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Museum Exhibits - For Our Health


For Our Health

"When my brother grew up...he was asked what was a river. He promptly answered: A body of water that has a very bad smell."
-Mrs. Joseph Frederick Ward in 1919, on her brother's perception of the Chicago River

By the mid-1800s, the Chicago River was so foul it was a source of deadly disease. The recipient of the burgeoning city's waste - human sewage, animal carcasses, and toxic chemicals - the river threatened the city's drinking water, Lake Michigan.

The Devastation of Cholera, ca. 1885

The Devastation of Cholera, ca. 1885

To address the problem, the City established the Chicago Sanitary District in 1887. Over the next century, the Sanitary District (now the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago) developed a vision for a bright future, based on applying intellect and technology to solve sewage problems.

These engineering marvels included reversing the Chicago River, building the largest sewage treatment facility in the world, and digging 109 miles of massive tunnels, as deep as 360 feet below the city.


Failed Attempts

Before making the bold move to reverse the river, the City took several measures to assure clean drinking water. In 1851, they extended a wooden water intake 600 feet into Lake Michigan.  But pollution soon reached past it, as far as a mile into the lake.

In 1866, this Chicago water crib drew drinking water from the lake Courtesy of Chicago Public Library

In 1866, this Chicago water crib drew drinking water from the lake

Courtesy of Chicago Public Library

In 1867, the City built a two-mile pipe (the longest tunnel ever bored at that time) to a water intake crib from which the City pumped its drinking water. However, the population increased tenfold in the next twenty years, and sewage pushed out past the crib, polluting the water again. 

The Great Chicago Lake Tunnel, 1867 Courtesy of Chicago Public Library

The Great Chicago Lake Tunnel, 1867

Courtesy of Chicago Public Library

The Great Chicago Lake Tunnel, 1867 Courtesy of Chicago Public Library, Special Collections and Preservation Division

The Great Chicago Lake Tunnel, 1867

Courtesy of Chicago Public Library, Special Collections and Preservation Division

In 1871, engineers deepened the I & M Canal in an attempt to reverse the river. But even the great pumps at Bridgeport could not keep the water flowing down the canal. 

In 1871, engineers attempted to reverse the Chicago River by enlarging the I&M Canal Courtesy of Newberry Library

In 1871, engineers attempted to reverse the Chicago River by enlarging the I&M Canal

Courtesy of Newberry Library

By 1887, a special commission proposed three alternatives: one, discharge sewage into Lake Michigan near Calumet and bring drinking water from Evanston ($37 million); two, dispose of sewage on land ($58 million); three, permanently reverse the river with a new canal ($28 million).


The Big Ditch

"The clear waters of Lake Michigan have invaded the Chicago River."
-Chicago Daily Tribune, January 4, 1900

To protect the drinking water, the Sanitary District opted to reverse the river by digging the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. This redirected the City's waste away from the lake to the Mississippi River. Though a benefit to the health of Chicago's population, those downstream objected.  

Missouri sought to halt the canal with a court order, stating that the canal threatened their health. Hearing of Missouri's move, officials secretly opened a temporary dam, allowing water to flow into the canal. Once it was "open", Missouri could not stop the project.

Sanitary and Ship Canal Workers, ca. 1890 Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

Sanitary and Ship Canal Workers, ca. 1890

Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

To build the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, workers removed enough rock and soil to cover two city blocks almost as high as the Sears Tower. It cost $33.3 million, only $5.5 million above estimates.  

Sanitary and Ship Canal Construction Cranes, 1895 Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

Sanitary and Ship Canal Construction Cranes, 1895

Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

When opened, the 28-mile long canal was an engineering wonder of the world. The techniques developed for building the canal were used to build the Panama Canal. 


How Do You Make a River Run Backwards?

All water flows downhill. To reverse a river, you need to change the shape of the hill. The Chicago River used to flow into Lake Michigan because the lake was the region's lowest point.

But the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal changed that. The canal becomes progressively deeper so by the point where it meets the Des Plaines River it is lower than Lake Michigan. Gravity allows the water to flow without the aid of pumps toward the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

The locks separating the Chicago River from Lake Michigan did not reverse the river. Instead, they prevent too much lake water from entering the river.


The Feeders

To handle waste from the north side and flush the river system, the Sanitary District opened the North Shore Channel in 1909. This pulled lake water into the North Branch through downtown and flushed sewage into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

The North Shore Channel in Progress, ca. 1909 Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

The North Shore Channel in Progress, ca. 1909

Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

To handle waste from the south side, they connected the Calumet River to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1922. The Cal-Sag (short for Calumet-Saganashkee) reversed the flow of the Calumet, and this route quickly overtook the Chicago River as the regions primary commercial waterway.


The Deep Tunnel

In the early 1970s, raw sewage ended up in local rivers on an average of once every four days. Urged by Mayor Richard J. Daley, the Sanitary District developed a control system called the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), nicknamed Deep Tunnel.

TARP Workers in the Tunnel Courtesy of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

TARP Workers in the Tunnel

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

By decreasing the number of times raw sewage ends up in the river, TARP helps clean up local waterways. During times of heavy rains, the combined sewer diverts stormwater and sewage into underground tunnels and resevoirs, which hold the wastewater until the treatment plants can catch up and process the excess. 

TARP was a massive undertaking. The Mainstream Tunnel, which runs parallel to the Chicago River, is thirty-five feet in diameter, holds one billion gallons, and is carved in the limestone bedrock approximately 300 feet below ground.

TARP Construction Courtesy of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

TARP Construction

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.


Our Friendless River

In 1979, Chicago Magazine published "Our Friendless River," decrying the state of the river. Fortunately, a change in mindset was already taking place nationally and locally.

Nationally, the federal government responded to public pressure to improve environmental and water quality. In 1970, Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and by 1972, the Clean Water Act gave citizens the legal backing to demand healthier waterways.   

Locally, the Chicago Magazine article pointed out that recovery of the polluted, neglected, and manipulated river was not impossible. An inspired group formed Friends of the Chicago River (Friends), envisioning a healthy urban river system. Today, Friends works tirelessly to raise awareness of the river's condition and to improve it.

Pollution Choking the North Branch Courtesy of Friends of the Chicago River

Pollution Choking the North Branch

Courtesy of Friends of the Chicago River


Friends of the Chicago River

"The 20th century was dominated by massive public works projects that sought to engineer solutions to the problems that affected the Chicago River. These projects protected the city's drinking water and stopped raw sewage from pouring into the river. Yet, these engineered solutions do not address all the river's needs.
Better water quality, enhanced habitat, and comprehensive public policies that recognize the value of healthy environments are imperative.
We, in partnership with many public and private agencies and individuals like you, are working to bring about these changes. We envision beautiful riverbanks, a continuous trail, and thousands of people enjoying the river's many wonders."
--Friends of the Chicago River, established 1979