To accomplish the reversing of the flow of a river wouldn’t be possible today. But to Chicago near the end of the 19th Century it became a matter of survival. It is an unlikely place for a large city, with flat topography, poor drainage, next to a lake and near to a river into the continent. Those conditions in the 1800s appealed to westward expansion pioneers who traveled by water. A city was born, the railroads replaced water transport, population surged, and the lake was both water supply and toilet. The river became overwhelmed with the commerce of a port city and with sewage. It stank at times. Flooding from the interior tore through the city to get to the lake. What to do? Without sewage treatment it was decided to breach a sub continental divide, send the sewage away and save the lake. It received legislative blessing with the promise of a navigable canal. Chicago’s own shoulder-to-the-wheel determination made it work. The river was transformed into a canal flowing the other way.
Richard Lanyon has had a life long association with the waterways in and around Chicago. He grew up along the North Branch, attended the University of Illinois Navy Pier campus, worked as a beginning engineer on the Lake Diversion legal controversy and capped his working life with a 48-year accomplishment with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. He enjoys biking along the waterways, Lake Michigan and hometown Evanston, Illinois neighborhoods where he lives with his wife Marsha Richman.
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