||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
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.
All maps designed by Dennis McClendon, Chicago
Author’s Note January, 2007
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.
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)
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.
“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.”
(http://www.state.nd.us/ndgs/NEWSLETTER/NLS03/pdf/Divide.pdf) “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 oprf.org/divide 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.
Bill Dring, author