Early Chicago, 1833–1871
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives
COMMUNICATION FROM THE MAYOR CONCERNING THE FLOW OF THE CHICAGO RIVER
December 30, 1862
Chicago had long been concerned with a safe drinking water supply and safe sewage disposal. Cholera outbreaks were common and were caused by the water supply being contaminated by the contents of privy vaults. Although the biological cause was not specifically known, it was believed that public health would improve with the introduction of sanitary conditions. The city had four options concerning the treatment of its sewage and its drinking water. The first was to dump sewage into the river and allow it to flow into the lake from where drinking water was taken, and this was the common practice. Another was to dump the sewage directly into the lake and this too would directly pollute the supply of drinking water. A third was to drain the sewage into artificial reservoirs and pump it out as fertilizer but this technique had not yet been sufficiently developed. The most attractive alternative was to divert the flow of the Chicago River into the Illinois and Michigan Canal and from there into the Illinois River. In 1862, Ellis Chesbrough, Chief Engineer, had sought to cleanse the Chicago River by reversing its current with pumps erected at the South Branch of the river at Bridgeport but the canal had proved to be too shallow to effect this purpose. In 1864, the state legislature enacted a law approving the reversed flow and in 1871, at a cost of over three million dollars, the reverse finally was effected. However, the current was very slow and the river appeared stagnant. From 1892 to 1907, a canal for the removal of sewage and the transport of oceangoing vessels was constructed to connect with the Illinois River. By the time it was completed the science of bacteriology had come into being and further treatment of the water was judged necessary.
Points to Consider
Why were Chicago officials concerned with the flow of the Chicago River?
Why were the Canal Commissioners concerned about it?
Why should people down-river have been concerned by it?
What did city hall look like at this time?