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Photo Credit: City of Chicago, Graphics and Reproduction Center

1900 Flow of Chicago River Reversed

The sewerage system of early Chicago was primitive, with gutters serving as drains in many streets. Improvements were made in the sewerage system using underground pipes, but they discharged either directly into Lake Michigan or into the river which flowed into the lake. The water cribs were being pushed farther out into the lake to escape the wastes, but the effort was not successful. People were plagued by typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery.

In 1854, a cholera epidemic took the lives of 5 1/2 per cent of the population. Deaths from typhoid fever between 1860 and 1900 averaged 65 per 100,000 population a year. The worst year was 1891, when the typhoid death rate was 174 per 100,000 persons. Disease resulting from water polluted by human waste brought about a state of emergency.

In 1887 it was decided to attempt a bold engineering feat and reverse the Chicago River. Rudolph Hering, chief engineer of the drainage and water supply commission, noted that the Great Lakes drainage system was separated from the Mississippi River drainage system by a summit or ridge approximately 8 feet high located some 12 miles west of the lake shore. A plan was evolved to cut through that ridge with a canal from the southerly tip of the south branch of the Chicago River and carry the wastes away from the lake and down to the Mississippi River through the Des Plaines and Illinois rivers. The Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago was created in 1889 under a law passed by the state legislature to effect this plan.

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To reverse the flow of the Chicago River, a 28-mile canal was built from the south branch of the river through the low summit and down to Lockport. It was completed in 1900. The flow in this canal, commonly known as the Sanitary and Ship Canal or main channel, is controlled by locks at the mouth of the Chicago River and at Lockport. Thus, Chicago had built the first of its own rivers to dispose of waste waters.

In 1910 another small artificial river was completed by building a dam, lock, and pumping plant at Wilmette and by digging the North Shore channel, connecting Lake Michigan with the north branch of the Chicago River. The wastes from the north suburban communities of Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka, and others were diverted away from the lake and drained through the newly created main canal. This artificial channel is 8 miles long.

In 1922, the third of Chicago's artificial rivers was created. This river, the Cal-Sag channel, extends 16 miles westward from the Little Calumet River at Blue Island to a junction with the main canal. Here again, the flow of a natural river was diverted away from Lake Michigan and into the main drainage system flowing to the west. Today the entire waterway system consists of 71 miles of canals, channels, and rivers.

The Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago, when created in 1889, covered 185 square miles of Chicago and some western suburbs. The district now covers 858 square miles including nearly all of Cook County. The district presently serves Chicago, 114 other cities and villages, and 20 smaller local sanitary districts. At the time the sanitary district was formed the science of sewage treatment was practically unknown. However, research had begun and in 1930 the court ordered construction of sewage treatment plants in order to cut down on water diversion from Lake Michigan. The sanitary district has since built three sewage treatment plants. In 1955, the American Society of Civil Engineers selected the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago as one of the seven engineering wonders of the United States.

Go to 1928 Straightening Of the Chicago River

A Chronological History of Chicago: 1673-
Compiled by Chicago Municipal Reference Library, City of Chicago
Updated by Municipal Reference Collection, Chicago Public Library

Last Updated: 08/97

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