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The Chicago River was a major artery of the transportation of goods to and from Lake Michigan.

The Reversal of the Chicago River in 1900

Sylvia Lee
Jamieson School, Chicago

The history of the Chicago River is one of the most important features of Chicago history. An interesting fact about the river is that its flow was permanently reversed in 1900. Thereafter, the reversal prevented the yearly deaths of thousands of Chicago residents from waterborne diseases such as typhoid and cholera. Had it not been so, the city of Chicago might well not exist today.

The Chicago River is shallow and slow moving but it had much potential because of its location and what it provided the settlers. "Its greatest value to the native tribes and early settlers was as the key to a system of water routes that connects the waters of the mid-continent to the open waters of the Great Lakes," in one historian's words. The river and its tributaries also gave settlers drink, food, and a safe harbor.

As any river would, the Chicago River attracted and influenced human population. Chicago developed and grew to become a big city. The Chicago River was used to dump sewage, factory, and other wastes. This badly polluted the river. The river was connected to Lake Michigan, the source of water for Chicago residents. When the Chicago River watershed became too big because of rain storms, the river overflowed into the lake. Drinking water became polluted and disease spread rapidly. In some years, waterborne diseases killed more than 5 per cent of the population.

In 1822 Congress authorized construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Construction began in 1836. By 1837, however, a national economic depression occurred, and Illinois was bankrupted. By 1841 it was, impossible to continue construction, and construction was stopped for four years. Construction was completed in 1848, and the canal was open to traffic. The I & M Canal allowed Chicago to gain a competitive advantage over St. Louis. But the canal did not end sanitation problems.

A plan was devised to make a deep cut that would allow the canal to draw its flow directly from Lake Michigan and to reverse the river's flow.


However, the financial crisis of 1837 put an end to these plans. Canal commissioners had to construct a cheaper and more shallow canal where pumps were used to fill the canal.

Epidemics continued. Additional pumps were installed in an attempt to reverse the flow. This did not work; therefore, the canal was deepened. The river's flow was reversed.

However, William Ogden and his business partner John Wentworth dug a ditch to drain land they owned near Mud Lake—a geographical feature that no longer exists. It was a very large swampy area and it stretched from west of Damen Avenue on the east to Harlem Avenue on the west. When the Des Plaines River flooded, the Ogden-Went worth ditch poured floodwater directly into the I & M Canal. This backed up the canal causing the Chicago River to flow right back into Lake Michigan. Also, silt from the Ogden-Wentworth ditch quickly reduced the flow of the river, and the reversal came to a standstill within one year. The attempt to reverse the river was unsuccessful. The I & M Canal was a failure. All this canal did was to anger the residents who lived downstream.

On August 2, 1885, more than six inches of rain fell in Chicago. This backed up the Chicago River again, and waterborne diseases killed 12 per cent of the population. These epidemics reoccurred; hence, the state legislature created the Sanitary District of Chicago in 1889. It is now called the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

The creators of the Sanitary District of Chicago had two responsibilities: to find a solution to the problems of water supply and sewage disposal. The Sanitary District proposed the construction of the Sanitary and Ship Canal to deal with these two problems. The canal was constructed between Damen Avenue on the south branch and the town of Lockport north of Joliet.

With the completion of the Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1900, the Chicago River was finally and

Great monuments to the wholesale trade-like the
Merchandise Mart-eventually flanked the Chicago River.



permanently reversed. The city's water supply was made safe, and the river mouth became a port that served thousands of ships each year.

The Chicago River today is very much improved and continues to improve each day. Although the river has toxic sediment, the water quality is much cleaner because of increasingly efficient water treatment systems.

These improvements caused wildlife to return to the river. This includes more than fifty species of fish, plant life from wetlands prairies and forests, large mammals such as coyote, and water birds. The water, however, is not yet clean enough for swimming. The fish caught are not safe to eat but people are now able to fish in the river. As one historian has written, "Chicago owes its existence to the Chicago River and the river owes its present form to Chicago."

The Chicago River today is definitely very different from what it was when explorers first rowed through it. This sluggish and shallow river was turned into a sewer by man and then made into a large system of channels and canals to save the city. In 1900 the direction of the river's flow was reversed, an amazing feat that seemed impossible at the time. The reversal helped enable Chicago to become a great city. The Chicago River is truly a unique and special river.—[From Ryan Berkmoes, Chicago; Libby Hill, The Chicago River; Illinois & Michigan Canal Corridor Association, <www.canal>; Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, <>; David M. Solzman, The Chicago River; Gary Wisby, "Winning an Uphill Battle," Chicago Sun Times (Jan. 26, 2000).]


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