Prairie problems plagued Braidwood

Sandy Vasko

    I don't think it will come as much of a surprise to anyone that Braidwood, Godley, Braceville, Diamond and all the other 19th century coal towns were originally prairie.
    The tallest things in the landscape excluding buildings are the man made slag heaps. It was a special kind of prairie, one that had originally been at the bottom of an ocean, and water was never far from the surface.
    Today we look at the problems water made to the people who lived on the land.
    In George Woodruff's book, “The History of Will County”, 1878 he describes the land like this, “The land, for the most part, is a level plain or prairie. In some portions, more especially in the southern, it is covered with timber of a small growth. In this portion the surface is more broken, but cannot be considered hilly.”
    “It is not crossed by any stream of water, but all of that supply is obtained from wells. Good water abounds at a depth of from twenty to forty feet. The land is of a poor quality for agricultural purposes, the soil being quite thin, with a species of quicksand underlying.”
    Note that he says that it was not crossed by any stream of water. Instead the water was flowing evenly through the ground just below the surface. When the water came too close to the surface it created the quicksand.
    In the Feb. 22, 1865 Wilmington Independent we read the following, “Mr. A. Rose, of the town of Reed, recently discovered a fine sulpher spring on his farm. Last week he brought a specimen of the water to Prof. Wilber, who pronounced it as strongly impregnated as any he ever saw. The professor has taken a jug of it with him to analyze.”  
    The sulpher was supplied from the coal that was underneath the entire area, however at that time sulpher in the water was considered a good thing, of great medicinal value.
    One of the problems with having water very close to the surface is that even small rains create floods. The coal shafts became waterfalls as surface water flowed into them. We read on Sept. 25, 1874 in the Wilmington Advocate, “King's shaft, Braidwood, is filling with water. The mules were raised from the pit last Wednesday week.”
    Another problem with having water so near the surface all over the land is that all the wells were connected to each other by the layer of water, and all of those were connected to any latrines or outhouses that were dug as well. We also need to consider that the population of Braidwood was crammed together in boarding houses and mine dormitories which meant there was a lot of “sewage” being produced.
    We read in Aug. 13, 1875, “Cholera infantum, as usual in summer, is beginning to make angels of the Braidwood babies. Braidwood water should be boiled and cooled, before the young children are allowed to drink it.”
    It wasn't just the children who should not have drank the water, cholera bacteria spread through subsoil moving from latrine to well, from well to well.
    Strangely enough, the councilmen of Braidwood did not address the problem; instead private citizens took it into their own hands.  
        In Aug. of 1876 we read, “Quite an interesting meeting was held at Nell's hall, on Wednesday evening, for the purpose of forming a stock company to erect water works in this city. Two committees were appointed to attend to different works.”
    However, no stock company was ever formed and three years later after a disastrous fire in the downtown area the questions were still being asked, “Why has Braidwood no water supply? Want of water?  No. Want of money?  No. Want of will? No. It cannot be that it is for want of necessity, as last Tuesday's fire and others occurring at various recent periods has made manifest.”
    In the same article it was noted that the Eagle Shaft had been flooded for several years and could be used as a well. It was thought that the water would be not only available but drinkable. Of course the water was just as polluted as the rest, but at least there was enough of it to put out a fire.
    But even the need for water became a political football. We read in the fall of 1879, “If there is one thing that agitates Braidwood more than another just now it is the question of water works. Preliminary measures have been taken to introduce water mains through the principal portion of the city, to be fed by stream pumps at the old Eagle shaft, near the Burt house.
    “Things went on swimmingly for a time, but that time ended when the assessments were made upon property owners within the prescribed limits, who alone were to bear the burden of cost. The aggregate amount would not fall short of $10,000, principal and interest. Now that the actual figures to each individual are exhibited, there is a lively “kicking” against the whole project. How the squabble will terminate it is difficult to surmise. But if 4/5 of the property owners interested protest against the improvement it would naturally seem that their wishes and their rights should be regarded.”
    The water works question would drag on in court for several years before a well and system of distributing water was agreed upon. The geology of the prairie, the cause of all the problems, was finally overcome.