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Reversal of Fortunes and the Chicago River

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It flows backwards but it's hardly noticeable. Each year thousands of people gather to see it turn green. It provides transport from numerous points within the city, allows for mild recreation on a warm summer day, and supports a hardy ecosystem. But best of all, it offers a unique perspective into the Architecture of the City. The Chicago River brings joy to many throughout the year. The Federal Government seems to recognize this, having just granted Chicago a $100M loan to make the idea of a functional, beautified Riverwalk a reality.

The Chicago River seems a vital resource to the city but that has not always been the case. At one point in the city's history, it was the cause of many deaths. We were giving 18th century London a run for its money. It took what is considered one of the greatest engineering feats to save the city. This incredible thing of course was the reversing of the river's flow.

Prior to the 1900's the river was vital in helping accelerate the growth of the city but with the intensive development came the need for proper hygiene and waste disposal. The city's sewer system discharged human and industrial waste directly to the river, which then pushed the waste into Lake Michigan and polluting the supply of drinking water.

After heavy rainfall backed up the river, waterborne disease began killing off residents almost as fast as we could add them. This happened not once but on numerous occasions. The public demanded a solution to this problem so finally, in 1889, the Illinois enacted a law that helped form the Sanitary District of Chicago (what we now know as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation Project).

The solution that came about was the reversing of the River (much to the chagrin of St. Louis and other soon-to-be-downriver denizens). In order to do so, new canals had to be built to conquer the river's natural elevation. A total of three canals were built: the Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1892, the North Shore Channel in 1910, and the Cal Sag Channel in 1922. The amount of dredging alone qualifies as a once-a-century project. Once the Sanitary and Ship channel was completed, waterborne disease rates began a nose dive.

Curbed doesn't recommend you practice blowing your bubbles in the river, but there are more kayaks and pleasure craft than ever and also a greater number of public access points demonstrating a newfound lust for our second shoreline. And steps are being made toward a less-than-highly-polluted status quo. Last Spring, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced $10M in state funding to disinfect the river. It will definitely take some time to undo the damage done but officials are learning to take the reigns.
·Chicago River [Wikipedia]
·January 2, 1900: Reversing the Chicago River [WBEZ]
·The Reversal of the Chicago River [APWA]

—Conrad Jacob Szajna