About That Backwards Flowing River…

There’s a scene in my novel Chicago Time where Elise spouts off about how Chicago’s river flows backwards and how crazy that is. It is pretty crazy once you think about it for a bit. I’m not aware of another river in the world where the flow was reversed.

Why was the flow reversed? Because there were cholera and typhoid outbreaks in the city.

Why were there cholera and typhoid utbreaks? Because people were getting those diseases from the drinking water, which was being pumped in from Lake Michigan, which was taking in water from the Chicago River, which was being used as a moving dump for sewage and industrial waste. Better to connect to the Illinois River and reverse the flow of the Chicago River and send all that sewage and waste Downstate.

In addition to improved drinking water, the flow reversal had the side effect of improving shipping and commerce. It also amplified the mutual mistrust and disdain that the people of Chicago and Downstate Illinois have for each other. At least until water and sewage treatment plants were built, providing cleaner water and a place to put patronage workers (aka, the Water Reclamation District).

There’s a book out now that contains photos of the Chicago River when it was a newly-reversed river. It’s called, The Lost Panoramas; When Chicago Changed its River and the Land Beyond by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams.

To say I want this is an understatement. I’m always fascinated by old photographs of the city, especially of places, like the Chicago River that are now changed completely since the photos were taken. You can see a sample of these amazing photos, and read the story of how the photos came about, here.

I was thinking about this, too (all the changes that is), when I recently read the first volume of Ernest Hemingway’s collected letters. In it, the young Hemingway describes taking a canoe trip with a close friend on the Desplaines River to the Illinois River, ending in Ottowa, Illinois. He was 17 years old when he did that. This is not the kind of thing that parents let their kids do anymore. It’s also just about impossible to do on those rivers now. The areas next to those rivers are so developed, you can’t just park your canoe and camp on the riverside anymore.

The flow reversal was quite an engineering feat. But with all of the positive consequences, there have been some negative ones too, especially those which conform to the Law of Unintended Consequences. Under the latter category, you can firmly place the Asian Carp problem. Now there is even talk, something completely impossible to think of even a decade ago, of somehow cutting off the Chicago River from the Illinois River.

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