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Chicago River played a critical part in city's development

by Kate Van Winkle
Jan 30, 2013

ChiRiver - Striaghtening

DN-0089329, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

The Chicago River during a project to straighten its course in 1929.

ChiRiver - MichiganBridge

By Kate Van Winkle/MEDILL

The Bridgehouse Museum and DuSable Bridge at Michigan Avenue.

ChiRiver - Dredging

DN-0008821, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

A machine dredges part of the Chicago River in 1910.

ChiRiver - Buildings

By Kate Van Winkle/MEDILL

The Chicago River and DuSable Bridge at Michigan Avenue.

ChiRiver - NorthBranch

DN-0001982, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

The North Branch of the Chicago River in 1904. A 1930s work program for young adults turned the parts of the marshy North Branch into the Skokie Lagoons.   

Before the first skyscrapers or the Second City, wedged between Lake Michigan and the branches of the Chicago River, a city rose at the crossroads of America, what became the nation's third coast. 

“People think of Chicago as railroad city or they think of Chicago as the busiest airport in the world, but they don’t necessarily think of us as a water town,” said John Russick, director of curatorial affairs at the Chicago History Museum. “But the water -- not just the lake, but the river too -- they were critical to our development. You don’t get Chicago without them.”

The Chicago River was little more than a stream at points when Louis Joliet and Pere Jacques Marquette first encountered it in 1673. Today, the river is a major waterway, connecting the Great Lakes to the mighty Mississippi River.

Debate about the fate of the Chicago River with current drought conditions and a potential carp invasion has inspired a resurgence of interest in the river’s unique history. More than 100 years ago, the flow of the river was completely reversed in a monumental feat of engineering. Originally flowing into Lake Michigan, the river now flows away from the lake and into a series of waterways that lead to the Mississippi River.

“I just think it’s a fascinating story,” said Richard Lanyon, author of “Building the Canal to Save Chicago.” “Let’s face it – how much do you think about the river? Water is there at the turn of a tap and disappears down the drain and you don’t think about all the investment and infrastructure.”

According to Lanyon, the idea of altering the flow of the Chicago River first launched in the 1850s by engineer Ellis Chesbrough. Chesbrough was selected to work on planning the city’s sewer system and realized the need for a larger canal to avert potential flooding and water contamination disasters.

Despite Chesbrough’s recommendations, Chicago waited until the late 1800s befgore his advice was considered and construction began on the canal system that still exists today. Cholera and typhoid epidemics ravaged the city at the time as polluted river water flowed into the lake, the source of the city’s drinking water.

Over the next 70 years, the Chicago River changed drastically from the small, shallow waterway of the city’s earliest days. Beginning with the opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1836, Chicago Area rivers were dredged, dammed and straightened to facilitate the shipping industry and sanitation needs of a growing metropolis. The canal finally offered passage over Chicago's famous portage, a marshy land bridge that connected the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers. 

“The reversal of the river generated several things, only one of which was a reliable source of fresh drinking water,” Russick said. “It also answered the question about how do we keep the river at a full capacity so that large boats could go through and get all the way downstream.”

On Jan. 2, 1900, the newly completed Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal filled with water for the first time, incorporating parts of the earlier canal. Following a comprehensive review to ensure that the work was done in accordance with the law, the gates were opened on January 17 and the Chicago River was officially reversed, Lanyon said.

The reversal of the river provided cleaner drinking water and essentially ended the sweeping epidemics that plagued the city. But today, water quality in the river and connecting waterways is still a concern.

“The major discharger into the Chicago River is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. They have sewage effluent that goes into the river,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “In 2011, after many, many years of effort, they agreed that they would start disinfecting the sewage effluent and killing the bacteria that was in that sewage. That’ll be implemented at two of the three plants on the river system by 2014, which is a major victory.”

Friends of the Chicago River is an advocacy group formed in 1979 to encourage stewardship and organize projects to improve the river. Today, they fund restoration projects and work with environmental groups, policy makers and volunteers to ensure the Chicago River is protected and maintained.

Today, environmental advocates and water management organizations alike are examining the future of the Chicago River. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the disinfection of the river in 2011 and state and city plans are underway to do just that and make the river clean enough to take a swim.

But with near record low lake levels due to an ongoing drought, many have even expressed concerns that the river will re-reverse itself naturally. Experts from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and Army Corps of Engineers say that can’t physically happen, but there are still issues to consider.

“The lake level is very low, so what happens when the lake level keeps dropping?” said Lanyon, who worked with the water reclamation district for nearly 50 years and retired as its executive director. “Well we have a problem because the system was designed so the river would be kept below the lake level and now your positions are switched. When you lock a boat, the water goes from the river to the lake. Hopefully, we’ll have a lot of snow and rain and the level will come up.”

This isn’t the first time Chicago has faced severe weather or abnormal events. In 2008, a massive storm dumped more than nine inches of rain on Cook County, according to Lanyon. Flooding forced the district and the Army Corps of Engineers to discharge stormwater from the river into Lake Michigan for more than three days. Storm water discharges usually happen about once a year during big rains but typically only last about 10 hours.

Chicagoans will also remember the record blizzard in early 2011. More than 20 inches of snow fell over the city, inspiring the nicknames “snowmageddon” and “snowpocalypse.”

The city has long been at the mercy of both fire and ice. Heavy winds and drought conditions, much like today’s, contributed to one of the greatest disasters in Chicago history – the Great Chicago Fire. Though debate continues about whether or not Mrs. O’Leary’s cow is to blame, there is no question that the 1871 fire ranks as the most destructive event in the city’s past. Spurred on by dry conditions, the blaze jumped the South Branch of the Chicago River and raged through the downtown and beyond for more than two days, destroying much of the city that had so rapidly risen along the river's shores.

“Everybody wonders why did the city burn when it’s surrounded by all this water,” Russick said. “The truth of that is really a technological truth. It’s about the limitations of our capacity to pump and draw water from these sources and get it where we wanted it to go. Part of Chicago’s curse is the speed with which it grew. There wasn’t a lot of regulation for building styles or a demand for safe building. There were fire departments, but there weren’t enough. That lack of preparation was demonstrated by the fire.”

Chicago’s rapid growth also took an environmental toll on the city’s primary waterway. According to Russick, the river was a source of livelihood in the pre-industrial age and developed into a resource for mills, waste dumping and shipping as the industrial revolution took hold.

“Eventually there is an effort to clean up the river and to prevent people from just wholesale dumping into it, but the legacy of that hundred-year history really still stands here,” Russick said. “We thought about resources as things that were used and used up and then we moved on. So it’s not really surprising. This is the story of lots of rivers and lots of land the world over.”

Out of the ashes, Chicago rebuilt and went on to host the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, which highlighted the city’s waterfront assets for the world to see. The 20th century brought new technologies, suburban expansion and the rise of skyscrapers. At the center of it all, the Chicago River remained, crisscrossed by historic bridges.

“The river is the lifeblood of the city,” Frisbie said. “It’s a cultural corridor. It’s part of our history, but it just provides a huge amount of opportunity for growth that we’re only starting to explore.”