Demands for reform swept the nation in the new century as the country attempted to ameliorate social strains caused by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Although Ann Arbor did not face the extensive problems of larger cities, it nonetheless was caught up in the ferment. As in many other places, the competition for street railway franchises in the city brought conflict. From 1900 to 1902 the Hawks-Angus and the Boland companies fought for the right-of-way through, the city. Hawks-Angus won, but not before violence between the two construction crews was narrowly averted and not before the Ann Arbor Railroad, fearing that interurban crews would tear up its tracks where they crossed Huron Street, placed its #7 engine across the street, blocking the electric tracks as well as the sidewalk. "No one can now say that West Huron Street is not one of the liveliest streets in the city," reported the Argus Democrat on September 13, 1901.
Under pressure from private citizens, the city required grade separations as a prerequisite for the granting of franchises. Ann Arborites had long demanded that the Ann Arbor Railroad elevate its tracks above west-side streets. As the interurban would have to cross the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks at some point, grade separation would be imperative. While the council declared in 1902 that the Ann Arbor Railroad was to be elevated on steel viaducts over Felch, Miller, Ann, Huron, Washington, and Liberty streets, only the Washington, Huron, and Miller separations were actually completed.
The service of the privately owned Ann Arbor Water Company continued to be a source of tension. The company offered to sell its holdings to the city for $450,000, but council and Mayor Royal S. Copeland felt the price was too high. Council then passed legislation requiring the company to lower its rates to levels comparable to those in other cities of Ann Arbor's size. Denying the city had the right to regulate rates, the franchise nonetheless "voluntarily" lowered them in 1902. The city, however, claimed to have established the principle of regulation.
In October, 1913, after another 11 years of inadequate and unsafe water, voters authorized the city to buy out the company. A new municipal Water Works Commission drew its water from the Huron River above the newly constructed Barton Dam and from artesian wells on West Washington near Eighth Street. The commission introduced water purification by chlorination. With the use of liquid chlorine in 1915, Ann Arbor was assured of a supply of pure water.
In the second decade of the century, reform movements took on a new urgency and vitality. In 1912, for example, Ann Arbor had two Socialist newspapers and the Socialist Party made a creditable showing in the municipal elections of 1913. Yet most citizens chose less radical ideology and more conventional agencies to effect change.
In 1913 the Ann Arbor Civic Association, an extension of the older Board of Commerce, incorporated most of the reform groups into one organization that pursued a conservative yet determined approach to reform. The organization was still interested in attracting industry and promoting commerce, but in recruiting new members from University professors, professional men, and women's organizations, it acquired additional goals. The group now sought to improve water, food, sanitation, housing, and labor conditions. It urged honest and efficient administration of public affairs, and attempted to promote community feeling among all the citizens of the city.
The association instituted an elaborate committee system. The City Beautiful Committee directed its efforts toward the care of trees and shrubs and the establishment of better methods of garbage and rubbish collection. The Agricultural Committee sought to improve relations between the neighboring farmers and the city. The association supported an active Good Roads Committee. Under the prodding of another association committee, a program of milk and meat inspection was begun. Lists of the dairymen and meat suppliers meeting standards of quality and safety were published.
The Sanitation Committee resolved to make Ann Arbor the first dustless, smokeless, and flyless city. In 1913 and 1914 the committee declared war on the fly. Manure bins, still common in Ann Arbor alleys, were singled out for removal, especially the bins behind the fire engine station near Tappan School on East University Avenue. The school children of Ann Arbor were enlisted in the anti-fly campaign. Each child was given a pamphlet, "Catechism on the Fly." Five thousand flyswatters were distributed and bounties paid. The committee resolved in 1914 to "be so united in our struggle for the ideal human environment that we may be a 'City with a Conscience'."