Chicago’s flat, low-lying, and occasionally marshy location was poorly suited for the disposal of sewage and industrial waste. Most of this waste made its way down the Chicago River into the city’s water supply at Lake Michigan. Earlier attempts to use the Illinois and Michigan canal to send sewage down the Des Plaines and Illinois River by deepening the canal failed because the continued deposit of sediments on the canal bottom. The city’s rapid growth in the 1870s and 1880s brought matters to a head, and in 1889 the Municipal Sanitary District was established to find and implement a permanent solution. The main result was the construction of a wide and deep Sanitary and Ship Canal that was parallel to the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The construction of this canal ensured that the river would flow away from its mouth towards its natural source. Together with new feeder canals and, most famously, locks at the mouth of the Chicago, this improbable feat was accomplished, one of the most unusual and durable engineering achievements of the early twentieth century. By employing modern steam-powered dredging and earth-moving equipment, construction of the canal, from 1892 to 1907, was one of the greatest engineering feats of the time. This photograph, depicting a steam-powered hoist lifting earth and stone from the canal trench, formed part of a commemorative album prepared for Spanish-American War hero, Admiral George Dewey, who presided over the opening ceremonies of the main part of the canal in May 1900. As its names suggests, the purpose of the canal was only partly sanitary. When new locks providing access to the Des Plaines/Illinois river system were opened in 1907, the Sanitary and Ship canal became an effective alternative to the Illinois and Michigan Canal for lakes to river shipping, and its construction hastened the demise of the outmoded old canal. However, the importance of the water pathways established by the old portage route endured.
Cain, Louis P. Sanitation Strategy for a Lakefront Metropolis. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1978.
Hill, Libby. The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 2000.
Solzman, David M. The Chicago River: An Illustrated History and Guide to the River and Its Waterway, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
“Steam hoists and cranes used on the Sanitary and Ship Canal.” Photographic print. 1894. Chicago History Museum, ICHi-67698