Reversal of Fortune

Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[music playing]

Roman: I fell in love with architecture on the Chicago River. You can endlessly argue about which city has the greatest architecture. But one thing that puts Chicago near the top for me is that the Chicago River provides a beautiful vantage point to take in all the marvelous skyscrapers. Rather than being crammed in on the sidewalk between looming towers, trying, and probably failing, to take it all in. The river pushes the buildings apart and gives you the opportunity to co-spy on the roof of a ferry, with glass, steel, and concrete wonders presented in their full glory everywhere you turn. But probably the city’s biggest design achievement isn’t building at all. It’s that river itself, a waterway disguised as a remnant of the natural landscape but it really isn’t. It’s hard to tell when you see the river but it’s going the wrong way. It should flow into Lake Michigan. But instead, fresh water from Lake Michigan flows backwards into the city. The Chicago River is a large part of a carefully designed extension of the city sewer system. Even calling it a river may be off based.

Richard: It’s not really a river. In Chicago, it’s really the Chicago Canal. There’s not an inch, I don’t think of the Chicago River is natural in Chicago.

Dan: That’s Richard Cahan, he’s a journalist and historian in Chicago. And in 2012, he co-wrote and published a book called The Lost Panoramas, When Chicago Changed Its River and The Land Beyond. And it’s filled with these gorgeous pictures from before but mostly after one of the biggest urban design projects ever: The reversal and the complete transformation of the Chicago River.

Roman: And that is Dan Weisman, a journalist, lover of triangular buildings, a lifelong, diehard Chicago.

Dan: And reversing the river was actually the third in a series of epic design projects, spanning almost 50 years.

Roman: Three projects that amounted to 19th-century engineers just taking it to the laws of nature. With the kind of moxie that just seems to be folded into the DNA of 19th-century engineers.

Dan: And with just the first two, we’re talking about two decades of massive, ridiculous achievements. Stuff that changed people’s ideas of how far you could go to make a city work. And those two have been so obscured by the time that the dude who did them, yeah, it was basically one guy who proposed and executed not one, but two of these incredible projects. He’s basically unknown today. Ellis Chesbrough.

Roman: If you’ve never heard of Ellis Chesbrough, you’re not alone. In fact, as I record this, he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. But you can bet, Richard Cahan knows who he is.

Richard: So, he was a star. And there is, his house is just north of downtown and there’s a little plaque in front of his house. I once parked my car in front of it.

Male: Always read the plaque.

Richard: And it says, “House of Ellis Chesbrough” and I’m sure I’m the only person that was ever very excited about seeing it.

Dan: But back in the 1800s, Chesbrough was the man. And no one has ever worked harder to save Chicago from its own poop.

Roman: Poop. The thing that has brought cities to their knees for millennia.

Dan: Now, here’s the setup: It’s 1854. The city of Chicago had been growing like crazy for a couple of decades out of nothing. Huge boom town, more than doubling its population every few years. Then, wham! Cholera epidemic. Wiped out six percent of the city. Six percent! That summer, one account had cholera killing 60 people a day in a town of 70,000. One observer put it this way: The death cart was constantly in the street. And not to be gross, but cholera it is a super nasty way to go. It sudden, painful, and well, gross. Vomiting, diarrhea, horrible cramps…. you’re dead in less than a day but it is a really, really unpleasant day.

Roman: So, people were freaking out. Enter Chesbrough, who made a name with work he’d done in Boston.

Dan: “What you people need,” he told Chicago, “is a sewer system,” which was actually a newish idea at the time in the US. No other cities yet had one.

Roman: Sewers, yes. Systems, not so much. And Chicago didn’t seem like the town that you’d picked to go first. Not if you thought topography meant anything.

Dan: I mean Chicago was built on a swamp. Street level? Water level? Pretty much the same. So, you put sewers under the street, there’s no way the material in them to you know run downhill into anything.

Roman: So here comes Round One: The first of these three projects that prove Chicago was ready to try anything.

Dan: Chesbrough said, “Okay Let’s jack street level up ten feet.”

Richard: It was a time when engineers were really seen as saviors. So, when he said, “First off, that we’re going to be a sewer system.” And he said, “We’re going to raise Chicago up ten feet so that we can put in the sewers,” everyone in Chicago says “Great, great idea, let’s do it.”

Dan: And there was a reason they went for it. People were making tons of money! Chicago’s location was perfect, connecting the west to the east through railroads and the great lakes. And that’s why the city was growing so fast to start with.

Roman: Actually, they didn’t jack up the streets, themselves. They just piled of dirt on top of the old streets to make them higher. And some of that dirt came from the river bottom which they had dredged make room for all of the stuff that they were about to dump in there.

Dan: But they did jack up the buildings. Literally, they put the buildings on jack screws, a lot of jack screws, and started cranking. There’s this great picture from 1857. It shows a massive hotel, big as a city block, at least three of four stories tall, with dozens and dozens of guys cranking away in perfect sync.

Male: Ready men? Turn!

Roman: You can also see hotel guests in top hats standing on the balconies, a couple of flights up. They’re looking out, watching their view get better and better, a quarter inch at a time.

Dan: And this kind of thing happened over and over again with businesses staying open while they were getting cranked up, just for kicks! Another fancy hotel had 1,200 guys cranking away all at once. Meanwhile, apparently, there was a team of masons laying bricks for a new foundation at top speed. Literally working around the guys with the jack screws.

Roman: There’s another great picture of a huge downtown block of stores and offices getting hoisted up. All 35,000 tons of it.

Dan: Jacking up the streets and buildings took like, 20 years to finish. But by that time, project number two was already done.

Roman: Because it didn’t take too long after the sewers went in for Chicago to realize that that’s a big question they haven’t given enough thought to on the first go around.

Dan: Where did the sewers take all this output? Into the river. And where did the river go? Into the lake. And where was the drinking water coming from? Oops.

Roman: “So okay,” Chesbrough said, “How about this? We’ll build water intakes, two miles out from shore. Way past where the river dumps our muck into the lake.”

Dan: “And that’ll mean digging the biggest deepest, longest tunnel ever up to this point. What do you think?”

Richard: They all said, fine. And they did it and it was amazing.

Dan: Again, the city is growing, people are making money, and everybody agrees. They’ll do whatever it takes to keep this thing rolling.

Roman: So it’s on, Round Two: Digging the tunnels.

Dan: In 1864, Chesbrough’s guys started digging the tunnel out from the city. 60 feet down from the street level. A year after that, they install a giant structure two miles out in the lake.

Roman: They called them cribs.

Dan: And started digging a tunnel in from under that, back towards shore.

Roman: The work went on around the clock from both sides. One crew dug by hand for 16 hours a day. Then, a crew of bricklayers took the graveyard shift, shoring up the area that had just been dug out.

Dan: In November 1865, the two sets of crews met in the middle just about dead on, centered.

Richard: Needless to say, this was before GPS you know? This is just all by sight.

Dan: Everybody agreed. Chesbrough was a genius and a half.

Roman: Except they hadn’t really solved the problem. The city was still growing like crazy. Maybe 200,000 people by 1865. And they were dumping more of their business into the river than ever, which stank.

Dan: And before the water from the new intakes even started flowing, the union stockyards opened on the river’s south branch and up the ante. We’re talking 320 acres of slaughterhouses and meat packing plants. All of them dumping whatever they couldn’t use and just imagine what that would be, into the river.

Richard: Well, they estimated the stockyards were the equivalent of a million people’s discharges.

Dan: And there weren’t even a million people in the city then.

Richard: Yeah. That’s true.

Dan: The bit of the South Fork still goes by the name got then, Bubblingf Creek. All the discarded animal stuff would rot at the bottom of the river and eventually gave of methane which would bubble up to the surface and burst.

Roman: Also, sometimes it caught fire. And sometimes the sewage got swept more than two miles out and found the water intakes. Later, they dig these even further out. There’s one called the four-mile crib.

Dan: And meanwhile, the city kept growing. By 1880, we’re talking about half a million people and producing more excrement. The stockyards grew, too. A lot. One engineer would say, “Chicago produces more filth per capita than any other city.”

Roman: And now typhoid was getting to be a problem. So Chicago started pushing for a new state law to help undertake the biggest, baddest, craziest idea ever.

Dan: They decided to dig a gigantic new canal that would reverse the river entirely.

Roman: Reversing the river would bring in fresh water from the lake. And keep Chicago’s muck from polluting the drinking water pulled from that same lake, and flush all the sewage down to the Illinois River which would then take it out to the Mississippi.

Dan: It took a few years to get the new law approved. The town of Joliet saw a river of crap coming its way and try to nix it, and then it took a few more years to get plans laid out and contract issued. And then it was shovel day. September 3rd, 1892. More than a thousand people came out to watch. An official took one cut with a nickel-plated shovel, and then an engineer detonated two massive loads of dynamite.

Richard: Dynamite was their preferred weapon [laughs] against the environment.

Roman: And it was on. Round Three, in the epic struggle against Chicago’s own excreta: reversing the river.

Dan: 28 miles of canal. Price tag: 31 million and change. In today’s money, almost $23 billion. As many as 8,700 guys working at a time, with work going on year-round. Tons and tons of dynamite. You could hear the blasts downtown when the wind was right. And enormous machines, some and then special for the project, including a 640-foot-wide monster conveyor which broke after less than a year, but still.

Roman: During the 1893 world’s fair, tourists by the thousands, day tripped out to the construction zone.

Richard: They would take boats and trains out to the site to see the work. And people were coming to Chicago, and they were like, “You got to see this! You know, this town is amazing. And they’ll do anything to survive.”

Dan: Even after the fair closed, train companies ran morning specials so local sightseers could check out the big machines and those ever-popular dynamite blasts.

Richard: This was an amazing project. You know, so many people know about the Panama Canal but it was really in building this canal that they figured out everything, engineering-wise and the equipment and a lot of the engineers went to Panama.

Dan: And then, very late in the game, St. Louis got pissed. We’re talking 1899. All the major digging has been done for years. And the fine-tuning stuff is getting wrapped up. All the construction of bridges, any extra digging of rivers downstream that’s going to carry Chicago’s water toward the Mississippi and what not. And that stuff was very, very close to finished.

Roman: And this is when St. Louis figures out that all that water carrying who knows what is headed down the Mississippi, upriver of St. Louis, which depends on the river for its drinking water and for brewing Budweiser beer. The city authorizes its attorney to prepare a lawsuit asking the US Supreme Court for an injunction that would stop the Sanitary District of Chicago from opening up the dams and letting that water go.

Dan: Thing is, it takes a while to get a lawsuit ready. A few months say. And Chicago starts humping it to get the dams ready to open before St. Louis can get an injunction. So, New Year’s Day 1900, the Sanitary District Trustees decide that the major work is done. The next day, January 2, they head out to a spot on the city’s southwest side where there’s this one little temporary dam holding back the river from this massive 28-mile canal that’s waiting for all that water.

Roman: The trustees arrived at dawn. One of them brings shovels.

Richard: Most of these projects have these beautiful gold shovels. But one of the trustees just stopped at the hardware store and bought these kinds of tinny, old, you know work shovels. It’s like stopping at Home Depot.

Dan: “Hey, it’s five in the morning. I had an awful time getting these shovels this time a day,” he says as he lays them out. There are a couple of reporters there taking notes.

Roman: And the trustees dig in. At least they try to.

Richard: First off, you should note that it was January in Chicago. So, you know, you don’t shovel anything by hand. The ground was absolutely frozen and they were going absolutely nowhere.

Dan: So, they bring a dredge which also goes nowhere.

Roman: So, they go get some dynamite. Good old dynamite!

Dan: Which is a dud.

Roman: It doesn’t look very promising.

Richard: There was lots of profanity. Number one, the trustees can’t shovel it out and the dynamite’s not working, and the shovels are not working. And you know, this was like, an insult to the kind of masculinity that we can’t even you know, open this thing up.

Roman: A couple of hours later, it’s like ten in the morning now, and maybe a hundred people have gathered. And the dredge gets to where it can just get one good scoop and it grabs it.

Dan: Yeah baby! A few more, and a few more…..and Bam! everyone’s shouting, “It’s open! It is open!” Water starts dropping into the canal, 24 feet straight down, and away it goes. “It is the Niagara of Chicago!” one of the trustees says.

Roman: Almost there. But there is still one last dam to open, a bit down river which needed the governor’s okay.

Richard: It’s a gate that has already been made so, it’s only a matter of turning the wheels that controlled the gates. And once the gate was open, the water could not be stopped all the way down to New Orleans.

Dan: Meanwhile, St. Louis is still gearing up its lawsuit.

Richard: They were a little bit worried of St. Louis actually filing a lawsuit that would stop, that it would enjoin them from actually opening the floodgates. And to this day, I can’t figure out why St. Louis didn’t do that.

Dan: Or why they were so slow about it. Chicago still had to jam a few last pieces into place to get the governor’s okay. Took two weeks. St. Louise could’ve filed any day. And then January 17th, the trustees took one more early morning trek to lower the dam. They turned the crank, posed for a picture in their fancy coats and top hats, and beat it back to Chicago for a big lunch. While they were eating, they got word that St. Louis has indeed called for an injunction that day, too late. They brought a knife to a gun fight.

Roman: No, they brought a little piece of paper to a torrent of shit fight! Late, I might add!.

Richard: They waited until just after the floodgates were open. I cannot understand that legal philosophy.

Dan: The story made the New York Times with the headline, “The water in the Chicago River now resembles liquid.”

Roman: St. Louis pushed their case to the US Supreme Court. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted that “it is a question of the first magnitude whether that, that destiny of the great rivers is to be the sewers of the cities along their banks.”

Dan: Which is an important philosophical question. But to paraphrase, the way Justice Holmes finished that opinion, “Whatever man.” Settling a question that big, it wasn’t really the Court’s job, especially since Missouri allowed St. Louis and other towns to dump sewage into the Mississippi and send it straight to Memphis.

Roman: So, in a very real sense, there was no stopping it. The canal and the river reversal was later called, “A civil engineering monument of the millennium.” It was a functional monument to our dominion over the natural world, or so we thought.

Dan: Fast forward to a hundred years, to right about now. And the forces of nature are looking for another go around. There had been some big efforts to clean up the river itself in the last two decades. And by 2015, the treated sewage is actually supposed to get disinfected. And when Rich Cahan and I visited Bubbly Creek, looking for bubbles, we may have seen signs of life there instead.
I see bubbles. Look. Look!

Richard: Yeah I see bubbles too. Yeah, I think that’s a fish. Isn’t it? See that? Right down there. I definitely think it’s some kind of living thing right there.

Dan: Yes. Yes. Like a guppie.

Richard: Yeah.

Dan: Yeah.

Richard: No, no. That was a bubble [laughs] No, those are bubbles right there. Look at…

Dan: But now, we’re living in a time where the big 19th venture interventions in nature seem poised to boomerang back at us.

Roman: Water levels in Lake Michigan have fallen, at least for now, to the point where gravity stopped pulling lake water into the river. Potentially, re-reversing the river, if there weren’t, you know, engineering interventions. In terms of watching Chicago’s waste, it’s mostly a symbolic issue. There are other ways to keep the water and treated sewage flowing away towards the Mississippi.

Dan: But falling lake levels. I mean, this is most of the fresh water in North America. And a lot of people link this kind of falling lake levels to the climate change and the whole catalog of horrors that comes with it. And it all seems like a karmic payback for exactly the kinds of projects that reverse the Chicago river stood for. The idea that we can just do whatever we want with the planet and get away with it.

Roman: And I think that’s a very valid lesson you could take from this. That the inherent hubris involved in reversing a river or manipulating the environment to suit our needs is exactly what is wrong with us as stewards of this planet. But taking another view, you could also see this as a lesson in the lengths we will go to survive. If we harness that 19th-century moxie. That kind of moxie that makes you think that you could and should reverse a river, and we add to that the knowledge we’ve gained since then, we could guide our best and brightest to engineer the impossible no matter what it takes, and we would take day trips out to the far edge and cheer them on as they save us from getting buried in our own [shit].

[music playing]

Roman: Or we could produce less [shit]. That’d be okay too.

[music playing]

Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Dan Weisman, Sam Greenspan, and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio, KALW in San Francisco, and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

Comments (7)

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  1. I visited Chicago for the first time about a year ago and as an architect I noticed something very interesting going on with the ground plane. So interesting I decided to write my colleges about it on our firms blog. 99% clearly covered this better than I did … but I was happy to know that this was something interesting enough to make an episode about.

    If you are at all interested, feel free to see my post HERE–> http://arcusa.com/node/228

  2. Gary

    There is an urban legend in Chicago that in 1885 an epidemic killed 60,000 people and that was why the construction of the canal was so fast. Did you see anything proving the legend

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