Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Chicago River, 1877

Chicago River, 1870's
(The Urban Wilderness, 1995)
On this day, June 3, way back in 1877, the Chicago Tribune wrote an editorial that praised the efforts to establish an intake crib far enough out in the lake to ensure fresh water to Chicago’s citizens while taking to task the businesses that made that effort so difficult.  Here in its entirety is that editorial:

Dr. Knox, who assists the Health Commissioner, has made a long, elaborate, and technical report on the condition of the lake water supplied to Chicago, which attests a careful investigation.  This makes especially valuable his assertion that the crib water is “the purest furnished to any city in the United States.’  He has discovered two things, however, or rather directed new attention to them, which will not admit of this assertion being made truthfully after a while, if measures be not taken to abate them.  One of the unfavorable conditions, and the principal one, is the Ogden ditch, which causes the Chicago River to empty into the lake whenever there are hard rains or a freshet.  Millions of dollars were spent in order to change the current of the Chicago River, so that the waters of the lake might wash it out with a reasonable current, and the failure to dam up this ditch occasions every once in a while an emptying of the filth of the river into the lake where the water supply is taken, or at best leaves the river stagnant and putrid.  A temporary dam could be erected at the cost of a few thousand dollars which would serve the purpose until provision can be made for a permanent stoppage of the ditch, letting the Aux Plaines River meander along in its own harmless way.  The other nuisance referred to is the practice of the distilleries located on the North Branch dumping the refuse of their business and cattle into the lake near the shore.  The slaughtering houses on the South Branch do the same thing; and Dr. Knox estimates that these establishments contribute a weekly supply of 500 tons of filth, garbage, and decaying animal matter to the water which the people of Chicago drink.  These people can be prevented from dumping their stuff anywhere within three miles of the shore, and stringent measures should be taken to enforce this authority over them.

The Ogden ditch was constructed across the extensive land holdings of one of Chicago’s earliest settlers, William B. Ogden, who also served as the city’s first mayor.  Constructed in 1868 about a dozen miles west of the city, its purpose was to drain a significant chunk of the Des Plaines river valley which otherwise lay under water for much of the year.  It achieved its purpose by connecting with the west branch of the Chicago River, so while city fathers were doing anything and everything within their power to limit the amount of river water flowing into the lake (something that was not achieved until January of 1900 when the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was opened) the Ogden Ditch, especially during heavy rains, frustrated these attempts.

As far as the distilleries were concerned, think about this – in 1878 the eight registered distilleries in Chicago produced 10,952,799 gallons of distilled spirits.  That’s a lot of booze that sucked up a lot of grain that used in its production.  In a seven year period between 1877 and 1885 Chicago distilleries consumed 16,884,364 bushels of grain, including 13,222,937 bushels of corn, 2,315,362 bushels of rye, 1,102,912 bushels of malt, 216,889 bushels of oats, 10,930 bushels of wheat, 3,141 bushels of barley and 2,193 bushels of mill-feed.

Welcome to Chicago (Chicago Daily News Photo Archive)
After the mash was created and the fermentation process completed, all of that expended mash had to go somewhere.  The distilleries solved the problem by keeping large herds of cattle next to their facilities along the river and fed the mash to the cattle.  All those cud-chewers obviously took the mash and created a by-product of their own, which went directly or indirectly into the river.  The mash that wasn’t consumed was dumped into the river as well.

And there were the great Union Stockyards on Halsted Street, 280 acres that held 2,600 cattle pens and 1,600 pens for hogs.  In 1877, the year that the Tribune editorial appeared, 1,033,151 cattle came through the yards, along with 4,025,970 hogs, 310,240 sheep and 7,874 horses.  According to the History of Chicago:  Volume 3, published in 1886, the system of drainage in the yards was “brought to a high state of perfection, and the sanitary condition of the yards insures the health of the stock.  Fifty miles of sewers have been laid, which carry all surplus water out into the Chicago River and thence into the lake.”

Chicago Stockyards (Chicago Daily News Archive)
Interesting phrase . . . a high state of perfection, a perfection that helped keep the stock healthy, but which didn’t do much for the 300,000 or so souls that depended on the quality of the water coming from the lake.  On the other hand, there was a lot of whiskey to take the citizens’ minds off things.

So that gives a fairly good idea of the indignities that the river suffered in June of 1877.  It would only get worse.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Medusa-Challenger Strikes Again -- June 1, 1969

Medusa-Challenger headed west (Google Image)
On this date, June 1, back in 1969 what was perhaps the most ill-fated ship ever to navigate the Chicago River struck one more time as the Medusa Challenger tied up traffic between Wabash and Wells Streets for over three hours.  The Wells Street bridge refused to open as the 562-foot steamship approached, leaving the powdered cement carrier’s stern beneath the LaSalle Street bridge.  Minutes before the Wabash Street bridge had been put out of operation by a power failure after it was raised to allow the ship through.  City electricians took close to three hours to get the bridges back in operation again.

At that point the Medusa-Challenger had been carrying freight for 63 years after being launched on February 7, 1906 by the Great Lakes Engineering Works in Ecorse, Michigan.  She was the William P. Snyder back then, bound for work carrying iron ore from Minnesota to the steel mills that lined the Great Lakes. 

William P. Snyder at Ecorse, Michigan in 1906 (Google Image)
 She gained her reputation in Chicago as the Medusa-Challenger because, through fault of her own, bridges ceased to function regularly whenever she entered or left the Chicago River. 

On May 31, 1968 traffic was halted on Clark, Dearborn and State streets as the Clark Street bridge refused to open and the other two bridges could not be closed because the ship was beneath them.  The Chicago Tribune reported that one gentleman, exasperated by the wait of over an hour, shouted, “You know what they should do with this river?  They should have it paved.”  [May 31, 1968]

On April 2, 1969 the big ship kept Chicagoans waiting for another hour as the LaSalle Street bridge tender was able to raise only one leaf of the bridge.  That kept the Clark Street bridge open, too, since the ship’s stern was beneath it.  “Electricians were summoned and went feverishly to work, while the ship’s crew and onlookers stared at one another and a traffic jam began to form on both sides of the bridge,” The Tribune reported.  [Chicago Tribune, April 3, 1969]

The Medusa headed toward the lake (Google Image)
It happened again less than a week later when the ship, outbound, was halted at the mouth of the river when the massive Lake Shore Drive span refused to budge.  After 45 minutes the bridge was raised, and the Medusa steamed into the lake.  Then the fun began.  A fuse blew, electricians worked frantically, and traffic was rerouted before the bridge was finally placed back in operation an hour after it had been raised.   The Tribune observed, “The ship’s crew members, who are getting used to staring at the Chicago river, took it all stoically.  The city’s bridge tenders, however, are becoming convinced that the Medusa is a jinx.”  [Chicago Tribune, April 7, 1969]

There was a relative period of calm until September 22, 1970 when the Lake Shore Drive bridge jammed six feet away from the closed position after the Medusa passed beneath it.  Disgusted motorists made U-turns and drove against approaching traffic as police worked to bring some sense of order to the scene, rerouting traffic onto Ohio and Randolph Streets.  Many impatient pedestrians walked to the middle of the bridge and jumped the gap between the two spans as the bridge tender shouted, “Get off my bridge!  It’s not safe!  Get off!”  [Chicago Tribune, September 23, 1970]

On October 19, 1972 a new bridge became rattled at the Medusa’s approach.  A blown electrical fuse kept the Michigan Avenue bridge in the upraised position while workers struggled to discover the source of the problem.  The Tribune reported that some motorists saw the Medusa and went out of their way to avoid the bridge even before it was raised.  One taxi driver said, “There’s going to be trouble.  The Medusa’s back.”  [Chicago Tribune, October 18, 1972]

The LaSalle Street bridge jammed on December 3, 1972 after being raised for the ship and beyond that the Lake Street bridge was closed to traffic for 40 minutes because the gates barring auto traffic from entering the bridge would not open.  It took work crews five hours, working in near zero-degree weather, to free the Michigan Avenue bridge a little more than two weeks later as the Medusa waited.  “The workers didn’t use any magic words as they went about their business,” wrote the Tribune.  “just your common, every-day, four-letter variety.”  [Chicago Tribune, December 18, 1972]

The Medusa steams past 330 North Wabash, heeded upriver (Google Image)
The ship’s ill-fated encounters with city bridges were so frequent that the Tribune actually ran a story on July 14, 1973 when the Medusa moved from the lake to Goose Island and nothing happened.  The steamer had tempted fate the day before by entering the river on Friday the Thirteenth, but except for a brief problem with the traffic gates at Lake Shore Drive the slow procession up the river was uneventful.

The good ship couldn’t catch a break.  On August 11, 1976 the Medusa’s owners, “perhaps hoping to erase the . . . animosities harbored by many Chicago motorists”  had the vessel tied up at Twenty-Second Street in front of McCormick Place for a University of Chicago Foundation fundraiser.  The event was poorly publicized, the night was unseasonably cold and gusty, and out of a thousand guests that were expected to attend, a generous estimate placed the actual head count at about 250.  One volunteer at the event said, “We’re going to have to drink a lot of martinis to keep warm tonight.”  [Chicago Tribune, August 12, 1976].

By the end of the 1970’s the Medusa-Challenger’s visits to Chicago were over, but before the reign of bad luck came to an end the ship became a movie star, giving its name to the first film in which Joe Mantegna appeared, a 25-minute short film that is in the permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art. 

Renamed the St. Mary's Challenger, toward the end (Google Image)
And . . . the ship is still working.  In November of 2013 the 107-year-old ship, renamed the St. Mary’s Challenger, sailed out of Calumet Harbor, bound for Sturgeon Bay where she would lose her stern, pilot house and engine room in a conversion that would render her a barge with no power.   Appropriately, on her way out to the lake she was laid up for more than two hours.  A railroad bridge over the Calumet River refused to lift.