Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal -- January 23, 1900

Chicago River at Rush Street, circa 1900 ((
On January 2, 1900 water was allowed to flow into the brand new Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal for the first time.  The president of the Chicago Sanitary District, William Boldenweck, said at the ceremonies, “Water is now in the channel, and I do not see how anybody can stop us . . . it will not be longer than a few weeks before the people of Chicago will be enjoying the benefits from the canal, that has cost them about $33,000,000 . . . I predict that before the canal has been opened a month the improvement in the quality of water sent down the valley will be so marked that all opposition will be removed.”  [Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1900]

Initially, Mr. Bodenweck was right.  The Tribune reported the next day “The clear waters of Lake Michigan have invaded the Chicago River as far as Harrison street bridge in the South Branch.  At sunset last night the water had taken on a clearer tinge as far south as Twelfth street bridge . . . Even the South Fork of the South Branch, known as the Stock-Yards Branch, shared in the benefits of the opening of the drainage canal.” [Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1900]

And that’s the story as it has come to be told:  The citizens of Chicago in a bold and unbelievably expensive engineering enterprise reversed the river that flowed through their city by digging a canal of unprecedented scope, completing the whole thing in eight short years.  And everything worked marvelously.

Not quite.

Almost immediately there was trouble, and by this time in 1900 the first hints of the trouble that was to come began to darken the euphoria over the new canal, a canal that was to make the city one of the most hygienic places on the planet.

In fact, on this date, January 23, the river fell three feet at Bridgeport, making it impossible to operate the pumps that kept the water in the original Illinois and Michigan canal flowing.  Mills in Lockport that depended on this flow of water through the dams in that city were forced to shut down and it was said “a crisis in its [the I & M canal] affairs had been reached, and the use of the upper end of it, at least as a navigable water course, was at an end.” [Chicago Tribune, January 24, 1900] The cause of the fall in water level was directly attributable to the opening of the Lockport dam on the new Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Chicago Commissioner of Public Works McGann said, “We did not expect such a happening as this . . . “  A trustee of the Chicago Sanitary District said, “This development argues no failure in our plans . . .”

Ominously, there was a swift current that had begun to flow in the main stem of the river, which was attributed to the wind.  But the city’s Chief Engineer noted that 220,000 cubic feet of water a minute were flowing away from the lake and toward the dam at Lockport, which was also handling 80,000 cubic feet of water from the Desplaines River.

It was a delicate balancing act, and it would take years and many more millions of dollars for it all to work as it was intended.  January 23, 1900 brought the first hint that all might not be well. 

By March 2 of 1900 a party of insurance executives and tug line managers made a trip up the Chicago River and their report must have been shocking.  One of the men, George L. McCurdy, observed, “Something must be done at once if Chicago’s water commerce is to be preserved.  With a current I do not see how traffic of big boats can be carried on at all.  The boats will be driven away from Chicago . . . It is not possible for an insurance company to discriminate against a port, but the vessel owners themselves will solve the difficulty by keeping their boats away.”

As if to underscore Mr. McCurdy’s remarks that same day the schooner Armenia grounded itself on the roof of the Washington Street tunnel, lying just beneath the muck of the river bottom, a bottom was much too close to a ship’s keel when a wind out of the west blew lake water away from the mouth of the river.

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