How Civil Engineering Reversed One of the Mightiest Rivers

The Chicago River, which flows into Lake Michigan, had always been a source of life with fresh water readily available, fertile lands for farming, and a meeting point for trade. The native Potawatomi made this land their home, and referred to it as Shikaakwa, the name of a wild garlic that was widespread in the area. When the first French explorer Louis Joillet arrived in 1673, he accurately described the place as having an important advantage. After the Potawatomi were forcibly removed from their land with the Treaty of Chicago in 1833, the town population was estimated to be 200 people. By 1840, it had reached over 4,000.

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Soon Chicago became known as the world’s fastest growing city, and the economy flourished. It was steadily becoming the hub of commerce and industry that it remains today. With its network of rivers and canals and its central location in the new nation, it also became a vital transportation hub.

With the swelling of the city, however, came public health concerns. Sewage and pollution began flowing into the waterways that flowed into Lake Michigan – the city’s source for clean and drinkable water. Soon the locals were calling it the stinking river. There had been previous attempts to reverse the flow of the river away from Lake Michigan throughout the second half of the 19th century, but none of these were effective for more than a few months.

In 1885, after a massive rainfall caused extreme flooding and brought filth into homes, 12% of the population died of typhoid and other waterborne diseases. Something had to be done, the city government decided.

In 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago successfully reversed the flow in what was called the Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Through a series of canal locks, the water was forced in the opposite direction into a newly created canal. The canal, called the Sanitary and Ship Canal, took eight years to build. It measured 28 miles long, 24 feet deep, and 160 feet wide, and remains in use today. Since then, several more canals and channels have been put in place to keep the reversed flow effective, and in the 1990s, Mayor Daley began an extensive program of deep cleaning. Today, the city works to revitalize the waterways through public art, new pedestrian walkways, and water activities.

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