The tower, built in 1869 by architect William W. Boyington from yellowing Joliet limestone, is 154 feet (47 m) tall. Inside was a 138 foot (42 m) high standpipe to hold water. In addition to being used for firefighting, the pressure in the pipe could be regulated to control water surges in the area.
The tower gained prominence after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. While some incorrectly believe that the tower was the only building to survive the fire, a few other buildings in the burned district survived along with the tower. But the water tower was the only public building in the burned zone to survive, and is the only one of the surviving structures still standing. In the years since the fire, the tower has become a symbol of old Chicago and of the city's recovery from the fire.
Oscar Wilde stated the Water Tower looked like "a castellated monstrosity with pepper boxes stuck all over it.
In 2004, the tower was featured in the finale of The Amazing Race 6.