From the Ashes, 1872-1900
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives
DOCUMENT 15COMMUNICATION FROM THE STATE BOARD OF HEALTH CONCERNING POLLUTION OF THE CHICAGO RIVER, ILLINOIS AND MICHIGAN CANAL AND THE ILLINOIS RIVER
January 10, 1880
When the canal linking Lake Michigan and the Illinois River was completed in 1848 its summit was eight feet higher than the low level of the lake. Consequently pumps were installed soon at Bridgeport to feed the canal and thus make it navigable during the dry season. By 1855 the city's grade had been raised to prevent flooding and to allow gravity sewers to empty into the Chicago River. And from 1866 to 1871 the canal was deepened to increase the river's flow south and thus speed the discharge of the growing city's sewage. With the canal deepened, the pumps at Bridgeport were considered no longer useful and therefore they were removed and sold. Thereafter whenever the lake fell to low levels the flow from it into the Chicago River and thus the canal was reduced to stagnation and this caused an offensive stench. After official investigations and delays the pumps were reinstalled at Bridgeport in 1884 at a cost of $250,177. But they were never able to increase the flow effectively.
In August of 1885 two days of heavy rain caused the Chicago River to backup into the lake. Two miles out at the intake crib the city's drinking water was contaminated. Public outcry was great and a citizens' association formulated a remedy to the city's sewage problem. A sanitary-ship canal very similar to the one eventually built was recommended. The state legislature created the Chicago Sanitary District in 1889 and its first board of trustees was elected in December of that year. On January 17, 1900 flow of the twenty-eight mile long Sanitary and Ship Canal was started downstream. Over thirty million cubic feet of earth had been dug and over twelve million cubic yards of rock had been blasted away in the construction of this engineering landmark.
Points to Consider
What was the problem being addressed in this document?
What were the proposed pumping works at Bridgeport?
What kind of waste treatment did Chicago employ at this time?
Why might communities down river from Chicago have resented their northern neighbor?