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Ellis Chesbrough’s Upstream Battle to Reverse the Chicago River

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1. Part One: The Waste Pours In

By the turn of the mid-19th century, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. People were flooding in from all corners of the United States, clamoring for one of the many jobs stemming from the city’s industrial explosion. But with rapid population growth came a proportional spike in waste, and the question of how to dispose of it grew from a problem to a crisis nearly immediately.

In 1855, a brilliant engineer named Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough designed one of the country’s first comprehensive sewer systems to combat Chicago’s waste issue. The sewer improved sanitation for a short time, but waste had to empty out somewhere. That somewhere was Lake Michigan, the city’s fresh drinking water source.

As Chicago’s cattle industry boomed, more animal waste than ever was making its way through the sewers and into the lake. Soon enough, outbreaks of typhoid, cholera, and dysentery afflicted the city’s booming populous. After 1,400 people died in an especially bad cholera outbreak, it became clear how dire it was to find a better solution to the waste crisis.

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2. Part Two: The Tunnel

These outbreaks spawned Ellis’ second brilliant idea: build a tunnel 60 feet under Lake Michigan and two miles out into the lake to draw drinking water from further offshore. With this plan, waste could be dumped without spreading deadly diseases.

Three years later, tunnel work completed and the city relaxed a bit as disease outbreaks declined. But Chicago’s population continued to skyrocket and so too did river waste. Soon, all it took was heavy rain for the dirty river water to reach the intake tunnel two miles out.

At this point, I’d like to imagine that Mr. Chesbrough walked into his bedroom, quietly shut the door, and screamed into a pillow as loud as he could before dusting himself off and taking a tormented walk.

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3. Part Three: The Final Hope

What we do know is that Chesbrough sure as hell didn’t give up, nor let the failure of a three-year project bring him down. Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough rolled his sleeves up his burly forearms and devised a plan that would rid Chicago of its filthy sewer once and for all.

The beauty of his idea was in its simplicity; he wanted to use gravity to move the water from one side of the state to the other.

28 miles west of Chicago is a high point called a subcontinental divide. It’s difficult to see since the land is as flat as a pancake in that region, but it’s a high point nonetheless. On the west side of this divide, rainwater slopes westward towards the Mississippi River. On the east side, it flows eastward towards Lake Michigan. If a canal could be dug through this divide, gravity would do the rest of the heavy lifting and take the water towards the Mississippi and away from Chicago’s precious lake.

Work started right away as ditch diggers began deepening a canal that followed that route, but it didn’t work—it wasn’t big enough. Chesbrough called for a bigger ditch—a name that would stick, funny enough, as citizens would call it ‘The Big Ditch.’ But as the workers were ready to put part two of Sylvester’s grand plan into action, tragedy struck…twice.

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In April 1861, Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter. What ensued was the bloodiest conflict ever on American soil. The Civil War would lead to the slaughter of over 750,000 Americans, and shove Chicago’s problems down to the bottom of America’s list.

Ten years later was no better. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire consumed the city for three days, burning over 2,000 acres and leveling 17,500 buildings to the ground. With the city’s homes mostly made of wood and topped with tar or shingle roofs, the fire made quick work of Chicago and its insufficient firefighting force. It also further pushed back Chesbrough’s plans, and in August 1886 he died — never to see the completion of his life’s work.

But his legacy nor his plans were forgotten. Six years after his death, thousands of laborers armed with picks, dynamite and state-of-the-art steam-shovels embarked toward Chesbrough’s dream. Over the next ten years, workers excavated over 42 million cubic yards of rock and soil—enough to fill up the Sears Tower 20 times. When opened, the canal would connect to the Des Plaines River and send Chicago’s waste down the Mississippi to the gulf, just like Chesbrough had envisioned.

As you might imagine, the folks downstream of this planned sewage track weren’t thrilled, and the state of Missouri began prepping a major lawsuit against the City of Chicago. As the legal heat turned up, workers were rushed to finish the canal as fast as possible.

Finally, on the morning of January 2, 1900—14 years after Ellis Chesbrough’ death—the canal trustees blew up the final damn to solidify Ellis’ dream. Ever so slowly, something previously thought impossible had happened: an entire river’s flow reversed. Chicagoans went wild with celebration. The newly cleaned river drew thousands of spectators and swimmers as the whole city celebrated one of the most audacious engineering feats in U.S. history.

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The Chicago River project is still one of the largest municipal earth-moving projects ever completed, and the engineering techniques and machines developed would make future monumental engineering feats like the Panama Canal possible.

While the project was widely panned as foolish and impossible, Chesbrough never let the criticism and lack of faith around him alter his vision. The Chicago River project is a testament to a combination of creative thought and resiliency to achieve the desired outcome. From Chesbrough’s efforts, we learn that all battles — especially the most uphill ones — are always worth fighting.

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