As the time of completion and opening of the canal approached, word leaked that St Louis and the State of Missouri intended to file for an injunction to stop the canal.49 The Sanitary District raced to complete the work. Reasoning that once the flow of water was started, it would be hard to stop, on January 2, 190050, two weeks before the official opening, and without proper permits, the Sanitary District Board quietly ordered a needle dam knocked down which turned the water of the Chicago River into the newly dug channel of the canal. Two weeks later, now with all permits in hand, the control works at Lockport were opened. The Great Lakes flowed unimpeded into the Mississippi River basin again for the first time in 12,000 years.51

The canal was a great success. Lake Michigan water quality improved with an immediate decrease in disease rates. Downstate, the situation improved as well. Independent tests conducted by Scientific American Magazine showed that oxygenation from the increased quantity of fresh water cleansed the water and made it safe.52

But controversy continued, mostly over flow rates and the amount of water that could be taken from Lake Michigan. Lawsuits by contiguous states, international protests by Canada, Congressional legislation and Presidential vetoes53 all ensued. Allowable flow rates were alternately raised and lowered, finally settling on 3200 cubic feet per second. Even now the fight continues. Recent improved measuring has indicated the the flow has been as high as 3400 cps recently. Bordering states are currently suing, asking the District to not only reduce the flow but to ‘pay back' the excess taken.

Improvements in the 20th century include a control lock at the mouth of the Chicago River and Deep Tunnel to temporarily hold storm surges. Most importantly new treatment facilities are being added. Essentially since 1950, all water in the canal has been fully treated.54

In reversing the flow of the Chicago River, the continental divide no longer functions as it did historically. The water still divides in Oak Park, but all water runs to the Gulf.

Bill Dring
Copyright June 6, 1998, Revised November, 2002

All maps designed by Dennis McClendon, Chicago Cartographics
Brochure design by Lipman Hearne
Design of the Continental Divide Signs  by David Anderson Designs
Signs were erected in Oak Park in 1999 by The Rotary Club of Oak Park

Author’s Note January, 2007
The following changes have been made to the website:

  • The paragraph on page 8, relative to the heavy rain and flood in August, 1885 has been revised.
  • The caption on the political cartoon has been changed.

The Myth of the Epidemic of 1885

When this website was originally written and published in 1998, reference was made to a large number of deaths in Chicago, in August of 1885, due to waterborne disease.  To my great embarrassment, I now find that there were no deaths and that I was perpetuating an urban myth.

From a review of contemporary newspaper articles, it is perfectly clear that there were no cholera nor typhoid deaths due to the storm in August  of 1885.

The first time that that the fabricated story was told may never be known.  The origin of the myth is of particular interest to author Libby Hill and is the subject of her upcoming article; "The Chicago Epidemic of 1885: an Urban Legend?" which will be published in Fall, 2006 issue of Journal of Illinois History. 

Myth Perpetuators

The myth about cholera deaths is quite pervasive, and is still being told as true, in very recent times, even now, 125 years after the event.  Below is a partial list of places where the myth is still being told as true.  Except for the MWRDGC publications, all others were published after 1995.

Books and Pamphlets (See bibliography for source information)

  • Harris; Prairie Passage, (1998), page 48-49; “Unfortunately the new sewers drained into the Chicago River which flowed into Lake Michigan, thereby polluting the city’s water supply.  As the river became even more contaminated, freshwater intakes were moved farther and farther out into the lake in a series of unsuccessful efforts to end frequent epidemics of cholera, typhoid and dysentery that killed thousands of people.”
  • The Story of the Metropolitan Sanitary District (The Seventh Wonder), (1957 & various other dates),page 6: “In 1854 a cholera epidemic attacked the city and destroyed 5 ½ % of the population.” and in reference to 1885 storm on page 7: “Death from the terrible diseases of polluted water was one byproduct of the storm.”
  • Our Goal is Clear, (1995), page 1: “During a tremendous storm in 1885, the rainfall washed refuse from the river far out into the lake, past the water intake cribs.  Typhoid, cholera and other waterborne diseases from the contaminated drinking water took their toll.  The Chicago Sanitary District (now The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District [sic]) as created by the Illinois legislature in 1889 in response to a terrible epidemic which killed thousands of residents of this fledgling city.”
  • Larson; Devil in the White City, (2003),page 109; “No one had forgotten how in 1885 fouled water had ignited an outbreak of cholera and typhoid that killed ten percent of the city’s population.”
  • Solzman; The Chicago River, (1998), page 48;  “Human waste mingled with factory pollutants that continually flowed out of the Chicago River into Lake Michigan, fouling the city’s water supply.  The result was recurrent epidemics of typhoid, cholera, and other waterborne diseases that, in some years, killed more than 5 percent of the burgeoning city population.”  and page 50;  “Then on August 2, 1885, one torrential storm dumped more than six inches of rain on the city.  The resulting backup of the Chicago River triggered an explosion of waterborne diseases that killed approximately 12 percent of the population.”

In the 2nd edition of Solzman's The Chicago River, published by University of Chicago in 2006, the wording has been changed: "Then on August 2, 1885, one torrential storm dumped more than six inches of rain on the city. The resulting backup of the Chicago River triggered an explosion of waterborne diseases that killed more than 518 people." page 50.

  • Miller, John B. Principles of Public and Private Infrastructure Delivery, (2000), page 492;  “The effect on drinking water became a stark reality in August 1885, when 6.19 inches of rain fell in a two-day period in Chicago.  Overflowing catch basins emptied into the River and the Lake spreading sewage and bacteria into the intake crib for the city’s lake water supply.  Twelve percent (12%) of the City’s 250,000 inhabitants, approximately 30,000 people died of cholera and other diseases.”


  • Chicago Tribune Magazine, March 21, 2004; “’90,000’ number of Chicagoans who died of typhoid fever and cholera in 1885 after six inches of rain in one day caused tons of raw sewage to flow into Lake Michigan drinking water.”

In addition to the error on my website which has been corrected, I have found the following re-tellings of the myth:

  • University of Chicago website under the name of Craig A. Cunningham, Ph.D.; (

“In 1885, a huge storm dumped more than six inches of rain on the city within a two-day period. The heavy rainfall flushed the streets, catch basins, and sewers into the river and polluted the lake far beyond the intake cribs that supplied the city’s drinking water. Roughly 12 percent of the city’s population became sick and died from cholera, typhoid, and dysentery in the aftermath of this storm.”

  • North Dakota Geological Survey website;

( “The volume of waste greatly exceeded the capacity of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, and Chicago was besieged with cholera outbreaks, the worst occurring in 1854 and 1885. During the latter, 80,000 people died of cholera (Dring, 2002).”  The reference to “Dring 2002” indicates that the error was quoted from the site.  The National Atlas staff was notified about the error and on October 19, 2006, Lorraine A. Manz, Geologist, North Dakota Geological Survey, indicated that the site would be corrected promptly.

  • National Atlas of the United States website; ( The continental divide information on this website is a virtual copy of the North Dakota site.  The National Atlas staff was notified about the error and on October 4, 2006, Peg Rawson, Cartographer, U.S. Geological Survey, indicated that the site would be corrected promptly.

Bill Dring, author
Oak Park

January, 2007



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