Reversing the flow

When Jean Baptiste Point du Sable built his cabin and trading post, becoming Chicago’s first permanent resident, he saw that the location at the junction of the river and the lake had real potential.

The easy portage between the lake and the mid-continent’s river system made his new home the linchpin of a trading network that could one day cover thousands of square miles. The location was good, but the land was not all it could be. Most of it was swampland, and that was going to make it difficult to build a city.

But Chicago had always attracted its share of dreamers, people with visions of a huge metropolis rising skyward and spreading outward, bringing in thousands and maybe one day millions of residents and visitors. By the 1830s city leaders were racing ahead, building as fast as materials could be procured. A decade later Chicago was among the fastest-growing cities in the nation.

This fast growth brought problems, of course, but city leaders were confident they could solve them. More housing was needed, and more was built. Bridges over the river were needed, and they too were built. Then came the question that stymied those at the helm of the bustling metropolis, and which endangered the lives of the city’s residents year after year.

What to do with all the waste?

Chicago had not developed a plan for disposing of human and animal waste, and by the 1850s the city was paying the price. Backyard ditches contaminated nearby wells and open sewers flowed into the Chicago River, except when they backed up and left standing pools of stagnant filth throughout the city. Slaughterhouses, distilleries and other industrial sites only made matters worse.

Sometimes this pollution would flow through the river into the lake, from which the city drew its drinking water. Cholera broke out in the city several years in a row, with an 1854 outbreak killing one out of every 20 residents. Something had to be done.

In response to overwhelming public outcry, a Board of Sewerage Commissioners was created in 1855 to tackle the problem. To save Chicago from further calamities they hired Ellis Chesbrough, who had worked on railroads in Pennsylvania and been Boston’s chief engineer.

Chesbrough came up with an ingenious solution that he hoped would address the sewage issues and also lift the city out of the mud.

Underground sewage pipes were out of the question in the swampy ground beneath many of the city’s neighborhoods. Chesbrough’s disposal system would be constructed above ground with a network of pipes all leading to a single main line to deposit waste and storm runoff into the river. These pipes would be laid above ground through the streets.

Commissioners might have been skeptical of this initial plan, however, as it would seem to obstruct the streets and still dump waste into the river, where it would continue to accumulate and spread disease. But Chesbrough continued.

To carry the wastewater away, he explained, the river would have to be deepened. It would be dredged out to improve its flow, clearing out the stagnating waste with its attendant problems. The dredged soil would then be used to cover the pipes, thus raising the level of the streets, sometimes by as high as ten feet above the previous location.

The audacious plan was approved and the dredging, building and raising soon began.

Raising a block of buildings on Lake Street, Chicago. 

While the raising of the city was a success, the water problem had not been fully solved. The problem of open sewers throughout the city had been diminished, but waste was still making its way into the lake and polluting the drinking water. In 1863 Chesbrough put forward an even more ambitious plan – dig a brick-lined tunnel beneath the swampland and out under lake to a new water intake two miles offshore, much farther out than anyone believed the waste could travel.

A massive caisson was towed out into the lake and sunk to the bottom. Water was then pumped out so that tunneling could begin from the lake side. Teams of laborers worked long days in terrible conditions to complete the tunnel in 1866. Water was pulled through the tunnel to a new pumping station from which it was distributed to the city.

Still during times of heavy rain the filth was making its way into the city’s drinking water. It was time for an extreme step which Chesbrough had first considered years earlier when he arrived in Chicago: he would have to reverse the flow of the river to carry the waste away from the lake.

The idea of reversing the flow of a river appealed to Chicago’s boosters: it would be the kind of engineering feat that would be heralded in cities all over the world, the latest miracle in a city which was accomplishing amazing things every year. The plan was quickly embraced and a $3 million bond issue was approved for its execution.

By this time the Illinois and Michigan Canal had been completed, linking the Illinois River with Lake Michigan and opening up a deep water passageway out away from the city. It was just a matter of hooking the city’s waste flowage up to this waterway and all the problems would be solved.

Except of course for the downstream communities who looked upon this plan with horror. Early on, their fears seemed to be confirmed.

Chesbrough moved forward with his plan, further dredging the river and canal so that water would flow downhill, away from Chicago. Pumps were installed near the Bridgeport neighborhood where so many of the canal’s laborers had lived. These pumps helped pull the water away from downtown and through the canal. On July 18, 1871, the gates were opened and the river began to flow backwards.

Even this did not solve the problem. The river’s current proved to be too slow to diffuse the waste enough to render it harmless, and the natural buildup of silt in the waterway further slowed its flow. Cholera broke out again just two years later. Chesbrough at last had to admit defeat. It would take another two decades before Chicago developed what Theodore Dreiser described as “the greatest feat of sanitary engineering in the world.”

Downstream communities referred to the river as Chicago’s “monster sewer” and terrible smells were reported as far away as LaSalle. So severe was the opposition downstream that Joliet’s city leaders demanded a fix or they would physically block the canal and force it to back up into Chicago. Weeks of heavy rain in 1879 accomplished the task for them, and refuse once again found its way out into the lake and into the city’s water. Action had to be taken, and soon.

A group of Chicago businessmen formed the Civic Association and suggested supersizing Chesbrough’s original plan. Their judgment was ratified by the city’s Commission on Drainage and Water Supply in 1887, the year after Chesbrough’s death. The I&M needed improvements to accommodate larger ships, so the solution to both problems seemed to be a much larger, wider and faster-flowing canal.

In 1889 the General Assembly created the Sanitary District of Chicago (now known as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District) to address both problems. Spurred along by yet another typhoid outbreak in 1890 which hit the city as plans were being made for the upcoming World’s Fair, work began on the waterway. It came to be known as the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

“I have heard, I am sorry to say, a few well-meaning persons express surprise that an enterprise of such magnitude should be undertaken; rather should the wonder be that we were not forced to something of this kind years ago,” said trustee Bernard Eckhart at the groundbreaking ceremony on September 3, 1892. “No other civilized community would be guilty of such prolonged and continuous contamination of its water supply.”

The project’s chief engineer, Isham Randolph, a former railroad engineer, sketched out a route which would generally follow the existing I&M, extending 28 miles from downtown Chicago to the junction of the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers near Joliet. To overcome the problems of sufficient water flow to dilute the waste, the project included the deepening of the Chicago River so that it would draw in more water from Lake Michigan.

In total, more than 8000 laborers would dig and blast through more land than would be moved just a few years later in the construction of the Panama Canal, a project on which Randolph would serve as a consultant. Chicago’s canal would be 30 feet deep and 160 feet wide, more than enough space to accommodate the ships that would travel through it. Water flow would be regulated by a dam near Lockport and gates at the entrance from the lake.

Just when construction was almost finished and victory seemed assured at long last, a new problem arose: the state of Missouri. Disturbed by the idea of Chicago’s waste flowing in their direction, Missouri prepared to take Illinois to court late in 1899 to prevent the opening of the canal.

Trustees acted quickly. On January 2, 1900, accompanied by a pair of reporters, they rang in the new century by sneaking out to the site of the dam which held back the river from the new canal. They brought dynamite with them, and after a few false starts the dam was opened and the water began to flow.

This time it finally worked.

“Though it was accomplished without any flourish of trumpets, it was one of the most important events in the history of Chicago,” heralded the Chicago Tribune, which went on to declare the day’s event as the beginning of the “pure water era.”

Best of all, the faster-flowing water did the job it was expected to do by cleansing the waste. When Missouri filed its lawsuit, tests determined that the waste was sufficiently rinsed out of the water by the time it reached Joliet, which it now seemed would not have to plow obstructions into the route of the canal after all.

Lawsuits were filed by other states, this time from the north. Some of them reached the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1920s. States along the Great Lakes sued Illinois claiming the project was draining so much water out of the lakes that it was depleting the water level for their communities. The result was a reduction in the amount of water Illinois could withdraw, which in turn made the dilution less effective, requiring the installation of water purification systems along the canal. Chicago began chlorinating its water in 1912.

A century after its completion the American Society of Civil Engineers named the project a “Civil Engineering monument of the Millennium.” It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, not long after federal courts rejected a Michigan lawsuit calling for the closing of the canal to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

The canal and the reverse of the river were just another of the many triumphs which helped make Chicago and Illinois the commercial center of North America.