Eastland Memorial Society

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Fort Dearborn was constructed at the mouth of the Chicago River (now near the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive). Early Chicago settlers and residents used the river to supply all their water needs. Chicago was chartered in 1833 with a population of only 350 residents, but by the next year the population had grown to over 2,000 and the river soon became polluted. Village trustees subsequently arranged for the construction of a public well at Hubbard Street and Wabash Avenue. People carried water from this well to their homes in buckets, and peddlers transported water in mule-drawn carts and sold it door-to-door for ten cents a barrel.

First Bridge Across the River, 1834The Original Water System
In 1842, the Chicago City Hydraulic Company, a private organization, established a water distribution system with a pumping station and several thousand feet of wooden water pipes. The intake pipe for the system extended 150 feet into Lake Michigan off Lake Street. Water was conveyed by means of a 25-horsepower steam-driven pump in a station at Michigan Avenue to an elevated wooden tank from which it flowed by gravity through wooden pipes beneath the streets. Operating records from the era reveal troublesome encounters with fish-clogged water intakes, turbid water after storms and ice during the winter.

The City of Chicago purchased the Chicago Hydraulic Company in 1852. By the start of the Civil War in 1861, the Chicago Water System consisted of about 600 feet of wooden intake pipes extending from Lake Michigan to the suction wells of the pumping station; an elevated standpipe; a distribution system of approximately 95 miles of cast iron pipe; and three elevated wrought iron reservoirs of one-half million gallons capacity each. The average daily pumpage at that time was about 4.8 million gallons, providing water for 120,000 residents.

During this period, the city was faced with a major challenge. The Chicago River had been turned into a veritable cesspool by raw sewage that flowed into it through the sewer system and by wastes from slaughter houses, distilleries and other industries located along its banks. During heavy rainfalls, the pollution reached the lake, contaminating water along the shore line and the water intake cribs.

Typhoid Fever Strikes
Due to the water contamination, citizens were constantly plagued by typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery. In 1854, a cholera epidemic took the lives of 5-1/2% of the population. Deaths from typhoid fever between 1860 and 1900 averaged 65 per 100,000 population a year. The worst year was 1891, when the typhoid death rate was 174 per 100,000 persons. Disease resulting from water polluted by human waste brought about a state of emergency.

12th Street Crib in Lake MichiganThe alarming death rates which resulted from this condition confronted the city with a grim water supply problem and sparked the development of gigantic engineering initiatives that captured worldwide attention. Construction was completed in 1869 on the present Chicago Avenue Pumping Station and The Chicago Water Tower, the only building to survive the Great Chicago Fire undamaged. In 1871, an underground tunnel was constructed to deliver water from an intake crib located two miles from the shoreline in Lake Michigan, and the first major attempt was made to reverse the flow of the Chicago River.

Reversing the Chicago River
In 1887 it was decided to attempt a bold engineering feat and reverse the Chicago River. Rudolph Hering, chief engineer of the drainage and water supply commission, noted that the Great Lakes drainage system was separated from the Mississippi River drainage system by a summit or ridge approximately 8 feet high located some 12 miles west of the lake shore. A plan was evolved to cut through that ridge with a canal from the southerly tip of the south branch of the Chicago River and carry the wastes away from the lake and down to the Mississippi River through the Des Plaines and Illinois rivers. The Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago was created in 1889 under a law passed by the state legislature to effect this plan.

To reverse the flow of the Chicago River, a 28-mile canal was built from the south branch of the river through the low summit and down to Lockport. It was completed in 1900. The flow in this canal, commonly known as the Sanitary and Ship Canal or main channel, is controlled by locks at the mouth of the Chicago River and at Lockport. Thus, Chicago had built the first of its own rivers to dispose of waste waters.

In 1910 another small artificial river was completed by building a dam, lock, and pumping plant at Wilmette and by digging the North Shore channel, connecting Lake Michigan with the north branch of the Chicago River. The wastes from the north suburban communities of Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka, and others were diverted away from the lake and drained through the newly created main canal. This artificial channel is 8 miles long.

In 1922, the third of Chicago's artificial rivers was created. This river, the Cal-Sag channel, extends 16 miles westward from the Little Calumet River at Blue Island to a junction with the main canal. Here again, the flow of a natural river was diverted away from Lake Michigan and into the main drainage system flowing to the west. Today the entire waterway system consists of 71 miles of canals, channels, and rivers.

Straightening of the South Branch
The straightening of the south branch of the Chicago River between Polk and 18th streets was under discussion for many years before actual work was begun. It was one of the important features of the Burnham Plan of Chicago developed in 1907 and was first officially recognized in the Union Station Ordinance of 1914 which made some preliminary provisions as to the location of the new channel. The actual construction was started September 20, 1928.

Wacker Drive and the River The project involved removing the bend from the river and digging a new channel about 850 feet farther west of Clark Street. For years the normal expansion of the central business district to the south had been prevented by the barrier of the river bend and of the railroads that had blocked its connections with the Loop. The resulting improvement enabled the railroads to construct terminals more suitable to their needs and opened new through streets from the Loop, thus greatly increasing the value of the immediately adjacent property. The work ended in December 1930, when the filling of the old river channel was completed.

Water Purification
The Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago originally covered 185 square miles of Chicago and some western suburbs. The district now covers 858 square miles including nearly all of Cook County. The district presently serves Chicago, 114 other cities and villages, and 20 smaller local sanitary districts. At the time the sanitary district was formed the science of sewage treatment was practically unknown. However, research had begun and in 1930 the court ordered construction of sewage treatment plants in order to cut down on water diversion from Lake Michigan. The sanitary district has since built three sewage treatment plants. Chicago became one of the first cities in the nation to utilize modern state-of-the-art filtration technology when the South Water Purification Plant opened in 1947. Chicago's South Plant, with a capacity of 720 million gallons per/day, was the largest of its kind in the world until it was surpassed in 1968 by the James W. Jardine Water Purification Plant with a capacity of 1,440 million gallons per/day.

In 1955, the American Society of Civil Engineers selected the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago as one of the seven engineering wonders of the United States.

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