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People & Events: The Illinois and Michigan Canal

Canal As early as 1673, Louis Joliet recognized the potential of Chicago's geographic location on a continental divide. To the west, the Illinois River flows south to join the Mississippi, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. To the east, Lake Michigan drains to the east, eventually out to the St. Lawrence River and the Atlantic Ocean. By digging a canal between these two waterways, Joliet reported, the settlement between them could effectively have access to most of the North American continent.

Anticipation of a canal stoked the first speculative land rush in Chicago in the 1830s. The capital to actually dig the canal was raised from Wall Street brokers and their agents, like William Butler Ogden. They had bought lots adjacent to the canal, and were eager to improve the value of their property.

After displacing the Native Americans from the area and then selling off lots, the federal government gave the land to the state of Illinois for construction of the canal. The legislature considered relocating the canal to a point south of Chicago, where it would be easier to dig a canal to the Des Plaines River, but local Chicago backers pointed out that such a project would create a major city in Indiana, rather than Illinois.

Workers dug up the first shovelful of dirt on July 4, 1836. For weeks previously, hundreds of Irish immigrants had been lured to Chicago with the promise of labor, and there was plenty of it. One hundred miles separated the Illinois River from Lake Michigan and it took twelve years for the project to be completed.

In 1848, the first steamer ships from the Mississippi were sailing up the Illinois and Michigan Canal, connecting the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Lawrence seaway, as Joliet had foreseen.

In the 1850s, however, there were problems in town. The city had grown quickly and its disposal systems were leeching human waste back into the canal and lake. Industry -- meat packers, tanneries, and other animal parts processors -- added to the putrid mix, transforming the waterways into coursing greasy sludge, thick as pea soup and red with blood. This was the mess that motivated merchant Potter Palmer to realign the city's business sector to State Street, away from the canal. This was the horrid liquid filth that actually caught flame during the Great Fire of 1871. And this was the waste that seeped slowly into Lake Michigan -- the source of the city's drinking water.

Something had to be done, and a sewerage commission (with Ogden on board) hired Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough to build a sewage disposal system. Because the terrain was so flat, sewer pipes had to be built above the street level. As part of the process, the canal was redredged, and the excavated soil used to fill the streets up to the level of the sewer.

Chesbrough's system was too successful. The sewer made Chicago a more desirable place to live and it continued to grow. Small lake fish were drawn to the warm shores of the city and would be sucked into the intake pipes. Minnows were pouring out of city faucets. Worse, after spending time in the hot water reservoir, they "came out cooked," according to Chicagoan William Bross, "and one's bathtub was apt to be filled with what squeamish citizens called chowder."

Chesbrough decided to solve this problem by drawing in lake water from two miles off shore. One work crew tunneled out under the lakebed from shore, while another crew, sinking a shaft into the lake, tunneled in toward the city from under the lake itself. This system worked well for most of the year, but spring floods drove the city's considerable pollution further out into the lake, and back into the intake pipes.

There were two ways to solve this problem: enact environmental protection laws and risk upsetting Chicago's industrialists, or somehow defy nature, reverse the flow of the river and carry all the city's waste down through the canal and into the Mississippi. Chesbrough chose to reverse the river.

Communities a hundred miles from Chicago soon complained about the smells coming from the canal. And the problem with spring floods was still not solved. Workers had to dig a tunnel six miles into the lake to insure reasonably clean water intake. Furthermore, Ogden, in an attempt to drain swampland he owned, had dug his own ditch that carried sludge back into the newly redredged canal. Just a year after the river was reversed, it had stopped again and become stagnant.

In the late 1880s, a plan was developed to dig a new canal, parallel to the old one, but deeper, with a stronger current that would work to purify itself. On the first day of construction in 1892, a sewage authority trustee proclaimed that there should not be any surprise that such a huge engineering project was being undertaken, "rather should the wonder be that we were not forced to something of this kind years ago. No other civilized community would be guilty of such prolonged and continuous contamination of its water supply." The new Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, forty miles long, displaced more earth than the Panama Canal, and was completed on January 2, 1900. The Chicago River was permanently reversed.

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