Water, Water, Everywhere
Chicagoland tries to drain the swamp
See Illinois (unpublished)
During roughly the years when Chicago’s activists were winning for the city a reputation as an innovator in social reform, its engineers were winning kudos for their success in an even bolder undertaking—the reform of nature. The city’s decades-long struggle to reclaim its land from water might not deserve the term heroic, but it deserves praise for its boldness, its scale, and the innovations it required.
These notes are taken from my never-published guide to Illinois and history.
Because there is no “downhill” to speak of in Chicagoland, water could not naturally flow away from the city. So crucial is this fundamental geologic fact of life that the story of the region, which usually is told in terms of money or politics or the violent clash of social classes, could be told in terms of water. Engineers of several generations gave its namesake river a new mouth, shifted its course, even reversed its flow; pollution altered its biology, too, if less permanently. How to make water safe to drink, how to accumulate enough of it to float ships and barges, how to keep it from drowning the young city, how to exploit it to keep the city clean—water inspired some of the region's most Chicago-ish feats of civic derring-do. There being no natural high ground from which waste might be made to drain, the city had to make its own high ground; it raised the entire street grade in the 1850s six to 10 feet so that its new sewer pipes could be tilted enough that waste would drain through them into nearby streams. Lincoln Park’s lagoons, favorites of lovers and postcard photographers, were created when the “ten mile ditch” was dug to drain the lowlands near the lake.
But while putting sewage into the river moved the problem from the streets and yards of Chicago, it did not eliminate it. For one thing, dilution was not the pollution solution when, as was true of the South Fork of the South Branch, most of what flowed through the stream was not water. Worse, nature inconsiderately arranged that the Chicago River drain into Chicago’s drinking water supply. Fetching clean water from the lake required that it be taken ever farther from the city. Water was sucked through a two-mile tunnel 30 feet below the lake bottom that had to be built in the 1860s. At the time, Chicago’s water supply tunnel was the longest of its type, but even two miles was not far enough when great tides of storm water pushed the filth all the way out to even these remote cribs.
Its boosters seldom brought it up, but Chicago was the No. 1 city of Illinois in the practice of bad municipal sanitation. Deaths from waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera and dysentery were common in any city where privies were built next to drinking water wells, and which flushed its sewers into its public drinking water supply. A chart of the crude death rates by year shows a half-dozen peaks in the half-century after 1850; each one coincides with an outbreak of cholera, smallpox, or typhoid fever. In 1854, a cholera epidemic took the lives of more than five percent of Chicago’s population, causing death rates that year to nearly triple. The death rates in most years in the mid- and late-1800s were no worse than other cities, although even modest death rates in a large population means a lot of dead. In 1891, a rate of 178 per 100,000 population produced nearly 2,000 corpses, nearly seven times the toll from the Great Fire. The craze for bottled water thus is nothing new in Chicago; it was common practice in the 1880s, when drinking tap water was not only unfashionable but dangerous.
The city first tried pumping fouled water from the South Branch of the Chicago River into the Illinois and Michigan Canal, through which it could drain into the Des Plaines River, but the canal was too small, the gradient too shallow, the pumps too weak to reliably flush the river clean. (The pumps occasionally caused the current in the Chicago River to reverse as they drew fresher water into it from the lake, the first instance of a phenomenon that later would become permanent.) The canal was deepened so that gravity could augment the pumps in moving water, but this worked only during normal flows, as even the deepened I&M lay higher than the lower parts of the Chicago River.
Flooding of the Des Plaines River such as happened in 1879 overwhelmed the old Chicago Portage and pushed the Chicago River’s water out into the lake. For thirty days that year, Chicago's sewage poured into the city drinking water source. In the 1870s and ‘80s, the issue of sewage disposal, like the river, festered. Members of the Chicago Citizens Council, an association of civic-oriented businessmen, demanded a permanent solution to the city's struggle with sewage by digging a canal deep and wide enough to permanently and emphatically reverse the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan.
The magnitude of the mess that Chicago made of its surface water system demanded innovation and daring on an equal scale. “Hercules the canal-digger of Elis,” sang Sara Jane Clarke Lippincott, “Grave Greenwood,” who wrote the 1873 travel book New Life in New Lands, “will be outdone by one Chesebrough.” Bostonian Ellis Chesbrough, Chicago’s chief engineer, was the man who conceived the solutions to the city’s chronic public sanitation crises of the latter 1800s. (Chesbrough should have an expressway named for him, or at least a park or two.)
As early as 1858 engineer Ellis Chesbrough had recommended digging a larger canal that would carry enough water from the lake to dilute the city’s wastes as well as float cargo craft, but nothing had been done because of the costs. Thirty years of repeated outbreaks of sewage-borne diseases made Chesborough look a very wise man. In 1889 the Sanitary District of Chicago was authorized by the General Assembly and given the power to pay for, build, and operate such a sewage and ship canal and—just as important—to levy taxes to pay for it. Chicagoans, who usually resort to good government only during crisis, quickly approved establishment of this pioneering regional government. (In 1955 the Sanitary District of Chicago changed its name to the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago, and in 1989 it became the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.)
The Sanitary District built a new canal much larger than the I&M. In fact it amounted to an artificial river that was dubbed at first as the Chicago Drainage Canal. The Chicago Drainage Canal took not quite eight years to build and opened in 1900. The new 28-mile ditch ran parallel to the old Illinois and Michigan Canal from Damen Avenue on the South Branch nearly 30 miles through Stickney, Forest View, Lyons, Summit, Bedford Park, Justice, Willow Springs, Lemont, and Romeoville to Lockport, where it joins the Des Plaines River. Its channel was fourteen feet deep, which would put it enough below the lake that water would practically jump from the lake into the canal, so enthusiastically that it would sweep along with it even Chicago’s world-class wastes.
Such a big ditch demanded big machines to dig it—massive horse-drawn grading machines, steam shovels with booms as long as 50 feet, and earth-moving machines invented for the job. Among the last was the Heidenreich Incline, the Mason and Hoover conveyor, and the Bates conveyor—early versions of the behemoths that were unleashed a few years later to dig the Panama Canal. (General George Goethals, who oversaw construction of the Chicago project, later moved to Panama to supervise the completion of the great canal there.)
Every account of the digging of the Chicago Drainage Canal reeks with superlatives. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the name by which the Sanitary District is today known, brags that the canal is “one of the seven engineering wonders of the world.” The project was the nation’s largest municipal project at the time it was built, and its construction required the removal of more rock, soil, and clay than would be removed to make the Panama Canal. Those estimated 43 million cubic yards of earth would, if dumped into forty feet of water, have made an island a mile square that would stand 12 feet above the water. Much of that material was dumped into the lake lagoon just off South Michigan Avenue, helping to create Grant Park; thus did the canal engineers build two Chicago landmarks at once.
Having flushed one river clean, the Sanitary District set about to flush others. Goose Island became the site of distilleries, steel mills, tanneries and other operations that did to the waters of the North Branch what the stockyards did to the South Branch. By reversing the flow of the main stem of the Chicago River, the engineers refreshed the South Branch but the change kept the North Branch from flowing into the lake, and the backed up water turned stagnant. In 1907 the North Shore Channel was built to flush the North Branch too with lake water.
By well and truly reversing the Chicago River’s flow, the new sanitary canal cleaned up Lake Michigan off the Chicago shore, and made a start on bringing back the Chicago River from ecological death. But the projects delighted lawyers nearly as much as sanitary engineers. The Chicago Drainage Canal sparked lawsuits from Illinois and Mississippi River towns irate about the downstream effects of the export of waste on such a scale.
Writer Stuart Dybek in his memoir, Townships, notes that when he was a boy growing up in Pilsen, what was then known as the Sanitary & Ship Canal was called Shit Creek, but every town has its Shit Creek; the Sanitary & Ship Canal gave Chicago the equivalent of a Shit River. Such were the loads flushed through it and out into the Des Plaines that the Illinois River was poisoned as far downstream as Peoria. This ecological mugging hardly endeared Chicago to Downstaters, and contributed much to the historic enmity between the regions; the bad feelings, like the damaged river, began to heal only after Chicago’s sewage began to receive advanced treatment by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (as it is now known).
In the 1920s, the Calumet Sanitary Channel was dug to flush out the local rivers with Lake Michigan water. (It was this canal that, widened in the 1940s, became the shipping route known as the Calumet-Sag Channel.) Storm waters could still overwhelm the canal’s feeble flow and push foul water into the lake, so in 1965 the O'Brien Lock and Dam was built to force the Little Calumet and Grand Calumet rivers to flow permanently away from Lake Michigan and into the Calumet-Sag Channel; thus was Calumet River water—which in those days was somewhere between witches’ brew and battery acid on the water quality scale—prevented from entering the city’s water supply in Lake Michigan.
The Sanitary District also was hauled into court by Great Lakes states irate about the city’s expropriation of massive amounts of lake water to carry away its wastes. The diversion dispute occupied courts for some 30 years, leading to a series of Supreme Court Decrees that have regulated the diversion since 1925. A 1967 Decree, modified in 1980, sets the maximum diversion at 3200 cubic feet per second (cfs). Illinois routinely exceeded that allocation, however, which naughtiness led in 1996 to a Memorandum of Understanding signed by eight Great Lakes states and the federal government that affirmed the 3200 cfs limit and required it to further reduce its annual diversion over the next 14 years to make up for the r excess water it had withdrawn since 1980.
The decision had implications. Chicago could no longer deal with sewage by merely diluting it, but was obliged to treat it before it was dumped into the region’s rivers. Not long after the judges finished their work the engineers began theirs, as construction began on the first of the region’s massive sewage treatment plants.
Heavy rains gushing from storm sewers into sewage treatment plants can overload the latter, forcing the release of still-untreated water into local rivers and canals. To solve the problems caused by stormwater overflows, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District undertook its Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP). Better known as the Deep Tunnel project, TARP is a network of 109 miles of stormwater-storing reservoirs and tunnels bored in bedrock as deep as 350 feet beneath Chicagoland. The system was designed to capture and store stormwater during heavy rains and snowmelts, from which the stored water could be pumped back into the system gradually, as sewage treatment plants were able to handle it. The $4 billion system was conceived in the 1960s and begin in the 1970s; workers did not finish its first phase until 2003. The tunnels will hold about 1.8 billion gallons of stormwater; surface reservoirs also being built as part of the project, due to be finished in 2015, will have a further capacity of about 18 billion gallons.
The TARP was the occasion of vast spending and equally vast controversy. Critics has claimed it is too big, too expensive, a mistakenly “hard” fix when what is needed is a cheaper and more flexible “soft” fix such as restoring water-catching wetlands. It may not have been the most efficient or the cheapest solution, but Chicago seems to have licked its sewage problem, after only 150 years. Even critics concede that TARP has materially reduced stormwater overflows; Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, and Atlanta are among the cities developing similar plans.
Chicago’s water engineers have enjoyed praise from far a-field from the start. The builders of the Panama Canal learned from experience of the Sanitary and Ship Canal, and the engineers of the “Chunnel,” the celebrated passageway beneath the English Channel, picked up tips from Deep Tunnel work. Some of the city’s sewage treatment plants are monumental in more than a metaphorical way. The Stickney Water Reclamation Plant—a sewage treatment plant by any other name smells as foul—which was opened in 1930 is the largest wastewater treatment facility in the world, designed to process up to 1,200 million gallons per day.
Chicago’s century- long struggle to save itself from itself merits a popular history it doesn’t have yet. Public health administrators, physicians, scientists, neighborhood activists, engineers—only a real war would have drawn upon the energy and skills of so many and so many kinds of citizens as did Chicagoland’s battles on behalf of public health and pollution abatement. The result is a transformation. Chicago has its modern scourges in the form of AIDS and resurgent tuberculosis and violent death from crime and drugs, but the fog of coal smoke is gone, although ozone remains an issue on summer days. Drinking water is clean, fish are living in the Chicago River and its branches, and canoeists are floating atop it.
Putting on a new face
Repeated appeals to the federal government for a protective seawall to protect old Chicago’s exposed lakeward face were rejected. The city in 1851 turned to private enterprise. The Illinois Central Railroad had long coveted access to the docks along the river mouth, access it could achieve only by building a trestle to carry its trains across the beach from the existing IC depot to the south, around 12th Street. The city gave that firm a 300-foot strip of land 400 feet east of Michigan Avenue for that right of way; the trestle, when built, functioned as a breakwater that protected Michigan Avenue (more importantly its mansions) from lake storms. The IC filled in the lake about 1000 feet east along Randolph for a passenger terminal and train sheds. (That fill is today the site of the Prudential and Aon buildings across Randolph from today’s Millennium Park.)
The decision to cede the lakefront to the railroad had lasting consequences. For one thing, the future Grant Park was encumbered by rail yards that were a visual and environmental blight for decades. For another, the quiet-water lagoon thus formed between the trestle and Michigan Avenue was inaccessible to ships but it was a convenient dump, and it was there that rubble was disposed from the fire of 1871 and dredgings from later river and canal construction; thus was the future Grant Park begun, as the shallow water was gradually converted into dry “land.”
Indeed, Grant Park may qualify as the city’s most protracted construction project—still a-building after a century and a quarter. In 1976 the Chicago Park District replaced a huge surface parking lot in Grant Park with the Richard J. Daley Bicentennial Plaza. This facility incorporates underground parking with a major indoor and outdoor recreational complex; decking over the IC tracks in the northwest corner of the park to create Millennium Park accounts of big chunk of that project’s nearly half-billion dollar price tag.
Grant Park is only the best known of the city’s new-found land. Much of the area east and southeast of Chicago’s Loop was created by landfill; the peninsula on which the water filtration plant sits. In the 1960s Northwestern University expanded its property by constructing a seventy-four-acre landfill; on the South Side, the North Chicago Rolling Mill dumped so much slag from its furnaces into the shallow water near its plant at the mouth of the Calumet River that the area around it grew at four acres a year; the lake currents added sand to that until fill eventually spread over three hundred acres.
Indeed almost all of today’s lakeside is artificial. The original beaches, dunes, sand bars, river mouth—all long gone. In their place are breakwaters, beaches, seawalls, revetments, and piers that adorn the beaches and shallow waters, and at the present river mouth extensive locks control the flow of water between river and lake. The natural shore was, from a recreational point of view, under-designed. The sweep of currents had rendered it smooth with none of those promontories that lend please the eye and provide shelter for bathers and boats. As a recreational resource it badly needed improving, which the city has done with a series of artificial harbors such as Belmont Harbor, which more resembles hotels and airports than anything in nature.
Daniel Burnham made the lakefront one of the foci of his proposed municipal remodeling in the Plan of 1909. Burnham proposed construction of a string of landfill islands and peninsulas along the eight miles between the former world’s fair site at Jackson Park and Grant Park downtown. The city loves big plans, but making them real costs money that the city didn’t always have. Only one artificial peninsula, Northerly Island, was built; its proved a convenient site of the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933 and 1934 and in 1948 of the late Meigs Field. The southern lakeshore was eventually extended as per Burnham but the islands and peninsula along that part of the city were never built.
Not all alterations to the lake shore may be credited to Uncle Dan, although many are anyway. As noted, Grant Park had already been substantially filled by the time Burnham’s plan was announced, but it is often credited to the 1909 scheme. The Montrose Peninsula was manufactured from fill by city engineers in 1872 to provide parkland and a recreational boat harbor.
The new land, improbably, provided a base from the U.S. Army in the anxious postwar years. A Nike Hercules missile sat ready at a launch site on Montrose Beach (now the Lincoln Park Yacht Club). The popular birding spot at Montrose Point known as “The Magic Hedge” originally sprouted along the fence that once surrounded the missile site there. On the South Side a radar tower was located at Jackson Park’s Promontory Point, with a missile launcher near the 63rd St. Beach; during a cleanup, a park worker retrieved a part of a Nike missile—not the usual sort of litter one finds in even a big-city park. Blacks and whites may have been at each other’s throats in those years and its middle class in full flight, but Chicagoans had nothing to fear if the Soviet Union attempted a sneak attack from Muskegon.
Further northward extensions of Lincoln Park—made mainly to provide land for expressways, it being cheaper to make land than to buy it on the North Side—were made in the 1950s. As a result, many lakeshore properties ceased to be on the lake shore. The Edgewater Beach Hotel on Sheridan near Foster opened in 1916 and by 1922 offered a thousand-room resort-style hotel just minutes from the Loop, complete with a 1,000-foot beach promenade and a seaplane landing. But when the City of Chicago extended Lake Shore Drive north to Hollywood Avenue, the new landfill cut off the hotel from the water and, it turned out, any hope of a commercial future; it closed in 1967 and was torn down in 1970. Private structures were similarly marooned; when it was built in 1915, the house in Rogers Park designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Emil Bach was a beach house, but lake fill pushed the shoreline, and the beach, some yards to the east.
The achievements in reordering the lake shore have been substantial enough that some Chicagoans came to believe that they could make virtually any change to the lake with impunity. Mayor Daley senior want to create an island in the lake off the South Shore and put an airport on it, that being the only place to locate so large a facility within convenient taxing distance. The notion was widely and, in the end, fatally resisted by people agreeing with Carl Condit that such an island would “ruin . . . the scenic and recreational potential of one of the greatest water resources in the world.” Daley’s son has backed a more popular plan to extend Lincoln Park yet again, this time in new landfill that would carry Lake Shore Drive all the way north to the city limits at Evanston. It might happen. Someday.
The impulse to improve on nature’s hydraulic engineering found expression all across Chicagoland. Beginning in the 1860s and for the next 25 years or so the Corps undertook to turn the Calumet into an industrial harbor. The Calumet River’s natural outlet at Miller was blocked; the occasional outlet to South Chicago was deepened and widened and connected to the Calumet River; this drew the waters of the river north, and in effect severed the river into two—a flowing Little Calumet, and the newly christened Grand Calumet, the original eastward flow of the latter being reversed in the process. In the 1920s, the Calumet River had become so polluted that it made Bubbly Creek look like a mountain brook; the Chicago Sanitary District dug the Cal-Sag Channel to flush it with lake water, and in the process the Calumet, along with its tributaries the Grand and Little Calumet rivers, ceased to flow into Lake Michigan at all, heading instead south then west into the Des Plaines, thence to the Illinois.
North of the city, nature had made the Skokie marsh an inconsiderate neighbor during spring floods, so the Cook County Forest Preserve District decided to improve its manners. Plans were drawn to remodel a two-and-a-half mile reach of river valley between Willow and Dundee Roads, turning it via dike into a large water impoundment within which were built interconnected lagoons that could be used for recreation during most seasons; after heavy rains the surrounding floodplain would catch and store water that would otherwise spill into neighboring land.
The idea was an old one but, stymied by court challenges over land acquisition, it was not acted on until the 1920s, and it was not until the 1930s that work began in earnest. Converting the Skokie was an early project of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a commitment that owed less to its importance to the nation than it did to the fact that Harold L. Ickes, FDR’s Secretary of the Interior and thus the man in charge of the CCC, lived in Winnetka, on the marsh’s eastern edge. Work on the Skokie Lagoons project began in 1933, with one thousand men, and continued until World War II began, when major work stopped.
But the marsh-turned-stormwater-impoundment never worked. Mixed with the water it captured was much sewage and not a little sediment; if pollution didn’t kill the fish in the lagoons, they died when the shallow water froze during hard winters. A series of expensive fixes had to be undertaken in the 1970s and ‘80s that redirected wastewater around the lagoons. Thus cleaned up, what are now known as the Skokie lagoons are a much valued amenity. A final 385 acres of marsh, to the north of the lagoons, was deeded to the Chicago Horticultural Society, which saw in it a sylvan setting for its planned Chicago Botanic Garden, which opened in 1972 after seven years of building; today the garden’s 23 gardens and three native habitat areas draw some 900,000 visits a year. ●