The Development of the Chicago River: a lesson in Human-Environment Interaction

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The Development of the Chicago River:

A Lesson in Human-Environment Interaction

The City of Chicago, 1850 - 1870

The Growth of a City
With the completion of the Illinois and Michigan Canal (or I&M Canal) in 1848, stretching from the Chicago River to the Illinois River, Lake Michigan & the Great Lakes were now connected to the Illinois River, and ultimately the Mississippi River & the Gulf of Mexico. Chicago sat at the center of this newly connected, super highway of water transportation. Chicago was now a major port city and the city grew at an extremely rapid rate. Shipbuilding became a major industry from around 1850 to 1875, and for a while, more ships passed through Chicago than through any other city in America.
Having large ships traveling down the Chicago River and through the city, it became necessary to build a series of movable bridges. These bridges included types drawbridges, elevated bridges, and swing bridges. These bridges could be adjusted, or raised to let boats through and lowered to allow pedestrians and vehicles to cross the river. Because there were so many ships passing up & down the river, bridges had to be raised frequently, causing enormous traffic backups. At it’s peak, Chicago had 52 moveable bridges that spanned the river. Currently, the Chicago River has 38 movable bridges.

A swing-bridge spans the busy Chicago River in the 1870s
Growing Population and Pollution


The Chicago River today, with it’s many drawbridges raised.
The population growth of the 1800s led to more and more pollution. Chicago’s sewage flowed directly into the river, first via trenches in the roads and later through sewers, which dumped directly into the river. The river downtown was a smelly and unpleasant mess. Industries also dumped waste materials into the river, polluting it even further. The most famously polluted spot along the river was the area near Chicago’s famous Union Stockyards called Bubbly Creek, which got national attention when it appeared in the politically charged book The Jungle, written by political journalist Upton Sinclair. In his famous accounts he wrote of how the Union Stockyards meatpacking companies would discard unwanted animal carcasses and parts in

the river, causing a terrible smell and appearance. It was the biodegradation of these parts in the water that made a section of the river actually “bubble up”.

With the publications of such accounts, as described in Sinclair’s, The Jungle, the public was concerned that it was the polluting of the water that was causing of the frequent cholera and typhoid outbreaks. At the time, there was little known about the science of bacteria and viruses. Despite the lack of complete knowledge, it was clear that having the city’s sewage and waste flow into the city’s drinking water supply, Lake Michigan was not a good idea.

A 2 Mile Tunnel… under the lake?

Several early attempts were made to bring fresh, clean drinking water into the city of Chicago. One early attempt was the construction of a two-mile water crib tunnel under Lake Michigan. The Two-Mile Crib was constructed in 1867 in an attempt to bring in clean water from further out in the lake, beyond the polluted water. Construction of the crib began in May 1864, as miners and workers worked 24 hours a day, six days a week. The project was completed in March, 1867, costing the city $380,784. Purified water was pumped to the Chicago Avenue Pumping Station, which still stands to this day at North Michigan avenue. Though improved water cribs would continue to be used throughout many Great Lakes cities and Chicago to this day, this particular project failed, as rain storms and natural water runoff from the city only brought the polluted water further out into the lake.

Reversing The Flow of a River
In the 1870s, several attempts were made to reverse the flow of the river using pumps, but they were all, ultimately, unsuccessful. In 1889, the Illinois State Legislature created the Sanitary District of Chicago to manage wastewater and come up with a solution to the polluted river and lake. It proposed the construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, a newer and larger canal (along side the I&M Canal), which would stretch between Damen Avenue on the South Branch and the town of Lockport on the Des Plaines River. By building the canal deeper and deeper as it progressed west, the canal would reverse the Main Stem and South Branch of the Chicago River, drawing its waters away from Lake Michigan. Completed in 1900 the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal not only kept sewage out of the city’s drinking supply, it flushed the filthy Chicago River with clean Lake Michigan water.

The Chicago Water Tower still stands today, evidence of the 2 Mile Water Crib Tunnel project.
The water from Lake Michigan only flowed into the Main Stem and the South Branch however, and did nothing to ameliorate the pollution in the North Branch. The solution was the North Shore Channel (completed in 1910) which brought in Lake Michigan Water at Wilmette and flushed it down the canal and down the North Branch beginning just south of Foster Avenue. In order to make the channel operational, the Sanitary District also had to straighten the North Branch, which they did in 1907.
The last channel built on the Chicago River was the Cal-Sag Channel, which was completed

between 1911 and 1922. Its construction fueled the growing debate over use of Lake Michigan water and Chicago’s attempt to treat the river by dilution. The completion of the Cal-Sag in 1922 coincided with a dry period and record low lake levels in the 1930s. Fingers pointed at Chicago as the culprit and Great Lake states upstream of Lake Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan, sued the Sanitary District of Chicago for diverting too much of Lake Michigan’s water to clean the Chicago River. In the end, the Sanitary District of Chicago was allowed to continue diversions, but at a reduced rate, and was required to finish construction of sewage treatment facilities, construct locks at the river’s mouth in order to keep too much lake water from going into the river.

1. What industrial project, completed in 1848, led to Chicago’s rapid growth in the mid to late 1800s?


2. One of Chicago’s main industries from 1850 to 1875 was _____________________________________

3. Because of the Chicago’s major shipping industry and boat traffic, what kind of bridges did the city

have to build in order to keep pedestrians and street traffic moving? __________________________


4. Where did the citizens & industries of Chicago dump their sewage and waste in the 1800s?


5. A portion of the polluted Chicago River was known as Bubbly Creek. Explain why. ________



6. Which two deadly diseases were caused by the polluted water? ________________________

7. What body of water did the Chicago River flow into? ________________________________________

7a. And what body of water did the people of Chicago get their drinking water from?


8. Explain what Chicago’s first attempt at bringing clean drinking water into the city in 1867?



8a. Did it work? Why or why not? __________________________________________________________


9. What did the people of Chicago finally do to solve the polluted drinking water problem? _________


10. What man-made canal was built and deepened in order to help solve this problem in 1900?


11. Why did a number of states, including New York, Pennsylvania & Minnesota sue the city of

Chicago? _____________________________________________________________________________


12. What did the people of Chicago have to build in order to prevent too much of Lake Michigan’s

water from flowing down the river? ___________________ Where is it located? ________________




Old Chicago Portage Route:

Old I & M Canal Route:

The Chicago River:

Brookfield/LaGrange Park: .

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