The history of the Sanitary and Ship Canal is best understood in the context of regional decisions about a key natural resource—water. All sustainable cities must find solutions to two interrelated challenges: finding and maintaining an adequate water supply, as well as developing a method for removing wastewater. In the Chicago region, waterways have also been a key part of evolving transportation networks. Chicagoans’ response to the challenge of water was to marshall their considerable technological expertise and great wealth to transform nature to their own ends. Chicagoans still envisioned a future as one of the largest cities in the world. Residents would overcome any obstacle in the way of that future through money and technological innovation. A series of decisions about water led inexorably to the decision to build the Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1889.
Chicagoans long preferred Lake Michigan water to other sources. From the 1830s, the intake point was close to the mouth of the Chicago River, and the water supply was often polluted. During the 1860s, a lake tunnel was dug to a point two miles offshore as a new water intake point. With continued growth and the annexation of suburban areas, Chicago constructed additional pumping stations, dug new lake tunnels with intakes protected by cribs, and finally in 1898 began the task of combining the several tunnel and pumping systems into an integrated whole.
But the tunnels did not solve the problems posed by the polluted waters of the Chicago River emptying into Lake Michigan. From the start, Chicago’s sewerage system emptied directly into the Chicago River. In the mid-1850s, residents discovered that the Illinois and Michigan Canal pumps were moving the river's pollution into the canal. From that point forward, Chicagoans sought ways to permanently reverse the flow of the river. In the late 1860s the I&M canal was deepened to enlarge its sewage handling capabilities. Under normal weather conditions, pumps pulled Lake Michigan water into the Chicago River sending sewage downriver.
With Chicago’s continued growth, this system was unable to maintain the reversal under adverse weather conditions; the Chicago River, and often Lake Michigan, remained polluted. The solution was to enlarge the system, and all realized that it would be less costly to dig a new channel than to enlarge the old one once more. In 1889 voters approved the Sanitary District of Chicago (now the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago) to implement the new channel scheme. It was health concerns more than improved navigation that led to the creation of the Municipal Sanitary District in 1889 and to the expenditure of $31,163,032 to send Chicago’s sewage southward.
The Sanitary and Ship Canal ran from the South Branch of the Chicago River at Robey Street (new Damen Avenue) to Lockport, a distance of 28 miles in 1900. Work began in 1892 on the easternmost section of the canal, 7.8 miles that ran from the South Branch of the Chicago River to suburban Summit. Located on the Chicago Lake Plain, this section was built through layers of soil. Improvements included dredging sections of the South Branch of the Chicago River to allow for larger ships to pass, as well as to deepen the river to assure that water would flow southwestward away from Lake Michigan. The easternmost section of the canal was dug through layers of soil. In contrast to the building of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in the 1840s where virtually of the digging was done by hand, steam shovels were an integral part of the construction of the Sanitary and Ship Canal. The middle section of the main channel ran from Summit to Willow Springs, a distance of 4.3 miles, all outside the City of Chicago but in Cook County. Here the soil layer was thinner and workers had to cut mostly through dolomite bedrock and new innovations in steam machinery were of increasing importance. Dynamite was used to break up the bedrock, so that it could be hauled away.
The final section of the canal was a nearly 15 mile stretch through bedrock from Willow Springs to Lockport. Here thousands and thousands of cubic yards of stone were excavated in order to build the canal. Some of this stone was then fashioned into blocks which were used for the canal’s retaining walls. Specialized steam hoists and cranes were used as labor saving devices on the canal, but thousands of workers labored long hours for over eight years to build the main channel. Much of the work was unskilled, drawing recent European immigrants and African-Americans who were new to Chicago. Canal work provided an often brutal introduction to urban life.
While the opening of the Sanitary and Ship Canal is generally remembered as January 1900, two further points are worth noting. First, residents at St. Louis became concerned about the detrimental effect of Chicago’s sewage winding its way to their front door. In 1899, the State of Missouri was in the petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the opening of the waterway. Fearing that St. Louis would acquire an injunction to halt the completion of the Sanitary and Ship Canal, Sanitary District trustees went to West Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River early on the cold, frigid morning of January 2, 1900. They came unannounced and with little fanfare broke the temporary dam which kept water from the Chicago River from entering the Main Channel. Water began to fill the canal, but was not allowed to proceed beyond the dam at Lockport. But commissioners understood that they needed to open the Lockport end before St. Louis could file suit. On January 17, 1900 the Sanitary District trustees received approval from the governor to open the dam at the Lockport Controlling Works. Water, including wastewater from Chicago, began to flow southward into the DesPlaines River and then onto the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Opening the waterway made the threatened injunction by Missouri a moot point.
While the Juliet, the first boat on the open waterway, traveled on January 20, 1900, it would not be for seven more years before the Sanitary and Ship Canal was open for navigation to the Mississippi River. At that point, the canal ended at a dam in Lockport, which allowed for water to flow southward but precluded navigation. Not until 1907 was the canal extended to Joliet and a navigation lock (as well as a powerhouse) opened the canal to shipping. For Chicagoans, the “Sanitary” part of the canal’s title was of more immediately importance. While the Chicago River has served as the region’s port after the opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848, cargo traffic on the Chicago River peaked in 1889, the same year that the Sanitary and Ship Canal was approved. Port facilities moved south to the Calumet Harbor. By 1906, the volume of traffic at Calumet Harbor exceeded that handled in the rest of the Chicago Region. The completion of the Cal-Sag Channel in 1922 (and its expansion after 1955) and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 reinforced the dominance of the Calumet Harbor in the region.
Ann Durkin Keating
For Further Reading
Cain, Louis P. Sanitation Strategy for a Lakefront Metropolis (1978).
Hill, Libby. The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History (2000).
Keating, Ann Durkin, ed. “Water,” Digital Interpretive Essay, Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago (2005). www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org
Solzman, David M. The Chicago River: An Illustrated History and
Guide to the River and its Waterways (1998).