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Where the River Meets the Lake

As Chicago's industries expanded during the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Chicago River become heavily polluted


There is one episode in Chicago's development that made the city what it is today. Without the evolution of the waterways--the expansion and improvements made to the Chicago River and Lake Michigan and other watercourses that surround the city--Chicago would still be a small cog in the wheel of progress instead of one of the world's industrial empires.

Chicago's position at the mouth of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan is a geological phenomenon sculpted by glaciers eons ago. During this Pleistocene epoch, the sheets of ice that covered the northern part of the continent shifted and divided several times. As a result, a natural subcontinental drainage divide developed a few miles west of Lake Michigan's shore. To the east of the divide, rivers drained through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean. To the west of the divide, waters flowed to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Initially, the South Branch of the Chicago River originated at a marsh called Mud Lake, east of the drainage divide. In between the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers was an area called the Chicago portage, an outlet through the Valparaiso Moraine drainage divide that would become a key transportation passageway.

During the glaciation, the amassing of snow and ice also caused the earth to sink and form deep chasms, which shaped the Great Lakes. After undergoing various geographical evolutions, Lake Michigan (geological name Lake Chicago) surfaced as Chicago's source of fresh drinking water. "The important thing is that the subcontinental divide was so low and the land was so close to lake level that the place was a gigantic wetland," explains Libby Hill, author of The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History.

Once the geological activity ceased, Chicago emerged as a topographical amalgam of flat and fertile terra firma, ideally positioned between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains and awaiting a visionary to stumble upon its potential. In 1673, French-Canadian explorer, Louis Jolliet crossed the Chicago portage on a return expedition from the Mississippi River. He informed his patrons in Quebec, one being the governor of New France, that a canal was needed through the river of portage and for them to position a fort and town there so that New France would be poised to control the interior of North America. New France never acted upon his suggestion, but Jolliet knew, even then, that the expanse now known as Chicago and the waterways that surrounded it would play a vital role in the development of North America.

In the late 1780s, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, the first permanent resident of Chicago, built his trading post on the north bank at the mouth of the Chicago River, recognizing the location's potential significance. Over time, the watercourses of the area were the magnets that drew people to the region. A good deal of land speculation was based on the prospects of a canal that would connect the East to the Midwest.

In anticipation of the new canal, Chicago was incorporated into the new state of Illinois in 1818. "There would have been no reason to situate a city where there wasn't river transportation, in the beginning," Hill states. "But the portage provided that essential route that excited people with the idea of a canal." In order to include Chicago, the state boundary was adjusted northward by 60 miles to integrate the shore of the lake as part of Illinois' eastern boundary. Without these modifications, Chicago would not have been a city in Illinois.

The development of the canal became a serious political issue, and in 1827, the U.S. Congress granted Illinois 284,000 acres for a canal route that would connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River system. "It was clear that a water route would greatly aid transportation across the country at a time before railroads and when there were few roads," explains Phyllis Ellin, former executive director of the federal commission for the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor. Legislature was passed in 1835 that authorized construction on a canal, and in June of 1836, excavation began on the Illinois and Michigan Canal (I & M Canal).

Once the I & M Canal was completed in 1848, it joined the Chicago River at Bridgeport with the Illinois River at LaSalle. The canal's span of more than 90 miles became the industrial transport from the East to the Midwest and took Chicago from an insignificant settlement to a pivotal transportation thoroughfare and the economic hub of the Midwest. "The I & M Canal was the primary factor in spurring the growth of Chicago from a small trading center to the major city of the Midwest," says Ellin.

Growth was slow and steady when Chicago incorporated in 1837, but by 1840, the populace grew to more than 4,000. As word of the canal connecting the East to the Midwest spread, Chicago became the choice city of opportunity.

The rapid migration of people to the marshy, flat terrain proved too much for the infrastructure, or the lack there of. The streets were muddy and unable to drain rainwater and human and animal waste. Planks were laid in the streets to facilitate movement throughout the city and deep trenches were dug and emptied into the sluggish Chicago River in an attempt to remedy the drainage issue. The trenches proved to be an ineffective means of ridding the streets of its waste because they allowed water to stand under the planks, which became a breeding ground for waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid. The planks were eventually removed due to high maintenance cost. Drainage of standing water, flooding, along with excrement from humans and animals, remained a problem so severe that it became a public health crisis.

As the population grew, the health of Chicago's residents and the environment deteriorated. The general public substantially utilized the waterways during this period, relying on Lake Michigan for fresh drinking water and recreation and on the Chicago River as a harbor for industry and waste receptacle. Because the water from Lake Michigan was drawn so close to the Chicago River, where waste was discarded, contamination occurred. As a result of this unsanitary method of waste disposal and poor drainage from the streets, many began to become sick and die.

After years of cholera and dysentery epidemics, the Illinois State Legislature formed a Board of Sewage Commission and appointed William Ogden, Chicago's first mayor, to head it. Ogden hired Ellis S. Chesbrough of Boston in 1855 to create the first comprehensive sewer system in the United States. Chesbrough proposed several strategies. The plan that was accepted was an extensive underground sewer system that would discharge waste out to the Chicago River. Because Chicago's topography was not conducive to an underground sewage system, the streets were raised six to 12 feet to accommodate new pipes. The river was dredged to deepen it for the sewers, and the earth from the bottom was used to cover the new septic system. New paved streets were constructed above the sewers.

After the installation of the new sewers, the Chicago River was free of contaminants for the first few years, but it wasn't long before noxious waste began to plague it once again. The North and South Branches, where manufacturing was heaviest, were especially affected. Factories would dump effluent directly into the river. Once the stockyards opened, offal--along with dead animal carcasses--were regularly deposited into the water. "The Union Stock Yard, which opened in 1865, used the river as a water source for livestock and as a sewer for waste disposal," says Libby Mahoney, chief curator of the Chicago Historical Society. "Indeed, the Chicago River became heavily polluted as Chicago's industries expanded during the late 19th and early 20th centuries."

One part of the south end of the river became so putrid that it was called "bubbly creek" because of the bubbles from the decomposing animal waste.

As industrial and commercial development flourished along the Chicago River, becoming the most active port in the United States, the more polluted the waters became. Many more attempts were made to solve Chicago's dilemma of inadequate sanitation. In 1861, Ellis Chesbrough was named head of the newly formed Bureau of Public Works, the product of a merger of the Board of Sewage Commission and the Board of Water Commissioners. Chesbrough proposed another idea to rid the city of its sewage--make a 'deep cut' in the I & M Canal to assist the waste flow. In 1871, the 'deep cut' was made, but it wasn't a permanent solution. In 1879, the Des Plaines River overflowed the old Chicago Portage and flowed into the Chicago River, causing waste to pour into the lake for 30 days. Widespread disease continued to blanket the city during the 1880s, and the residents became terrified.

The Sanitary District of Chicago was established in 1889 to develop a comprehensive system of sanitation for the entire region. Ground was broken on the Sanitary and Ship Canal in September of 1892. "[The Sanitary and Ship Canal] was critical to save the water supply--Lake Michigan," says Terrence O'Brien, president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago Greater Chicago. "In the 1880s, death from waterborne disease ravaged the city. In those days, planners felt that the natural cleaning process within rivers would be sufficient. Population growth, urbanization and industrial development ultimately overtaxed the natural processes." The new canal, 28 miles of continuous waterway without locks, would run parallel to the old I & M Canal from Chicago to Lockport, Ill., reversing the flow of the Chicago River. Twenty-five feet deep, 306 feet wide at its widest point and constructed to pass through 10,000 cubic feet of water per second, this canal was then the largest earth-moving project in the world.

On January 2, 1900, after eight years, the Sanitary and Ship Canal was completed, and the Chicago River became the first river in the world to flow away from its mouth. With this engineering marvel completed, Lake Michigan's water flow drastically increased into the Chicago River to assist the flush of sewage westward toward the Mississippi River. The inhabitants down river of the flow were not pleased with Chicago's sewage being sent their way, and in 1930, the Federal Government forced Chicago to construct a lock and dam at the mouth of the river to control the water released into the Mississippi. The construction was completed in 1939, and once again, the waters of Chicago became polluted.

Since the initial attempts in the 19th century, numerous improvements were and are still being made to the waterways of Chicago. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (formerly the Sanitary District of Chicago) is now responsible for keeping Chicago's waterways flowing smoothly and free of contagions. "Today, the Chicago River is primarily used for recreational boating and other leisure-time activities, including dining and fishing along its banks," explains Libby Mahoney. High-rise buildings have replaced the industrial and commercial edifices that once drew people and businesses to the riverbanks and signaled a city in progress. Now it's the view that brings people to the river.

Published: December 01, 2005
Issue: Holiday 2005


The Page Number
I would like to know the page number of this article in case I ever have to cite it.
Alex, Jun-13-2011