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Transforming the Chicago River

If Chicagoans expected to realize their dreams of greatness for Chicago, changing the troublesome Chicago River became a necessity. Sand bars created numerous problems for shipping. The slow-moving river, contaminated with sewage from an ever increasing population, threatened the fresh water supply of Lake Michigan. Cholera, malaria and typhoid epidemics, caused by polluted, infested water threatened the lives of Chicagoans.

Main Stem of the Chicago River
Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Beginning in 1816, engineering efforts improved the Chicago River. Channels were cut through the sandbars to encourage navigation. The U.S. Congress allocated $25,000 to improve the harbor, and through the engineering efforts of Major George Bender, commander of Fort Dearborn, this work began. The improvement was completed by James Allen, who succeeded the major, and it enabled the Illinois, a 100-short ton schooner, to sail to Wolf Point and dock at Newberry and Dole’s wharf. Three years later, piers were extended which facilitated the unloading of cargo.

By 1848, The Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed. It linked the Chicago, Illinois and Mississippi Rivers with Lake Michigan, New York City and the Atlantic Ocean. It became the only waterway linking the East Coast to the Gulf of Mexico. It was the last grant canal funded by the government. Shipments of people and goods on the canal continued for almost 60 years.

Early attempts were made to reverse the Chicago River. In 1871, the Illinois and Michigan Canal was deepened. It was believed that this would change the course of the river, but this attempt was successful for only one season. Finally, in 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago successfully reversed the river’s course in the Main Stem and South Branch. Under the direction of William Boldenweck, the district used a series of canal locks and caused it to flow into the Sanitary and Ship Canal. To be continued…

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