Chapter 5

Reversing a River (excerpt)

Building the Chicago Sanitary and
Ship Canal in the late 1880’s.

IN THE LATE 1800s CHICAGO was a bustling urban center well on its way to becoming one of world’s great cities. Having rebuilt itself after the Chicago Fire of 1871, it was a thriving metropolis of approximately a million people. But it also was a filthy place with wretched sanitation problems, and nothing exemplified that more than the squalid Chicago River. Virtually an open sewer, laced with visible filth, some of the river’s worst pollution came from its urbanized tributaries. “Bubbly Creek” was an ecologically dead branch of the river that was filled annually with enough rotting stockyard offal to equal the pollution from a sizable city. “In the summer, when a hard brown scum settled on its surface, cats and chickens could be seen scurrying across it,” writes Donald Miller in his book, City of the Century.1 There were times, thanks to discharges from the slaughterhouses, when the river ran red with blood.2 After heavy rains it was not unusual to see the rotting carcasses of dead cats—or even horses—floating in the river’s sewage slick as it streamed far out into Lake Michigan. In some cases the polluted plume even neared the city’s drinking water-intake structures two miles from shore.3 The fear of water-borne illness was constant.4 “Cholera, and later typhoid, were a problem,” says Richard Lanyon, director of research and development at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the metro region’s wastewater treatment agency. “The other problem was just plain old nuisance conditions. The river smelled terrible and, depending on which way the wind was blowing, various parts of the city were ‘treated’ to this aroma.”

By 1885 Chicago’s leading citizens were fed up with the embarrassing, unhealthy condition of their river. The solution was bold and ambitious: to definitively reverse the stream’s flow. The primary goal was to flush Chicago’s sewage far away from the city’s Lake Michigan water-intake pipes, though there was also a desire to use the reversed river for navigation.5 Reversing the river had been tried before, in 1871, when a less ambitious effort led to limited and very temporary success.6 This time, city leaders, with the eventual support of the state legislature, were determined to reverse the river’s flow decisively and permanently. Their plan was to construct a twenty-eight-mile canal connecting the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River near the village of Lockport southwest of the city, where Chicago’s pollution would then flow into the Illinois River and ultimately the Mississippi. Unlike the first attempt to reverse the river, this project was built to divert a large amount of water from the Lake Michigan waterfront: 10,000 cubic feet per second. The diversion channel eventually became known as the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, and the diversion itself is called the Lake Michigan diversion at Chicago (also known as the “Illinois diversion,” or colloquially as the “Chicago diversion”).