Chabot was raised on a farm in La Presentation, near Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada. He was one of sixteen children and the son of a farmer. When he was sixteen years old, he left home, eventually settling in California in 1849.
He began working in the mining industry in Nevada City, building ditches to supply the mines with water. In 1852 and 1853 he and Edward Matteson, were working at Buckeye Hill and American Hill respectively, devised the first hydraulic mining technology. It consisted of a wooden contraption held together by iron clamps that allowed miners to direct a fifty foot column of water at a gravel bank using a canvas hose, which broke up the gravel and washed it into a series of sluices where the heavy gold flakes settled out of the lighter earth. Though it revolutionized gold mining, the technique also caused severe environmental damage. The vast quantities of sediment that were released in the blasting washed downstream, burying homes and farmland. Angry farmers eventually brought an end to hydraulic mining when they scored a victory in federal court in 1884.
In 1854 Chabot also established two sawmills in Sierra County. Two years later he abandoned the mining business and went to San Francisco, where he built the city’s first public water system, bringing the waters of Lobos Creek into San Francisco. This led to projects supplying other cities with water, including Portland, Maine and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Chabot founded the Contra Costa Water Company in 1866, which developed a monopoly on supplying water to Oakland and neighboring areas. First he built a dam at Temescal Creek, creating Lake Temescal. He began work on an even larger dam at San Leandro Creek before the Temescal dam was even completed. In 1870, his company completed a dam of San Leandro Creek, creating a reservoir that would later be named Lake Chabot, in present-day Castro Valley.
In or about 1869, Chabot built waterworks for the city of San Jose, and about the same time constructed those for the supply of Vallejo. He was involved in several other businesses during this time, including a paper mill in Stockton, the Judson Manufacturing Company in Oakland, the Pioneer Pulp Mill Company near Alta (Placer County), the Puget Sound Iron Company, and a large tract of land in Washington state for the cultivation of cranberries.
In 1883, Chabot donated a telescope and the fund to build an observatory to the city of Oakland. The observatory was to be named Oakland Observatory but quickly became known as the Chabot Observatory. The original observatory was built in Lafayette Square, near downtown Oakland, and was moved in 1915 to the Oakland hills. In 2000 it has undergone another move to the top of the hills and significant expansion and is now known as the Chabot Space & Science Center. Other charitable activities included building housing for veterans in Yountville and a shelter in Oakland for unemployed women and daycare for the children of working women. He died on January 6, 1888 and is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.