Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Chicago River -- June 11 of 1864 and 1892

Man standing on crusted refuse on the Chicago River (Chicago Daily News Archives)
Two items today about the Chicago River – the first from June 11, 1864 and the second from June 11, 1892.

To begin, consider a poem Samuel Taylor Coleridge published in 1834, a scathing piece written about the city of Cologne, a poem that stands in an angry irony against the city’s name.  It’s a short poem for Coleridge, and here it is . . .

In Köhln, a town of monks and bones,
And pavements fang'd with murderous stones

And rags, and hags, and hideous wenches;
I counted two and seventy stenches,
All well defined, and several stinks!
Ye Nymphs that reign o'er sewers and sinks,
The river Rhine, it is well known,
Doth wash your city of Cologne;

But tell me, Nymphs, what power divine

Shall henceforth wash the river Rhine?

The Chicago Tribune on this day in 1864 made reference to Coleridge’s work in an editorial concerning the Chicago River.  “All the stinks Coleridge found in Cologne . . . are to be found exhaling from the wretched cess-pool disturbed by our shipping; and occasionally we doubt if there be not a whiff or two that Coleridge would have found an addition to his list.  It smells.  It is foul,” the paper hissed.  [Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1864]

The editorial board went on to discuss an incident that occurred days earlier along the river. 

The other day . . . we stood upon the brink of [the river] when the stern-wheel steam craft from the Rolling Mill passed down.  We were to leeward.  Faugh!  The paddles dipped up the water, carried it over and threw it out, in its swashing style, and we caught its rank odors; as we caught them we parted company with them speedily, but not before we had formed an opinion that something must be done about it.

Then the writers looked forward to the long, hot summer and what implications it and the river would have on the inhabitants of the city.

It will breed a pestilence, this huge, filthy ditch, which reeks with the garbage of distilleries and slaughter houses, sewers, and cesspools, and the odorous refuse of the Gas Company.  We do not remember to have ever before seen it as abominably unclean as it is now . . .

The remedy to the horrors of the river, the editorial suggested, was to employ huge pumps already installed at Bridgeport to move water from the river into the Illinois and Michigan Canal, at that point already 16 years old.  “. . . in twenty-four hours time, fresh, pure water form the lake will take the place of this infamous broth concocted of all uncleanness and pent under the very nostrils of our citizens.”

Clearly, the idea of reversing the river and moving its “cologne” out of the city to the west was an idea that was proposed long before the storied reversal of the river in 1900.

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JWB Photo
The second item comes from this date in 1892 when a curious incident occurred on the Chicago River according to The Tribune, what the paper called a “queer coincidence.”

At the time that incumbent President Benjamin Harrison was renominated in Minneapolis, reports of the event were being received at the offices of the V. O. T. company.  Much to the amusement of those gathered there, “the schooner Benjamin Harrison was passing through Harrison street bridge in Chicago, the Protection towing her and the Union astern, with the barge Sunshine following in tow of the satisfaction.  Capt. Dunham’s schooner, James G. Blaine is somewhere on Lake Superior, but has not been heard from for several days. She is supposed to be safe.”

James G. Blaine served as the Secretary of State in President Harrison’s first and contested the nomination as the Republican candidate for President with the incumbent Harrison.  A Chicago public school on Janssen Street and Waveland Avenue is named for him.  Benjamin Harrison went on to lose the election for a second term to Grover Cleveland, whose running mate was an Illinoisan named Adlai E. Stevenson.

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