around the waters, welcoming visitors from around the country and even dignitaries like President Ulysses Grant and Mary Todd Lincoln. Dunbar eventually did pass away in 1878, but not from his diabetes; he had a heart attack in his sleep. But his legacy lives with his role of developing Waukesha’s healthy water reputation; numerous springs were marketed to visitors, including one called Hygeia Spring.
James McElroy hailed from Kansas City. He’d heard about the wonders of Waukesha’s waters and headed there with dollar signs in mind and an engineering project dancing in his head. He made his way to Hygeia Spring and hatched a plan to sell this water… to Chicago. The 1893 World Columbian Exposition – essentially the World’s Fair that year – was in the planning stages and McElroy wanted to pipe Waukesha’s pure spring water to the Windy City so exhibition attendees could get a taste – and buy more of it afterwards. By 1891, McElroy had corralled investors, workers, and equipment to get the project moving. Meanwhile, many Waukesha residents who caught wind of the plan weren’t too happy with it. After all, they wanted people to come TO Waukesha for the water, not send it away (and to Chicago, of all places!) Residents showed up, some armed, ready to prevent construction of the pipeline to Chicago. Legal action also flew back and forth like a tennis match; the story is described in greater detail in our podcast.
The bottom line? McElroy DID get to construct his pipeline to Chicago, but from a different spring. Hygeia II, as today’s Hygeia Spring is technically called, became the pure water source tapped for the pipeline, and since it was in Big Bend, it was about 10 miles closer to Chicago – which helped. Somehow, these workers and engineers managed in less than a year and a half to dig up the ground – below the frost line, no less – lay pipe, pump water when needed and letting gravity do the rest otherwise, and send that water all the way to the grounds of the World Columbian Exposition on Chicago’s south side. The total distance was around 95 miles and when they turned the taps in Chicago, the water poured out. Visitors paid a penny a glass, and thousands did.
Now, you may be asking: how fresh and clean WAS that water after a 95-mile trip through pipes forged in the 1890s? Well, not nearly as fresh, good, or cool as at the source, and reaction wasn’t as revolutionary as McElroy had hoped. Further dreams of selling Waukesha’s (or Big Bend’s) spring water to thirsty Chicagoans on an ongoing basis were dashed, and the project shut down. Yet, it was still remarkable, and it remains a colorful piece of Waukesha County’s history.
Today’s, Hygeia Spring still consistently delivers fresh, clean water, flowing from its origins 2,200 feet below ground and delivering one of the purest waters on earth. The main spring source is inside a shed with the Hygeia Spring information sign on the side, easily seen along the roadway. Nowadays the water stays on the property, running continuously out of two nearby, accessible spigots. They’re high enough to fill 5-gallon jugs, and you’re welcome to come get a taste or fill up some bottles to take with you on road trip – even if you’re from Chicago. It sits on private property, yet visitors are welcome – and quite welcome to donate towards helping to maintain the spring.
You’ll find Hygeia Spring just east of Highway 164 in Big Bend; just head east for several blocks on County L, which for many years was Highway 24 and remains a main road running northeast to Milwaukee. Big Bend is just a few miles south of I-43 at the Highway 164 exit.
We have a deeper dive into Hygeia Spring and the “Waukesha Water Wars” on an episode of our State Trunk Tour Podcast. Stream the podcast below!
Hygeia Spring Address:
S91W22920 Milwaukee Avenue (County L, former Highway 24)
Big Bend, WI 53103