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The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal

The Illinois and Michigan Canal
The Illinois and Michigan Canal
Photo by Elaine C. Shigley

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, formally known as the Drainage Canal, is a vital, manmade, navigational and sanitary canal built to replace the Illinois and Michigan Canal (1848). This canal is an integral part of the Chicago Waterway System. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago operates it.

Like the I & M Canal, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal links the Chicago, Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers with the Mississippi River. It runs parallel to the historic I & M Canal and follows the pre-Columbian portage route used by Native Americans. It cuts through the divide, the Chicago Portage, between the Great Lakes Basin and the Mississippi River Basin.

The first reason for a new canal was navigational. The old canal needed widening and dredging because it was too narrow and too shallow. A new canal would increase commercial shipping because it would be deeper and wider than the historic canal. Goods could be shipped more easily and more quickly through a new canal.

The second reason was sanitation. Chicago needed a wastewater system. Before 1900, sewage flowed into Lake Michigan. Chicagoans feared epidemics of typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery, especially after a serious cholera epidemic in 1849. In the late 1860s, the city installed water supply tunnels far from the shore, hoping to solve the problem. In addition, communities along the I & M Canal complained about pollution from unrestricted dumping.

Changing the course of the Chicago River seemed the best solution to the navigation and sanitation problems. Engineers decided deepening the I & M Canal would alter the river’s course. They tried that plan in 1871, but the project only lasted one season. Politicians and engineers concluded a new canal would permanently change the river’s course and solve both problems. To be continued…