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Constructing the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal
The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal
Photo by Elaine C. Shigley

Constructing the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal took many years. The project began in 1887 and faced many problems. Engineers completed it in 1922.

In 1889, the Illinois General Assembly founded the Sanitary District of Chicago to construct the canal. The new district suffered through four years of chaos until Isham Randolph became the Chief Engineer and solved the difficulties. Randolph started the plan two years earlier when he designed the permanent reversal of the Chicago River, completed in 1892.

During the eight year period, construction workers moved 40 million cubic yards of earth and rock in this largest excavation project in North America up to that time. On May 2, 1900, Admiral George Dewey, who accomplished a major naval victory at Manila Bay during the Spanish American War of 1898, dedicated the new Chicago Sanitation and Ship Canal.

From 1903-1907, the canal was extended to Joliet, Illinois and replaced the Illinois and Michigan Canal. It was 28 miles in length, 202 feet in width and 24 feet in depth. Two more canals, the North Shore Channel (1910) and the Cal-Sag Channel (1922), completed the project. This canal project also trained many of the engineers who built the Panama Canal in 1906.

In 1989, the Chicago Sanitary District became the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. It operates the canals and water purification for the Chicago Wastewater System. Under this system, waste water passes through three levels of treatment before it’s released into local waterways.

This system received three notable awards—Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium in 1999. It recently achieved the National Achievement Award in Public Information and Education Categories from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. It recently gained the Exemplary Biosolids Management Award for Public acceptance from Region V of the EPA.

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