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Ask Chicagoist: River Reversal?

By Thales Exoo in Miscellaneous on Mar 10, 2006 3:20PM

I keep hearing about how engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River to protect our drinking water. How the hell'd they do that?

Chicagoist has always been proud of the tap water quality in Chicago, even to the point where we annoyingly brag about it to out-of-town friends and family. Still, there's just something about the idea that our drinking water has anything to do with the Chicago River that's rather unpleasant to Chicagoist, no matter which direction it happens to be flowing -- especially when we think about the state of the river this weekend (we just can't let that river be, can we?). We'll stick to our Brita-filtered H2O, thank you very much.

2006_03_askriver.jpgEarly water systems in Chicago would unceremoniously drop sewage and industrial waste right into Lake Michigan and the Chicago River -- in other words, right back into the water supply. Not too surprisingly, this pollution caused a cholera epidemic in the 1850s, and a rise in typhoid fever deaths throughout the second half of the 19th century, killing over 80,000 Chicagoans. Rather than come up with an alternate sewage disposal plan, in 1887 engineers decided the best way to save the water supply was to manipulate nature and reverse the flow of the Chicago River, so the waste would travel away from Lake Michigan, not right into it. Of course.

West of the underground drainage system used by the Chicago River lies the Mississippi River drainage system; the two systems are separated by an eight-foot high ridge. Rudolph Hering, the engineer for the city's water system, proposed digging a canal (named the Sanitary and Ship Canal) from the southern tip of the south branch of the Chicago River through the ridge, connecting it to the Des Plaines River near Lockport, and thus forcing the river to flow into the canal and out to the Des Plaines River. For some reason no one seemed to think this plan was in any way bizarre or farfetched, and the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago was founded to oversee this feat of engineering.

Work began on the canal in 1892, and took 8,500 workers (who worked ten-hour days for 15 cents per hour) eight years to complete. The final canal was 28 miles long, 25 feet deep, and 306 feet wide.

When the work was almost done, in December 1899, the state of Missouri tried to stop the opening of the canal, insisting that the sewage would just be carried back to St. Louis' water supply. Hering and his engineers, however, said that the flow of the water would cause it to be clean by the time it reached St. Louis. In true Chicago style, rather than worry about the results of a court battle, the commissioners of the Sanitary District decided to complete the project at dawn on January 2, 1900. Engineers detonated a temporary dam as the commissioners and two newspaper reporters looked on. As a result, the flow of the Chicago River was reversed and we have cleaner water for it, St. Louis be damned.

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