By Kara Morrison
On this day in 1900, the Chicago Drainage Canal officially opened, connecting the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River and reversing the direction of the Main Stem and South Branch of the Chicago River, making it flow away from Lake Michigan. Prior to this, the Chicago River had flowed into Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, the water from the Chicago River flowed rather slowly into Lake Michigan and, as the population of Chicago increased, the river became increasingly contaminated with sewage and pollution. This sewage ran right into Lake Michigan, polluting the area located around the mouth of the Chicago River, where Chicago also happened to get their water supply.
After an 1885 storm washed contaminants much farther throughout Lake Michigan, people became heavily concerned this would cause an epidemic. In 1887 it was decided to build the Chicago Drainage Canal in order to avoid these public health concerns, as well as to supplement the shallow and polluted Illinois and Michigan Canal. Engineer Isham Randolph planned to cut through the 12 miles that separated the Great Lakes drainage system from the Mississippi drainage system, and the Sanitary District of Chicago was created to carry out these plans. Although many obstacles were met during the creation of the canal, such as a large 1893 strike, the canal was completed in 1900. The opening of the Chicago Drainage Canal was announced January 2, 1900, and the reversal of the Chicago River is still considered a major feat in civil engineering.
Waterways in the Chicago area before and after the Lake Michigan diversion. Courtesy of USGS. February 18, 2014.
Kara Morrison is a recent graduate of Kenyon College and a contributor to the Turnstone Strategies blog. She is passionate about making historical and educational information accessible to the public.
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