How Chicago Reversed Its River: An Animated History

There was a time, not so long ago, when
the Chicago River’s natural course flowed into Lake Michigan. But as the city grew
the river and the lake became more and more polluted with raw sewage industrial
chemicals and lots of animal waste from the old stockyards. Since Lake Michigan
provided the city’s drinking water, the pollution was a real problem. Typhoid,
dysentery, and cholera were common. In 1854 alone, more than 1,400 people died
of cholera. Enter Ellis Sylvester Chesbro. He’s the engineer who came up with the
plan for the city to lay pipe for Chicago’s sewer system. But that system
still emptied into the river which emptied into the lake threatening the
city’s water supply. So next Chesbro designed a two-mile long tunnel 60 feet under Lake Michigan to draw the city’s drinking water from
further offshore. Workers dug around the clock for three years to build the
tunnel and after all that it still wasn’t good enough. Chicago grew and so with time, all it took was a heavy rain for the dirty
stinky river water to reach the intake. But Chesbro had one more big idea, it was his boldest yet, “Why don’t we reverse the river and send Chicago’s filth down
south.” It was an audacious plan and here’s how it worked: just west of
Chicago is what we call a subcontinental divide. It’s a high point geographically but since the area is so flat, you barely notice it. Still any
water on the west of the divide flows westward down toward the Mississippi.
Anything to the east flows toward the Great Lakes. Chesbro thought if we could
only dig a ditch or canal through the divide and make it deeper
than both the river and the lake then gravity would do the hard work and carry
all of Chicago’s dirty stinky water in the other direction and away from the
Great Lakes. It was a brilliant plan! Unless, of course, you live downstream. At first they tried to do it by deepening an existing canal, the Illinois and
Michigan Canal had already followed that route but that didn’t do the trick. So, they would have to dig a new ditch a bigger ditch then that’s exactly what
they called it the “Big Ditch.” Unfortunately, other things got in the
way — the Civil War andin the Great Fire zapped city and state coffers. Finally, in
1892, six years after Chesbro s death, Chicago got to work. Thousands of
laborers started digging. They dug and they dug. They used everything at their
disposal — new fangled inventions like steam shovels, dynamite — in the end they excavated 42 million cubic yards of rock and soil that would fill up the Sears
Tower 20 times. When opened, the canal would connect to the Des Plaines River
which would send Chicago’s waste water down the Mississippi to the Gulf. Which
was a problem. Residents downstream in places like Missouri weren’t too crazy
about the Big Ditch, but Chicago had an answer, “We believed that the purifying
powers of Lake Michigan would make our stinky filthy water cleaner. The solution
to pollution is dilution!” was Chicago’s mantra. But Missouri wasn’t really buying it. They got to work preparing a lawsuit. Smelling trouble, the canal builders
raced to finish the project. On the morning of January 2nd 1900, Canel
Trustees undertook a secret mission. Accompanied by selected friends, wives,
and a few reporters who caught wind of their plans, they set out in the early
morning hours to strike the final blow to the last dam holding back the river.
It was harder than they thought it would be! It took them a few tries but finally
they broke open the dam, changing the course of the river and Chicago’s
history. It took a couple of weeks for Chicago’s water to reach the Mississippi
but its effect on both the people in Chicago and the people downstream has
lasted to this day, for better or worse. Chicago had solved its drinking water
crisis and also accomplished what is still considered one of the greatest
engineering feats in the history of the world!

13 thoughts on “How Chicago Reversed Its River: An Animated History

  1. Funny how I got here after seeing Elon Musk's Chicago Loop project and hearing about this crazy project Chicago did way back. Impressive stuff

  2. This story explains how screwed up and corrupt Chicago has always been. Lets not make wise choices to fix a problem. Lets show the world how far we will go to take our corrupt ideas so we can push our problems on others.

  3. Great video and great animation. Thank you. This is exactly what I was looking for. A quick and fun display of how it was done. Cheers.

  4. Based on the timing, this sorta helps support the great, ancientCubs/Cardinals rivalry.

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