Many of Sangamon County’s first pioneers settled next to the Town Branch, a meandering stream that was early Springfield’s defining topographic feature.
Starting in the late 1850s, the creek took on a new role, one it continues to hold today: the underpinning of Springfield’s sewer system.
The Town Branch originally rose about at today’s Ninth and Cook streets and flowed generally west and north until it reached Spring Creek on Springfield’s northwest side. In an 1877 speech, John Todd Stuart described the Town Branch as it was when he arrived in Springfield in 1828:
The village of Springfield was built in a valley about two miles wide; it was drained by a stream, since known as the Town Branch, which heads in the southeast corner of the city, and runs west-northwest, and empties into Spring Creek. Into the Town Branch on either side, in flood time, at intervals of three or four hundred yards, the water had washed deep gullies, or ruts, which drained the entire valley into the Town Branch. …
This surface drainage has entirely disappeared, being displaced by the admirable underground drainage adopted by the city. On both sides of the Town Branch as high as Sixth street, was a dense forest of small trees and undergrowth, the harbor of deer and wolves. … Parallel with the Town Branch are two ridges, the rims of the valley, at an elevation of from twenty to thirty feet above the branch. The North and South (Grand) Avenues run very nearly upon the summit of these ridges.
The Kelly family, Archer Herndon, Andrew Elliott and Springfield’s other pioneers built their cabins on the edge of the Town Branch timber, Stuart said.
It may well be wondered why those primitive settlers, having the choice of the whole country, should select these inferior sites for cultivation, rather than the higher and better lands in the vicinity. The answer is found in the wants, and opinions of that early day. They needed water and fuel, these were found on the Town Branch. They needed shelter from the wind, they found it in the timber of Town Branch; above all other things, they wanted a good hunting ground; that they also found on the Town Branch and Spring creek, one of the very best of hunting grounds, and moreover in the opinion of the early settlers, they who occupied the land bordering on the timber would become practically the owners of the outside prairie, as their pasture ground forever.
Less than 30 years later, however, the city’s growth had turned the Town Branch into an open drain, prone to flooding and requiring a system of bridges to get from one side of town to the other. A particularly severe rainstorm in June 1851, the Illinois State Journal said, swelled “the Tiber – sometimes vulgarly called the Town Branch” – to as much as 15 feet deep.
Springfield public health director Dr. George Palmer investigated the early years of the Town Branch when he reorganized city health records in 1911. According to an Illinois State Register story about his findings, the Town Branch in the 1850s was “a stream of some dignity.”
At what is now the corner of Fifth and Jackson streets there was a swimming place known as the “baptizing hole,” while near Seventh and Cook streets was a “bottomless hole,” which was the source of terror to the urchins of the day. Every street crossing the town branch or any of its many tributaries required a bridge and the cost of bridge building was a heavy load upon the municipal treasury.
In his 1858 annual report to the city council, Mayor John Priest recommended the city sell bonds to, among other things, “sewer the town branch as fast as possible, if for no other reason, to protect the health of our city.”
Work got under way a year later, following a study of the city’s sewerage needs by T.J. Carter. (Carter also seems to have been the Springfield superintendent for the Great Western Railroad; the Journal said his report “embodies the deductions of a practical man, whose avocations have afforded superior opportunities for arriving at a correct conclusion.”)
Carter recommended large sewers along Jefferson, Adams and Monroe streets (Washington Street had had a good sewer installed in 1855), each 3½ feet in diameter. Smaller sewers were to connect several north-south streets to the east-west mains.
The mains, in turn, were to drain into a new, covered Town Branch sewer. Carter’s report outlined how he thought the Town Branch line should be built.
From soundings taken in the Town Branch … there are indications of permanent foundation upon a bed of soap stone, which will require a different structure, combined of stone side walls and arched bricktop, better adapted to that portion of the sewer which is in the channel, 8 to 9 feet capacity, while a circular brick sewer, of 7 feet capacity, will be required at Sixth street, where it will be in excavation in firm ground.
Carter’s cost estimates were tentative and somewhat confusing, but he apparently thought the whole project could be completed for $25,000 to $35,000.
The Illinois State Register, on the outs with the administration of Mayor William Jayne, endorsed Carter’s report, but expressed skepticism that city fathers could get the project done in timely fashion.
The pettifogging of the council in regard to this subject has so long deferred action, that it is possible that little will be done this year. They have been engaged so busily in paying electioneering debts out of the treasury, and quibbling for groveling party advantage, that the working season has more than half passed by before they got to work. But thus it is with small potato dabblers. They are competent for one thing only – to deplete the treasury.
In fact, however, the council began seeking construction proposals almost immediately, and the work continued through the next decade.
By 1864, city public works superintendent William Sands was able to report that 5,800 feet of sewer had been laid along the Town Branch, leaving 3,700 feet still to go. Another update in 1867 reported that the city had built nearly 12 miles of sewers, large and small, since 1858, at a cost of $125,000. “Constant applications are being made for a still greater extension of the system over the city,” the Journal added.
Sewage flowing through the Town Branch into Spring Creek and eventually the Sangamon River originally went untreated.
“This of course made for some rather unpleasant conditions and placed the drinking water supply at risk,” according to the web site of the Sangamon County Water Reclamation District.
The SCWRD was formed, under the name Springfield Sanitary District, in 1924. That same year, voters approved a bond issue to build a collection system and treatment plant on Spring Creek. The plant went into operation in 1929. (The district added a second plant on Sugar Creek in 1973 and built an entirely new Spring Creek plant in the 2000s.)
As of 2017, the Town Branch was covered for almost all of its flow. However, a sense of the old Town Branch still can be seen at Lincoln and Broughton avenues (north of Jefferson Street and west of MacArthur Boulevard), where an observer can look into an open concrete archway and watch the stream disappear into a modern underground sewer. Beyond Lincoln Avenue, the bed of the Town Branch is a concrete channel almost empty of water except in the most severe rainstorms.
James Krohe Jr. described the Town Branch and its significance in a 1977 Illinois Times column (reprinted in 2014).
“Its water isn’t very clear anymore, and its channel, where it hasn’t been bricked over and buried, is clogged with junk,” Krohe wrote. “But the Town Branch is still there after 150 years. There aren’t many manmade structures that old left standing in the city. The old Town Branch may not be pretty anymore, but it’s persistent.”
Hat tip: To commenter Tristan Gray (see Springfield in 1828 entry) for suggesting this entry.
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