|The Nicholas J. Melas Centennial Fountain and Water Cannon (JWB, 2011)|
Since the great conflagration, the streets of our city have been conspicuous for their dilapidated and filthy condition. Our warehouses, hotels, and business palaces have been replaced, by the enterprise of private individuals, by more substantial and finer edifices than those we had before, but the authorities have done nothing whatever to have the streets correspond with the splendid buildings that are lining them. On a muddy day it is a hard undertaking to attempt to cross any one of our thoroughfares without sinking in the mud, while in dry weather it is pulverized by the many vehicles passing over it into the finest atoms of dust, through clouds of which the people of the city have to wend their way, inhaling with every breath these fine and sharp particles which cause the premature death of many citizens, and plant the germs of throat, lung and other diseases in the system of many others. Chicago can best be compared with a peacock, which rejoices in the most superb plumage, and yet has the dirtiest feet of any bird on the face of the earth.
So began an article in The Chicago Tribune on June 18, 1873. The article went on to specifically identify the problems caused by the city’s poor sewer system, not the least of which was the fact that the death rate in 1872 was 3,180 people higher than the year earlier, giving the city nearly that of New York City and New Orleans.
The lengthy article concluded, “This city is situated on a level plain having very little elevation in its highest points, and the refuse matter of the large population cannot be carried away by heavy rainfalls, except where it has an outlet through sewers, consequently a green pestilential mass of filth is continually standing in the gutters of, rather, ditches, of most of the unsewered streets, and even in the sewered ones where the houses are not connected with the sewer in the street.”
By the end of the 1870’s things hadn’t changed a whole lot, and the voice of The Tribune was becoming more strident on the issues. In an editorial on March 5, 1880, the paper proclaimed, “The sanitary question is one in which screaming eagles on pinched half-dollars must sooner or later come to the front. It is a question of life and death. If answered negatively, all future public improvements within this, the third great city of the Union, will be but monuments erected in the memory of those who were sacrificed by a few municipal mercenaries.”
Finally, on February 1, 1889, The Tribune detailed the provisions of the bill that had been drawn up in Springfield, a bill that would allow the newly created Chicago Sanitary District to undertake a huge project that would, hopefully, solve Chicago’s sewage problems once and for all. As envisioned the project would involve spending ten million dollars to dig a new canal that would reverse the flow of the Chicago River and send Chicago’s sewage into the hinterlands rather than the lake.
The bill had a number of provisions, all of which are, in retrospect, interesting. The first was that at no point was the new waterway to “occupy any portion of the Illinois & Michigan Canal outside the limits of the county in which such district is situated for the site of any such improvement, except to cross the same, and then only in such a way as not to impair the usefulness of said canal.” This provision had the effect of allowing the Chicago Sanitary District to use the I & M canal from Bridgeport to Willow Springs.
Next, “That the sanitary district shall be liable for damages to real estate within or without the district which shall be overflowed or otherwise damaged by reason of the construction or enlargement of any channel or other improvement, and actions to recover such damages may be brought in the county where such real estate is situated, or in the county where the sanitary district is located, at the option of the party claiming to be injured.”
Third, “That any channel or outlet constructed under the act which shall cause the discharge of sewage into or through any river or stream beyond or without the limits of the district shall be of sufficient size and capacity to produce a continuous flow of water of at least 200 cubic feet per minute for each 1,000 of the population, and in such condition that the water thereof shall be neither offensive nor injurious to the health of the State, and before any sewage shall be discharged into such channel or outlet all garbage, dead animals and parts thereof, and other solids shall be taken therefrom.”
The focus, it seems, was not so much to treat the sewage so much as it was to keep the stuff moving along. And . . . I wonder what industry the last sentence of that clause was intended to call to attention?
Fourth, “That in case any channel shall be formed by which the water of Lake Michigan shall pass into the Illinois River the channel shall be of such size and capacity as to produce and maintain a continuous flow of not less than 300,000 cubic feet of water per minute, and to be of a depth of not less than fourteen feet, and a current not exceeding three miles per hour; and if nay portion of any such channel shall be cut through rocky stratum such portion of said channel shall have double the capacity above provided for, and a width of not less than 160 feet at the bottom and a depth of not less than eighteen feet. And the channel shall be kept of such a size and in such condition that it will maintain a continuous flow of not less than 20,000 cubic feet of water for each 100,000 population of the district.”
Fifth, “And, if at any time the General Government shall improve the Desplaines or Illinois River form the point where such channel shall empty directly into either one of said rivers, so that the same shall be capable of receiving a flow of 600,000 cubic feet of water per minute or more from said channel, and shall provide for the payment of all damages which any extra flow above 800,000 cubic feet of water per minute from such channel may cause to private property, so as to save harmless the said district from all liability therefrom; then such drainage district shall within one year thereafter enlarge the entire channel leading into said Desplaines or Illinois River from said district to a sufficient size and capacity to produce and maintain a continuous flow throughout the same of not less than 600,000 cubic feet of water per minute at a current of not more than three miles per hour.”
Sixth, “When the channel shall be completed with a capacity of 800,000 cubic feet per minute it shall be declared a navigable stream, and the General Government shall have control of it for navigable purposes when it improves the Illinois and Desplaines River for navigation.”
Finally, “It is also stipulated that any district having established an outlet for drainage or sewage shall have the right to permit territory lying outside its limits to drain into and use any channel or drain made by it, upon such payments, terms, and conditions as may be mutually agreed upon; and any district formed under this act is given full power and authority to contract for the right to use any drain or channel which may be made by any other sanitary district upon such terms as may be mutually agreed upon, and to raise the money called for by any such contract in the same way to the same extent as such district is authorized to raise money for any other corporate purpose.”
In one of the grand engineering and construction feats of the modern era, the whole project was finished just as the twentieth century began. On January 29 of 1900, The Tribune announced, “Test Capacity of Canal” in its headline. It was on that cold, blustery day that the commissioners of the Chicago Sanitary District and Mayor Carter Harrison rode the steam yacht Juliet out to Lockport, where, for the first time, the gates of the dam were raised and “water at the rate of 375,000 cubic feet a minute passed . . . through the gates”.
The report went on to describe the scene “ . . . greenish water roared like the breakers of Lake Michigan as it struck the bed of the Desplaines and started on its journey to the Mississippi.”
At this point, that was about as far as a boat could go. In effect, the navigable portion of the canal ended at Lockport. But more was to come. And with 35 miles or so of open water between Chicago and Lockport, there were a lot of miles of water for the sewage of the rapidly growing city to find a place to settle.
Skip forward nearly a century and on February 19, 1988 The Tribune announced that the Metropolitan Sanitary District had awarded the Blinderman Construction Co. Inc. of Northbrook a $3.65 million contract to build a cannon that would shoot an eight-story arc of water over the Chicago River at the lakefront. Along with the cannon a fountain would be built at McClurg Court to celebrate the centennial of the district. The cannon would shoot the arc from the river’s north bank to the south bank and would automatically stop the stream if winds threatened to blow the water onto streets or nearby buildings.
Designed by Lohan Associates the Nicholas J. Melas Centennial Fountain and Water Cannon is an impressive addition to the river walk opposite the shiny highrises of River East. According to the AIA Guide to Chicago, “The summit of the stepped granite pavilion represents the eastern continental divide (located just southwest of Chicago), with water flowing east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to the Gulf of Mexico.”
During the warm weather months the water cannon shoots its eighty-foot arc of water across the river on the hour for ten minutes.
What does the future bring? From the looks of things – big changes. In November of 2011, a protracted battle between the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency and local politicians ended in Chicago’s agreement to disinfect wastewater before dumping it into the river.
The new standards came about as a result of a May, 2011 letter from the E.P.A. demanding that stretches of the rivers be clean enough for “recreation in and on the water.” These standards are to apply to the North and South branches of the Chicago River, the North Shore Channel, the Cal-Sag Channel and the Little Calumet River.
Perhaps in my lifetime folks will be able for the first time in the history of the city to jump into the river without having to don protective gear.
Or maybe the Cubs will win the World Series.
We’ll see what happens . . .
By the way, more about Nicholas J. Melas, the guy after whom the fountain at McClurg Court is named in an upcoming blog.