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Visualizing the Chicago River Reversal

A recently uncovered collection of photographs documents this engineering feat

Courtesy of The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond

Civil engineers generally rank the reversal of the Chicago River, completed in 1900, among the world's great feats of engineering – the digging of a 28-mile canal between the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers linked the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico watershed, fostering billions in shipping and trade, and diverted oceans of city sewage, saving Lake Michigan from considerable pollution and allowing the Chicago area to expand to its current 8 million residents.

Yet those hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage did not simply disappear. They were flushed into waterways south and west of the city, from the Des Plaines to the Illinois and the Mississippi River, destroying vast expanses of farmland and irrevocably altering much of that fertile, river-fed landscape.

For a century, historians had scant visual evidence of the pre-reversal Des Plaines and Illinois rivers, or of the almost unimaginable labor involved in the building of the Sanitary and Ship canal within the city. Then, a decade and a half ago, a city water official stumbled upon a cache of nearly 22,000 glass-plate photo negatives taken from 1894 to 1928 for the Sanitary District, the canal's builder, to document the reversal of the river and its impact.

After years of painstaking work, Richard Cahan and Michael Williams present an unprecedented dual glimpse of Midwestern history in The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond. About half the photos are of laborers, rock explosions, construction sites and mile-long trenches in a Chicago shorn of its 20th century growth spurt.

The rest are expansive wide-angle pastorals, gorgeous views of river, farmland and open prairie, looking much as it must have centuries ago. In fact, a group of farmers used some of the pre-reversal photos as evidence in a suit against the Sanitary District, claiming the overburdened river had flooded and damaged their lands.

"What right has Chicago to pour its filth down into what was before a sweet and clean river, pollute its waters, and materially reduce the value of property on both sides of the river … and bring sickness and death to the citizens?" wondered a resident of Morris, Ill., after the reversal was completed.

The photos below are courtesy of Cahan and Williams' The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond. They are currently on display at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

About the Author

  • David Lepeska is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.