Chicago's Historical Ingenuity in the Face of Disease

Daniel Hautzinger
Workers on the Sanitary and Ship Canal excavate and load rock onto hoppers on September 20, 1894. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District for 10 That Changed America
Workers on the Sanitary and Ship Canal excavate and load rock onto hoppers on September 20, 1894. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District for 10 That Changed America

Some of the most ambitious engineering feats in the history of Chicago—indeed, the country—were a direct result of disease. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the city raised its buildings to accommodate the first comprehensive sewer system in the country; dug a tunnel underneath Lake Michigan that reached nearly two miles into the body of water; and reversed the flow of the Chicago River, all in order to stop the spread of waterborne diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, and cholera.

Cholera, which could kill a victim within 24 hours, was especially devastating. The disease inspired the nascent Chicago’s first public health action when there was an outbreak in 1832, a year before Chicago was incorporated as a town. It was not yet known that cholera was spread by water—that wouldn’t be discovered until the English doctor John Snow statistically studied a cholera outbreak in London in 1854, an episode depicted in the Masterpiece series Victoria. Instead, people believed the disease originated in uncleanliness, so Chicago’s leaders ordered all men aged 21 to 60 to clean the streets and alleys for three days on penalty of a fine, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Cholera and other waterborne diseases remained an intermittent concern, with newspapers of the time advertising such cures as “anti-cholera syrup,” claimed to be an “almost infallible remedy.” In 1849, cholera killed 678 people; in 1854, more than 1,400 Chicagoans died of it. During a nationwide economic downturn in 1857, Chicago’s Board of Health was eliminated, but it was resurrected ten years later, when cholera again devastated the city, with 990 of 1,516 reported cases dying in 1867.

Amidst all this, Chicago decided it had to address the increasingly polluted water of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. The city got its clean drinking water from the lake, and the river flowed the waste of the city into the lake. Waste from the Union Stockyards and other industries mixed into a disgusting sludge that the humorist Finley Peter Dunne satirized in his faux written dialect as, “the prettiest river f’r to look at that ye’ll iver see …. Green at th’ sausage facthry, blue at th’ soap facthry, yellow at th’ tannery...”

So in 1855 the city enlisted the engineer Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough, who had built Boston’s water supply system, to address the pollution of its drinking water. His first proposal was suitably ambitious: building the first comprehensively planned sewer system in the country. (Hamburg, Germany was the first city to construct a modern sewer system, in 1843.)

"A New American Invention: Raising an Hotel at Chicago." Drawing of the raising of the Briggs Hotel, 1857. Artist unknown. Credit: the Chicago History Museum for 10 That Changed America"A New American Invention: Raising an Hotel at Chicago." Drawing of the raising of the Briggs Hotel, 1857. Artist unknown. Credit: the Chicago History Museum for 10 That Changed America

Chesbrough’s system required raising the city to accommodate pipes and create a grade for the waste to flow down into the river. Pipes were laid on top of existing streets, then dirt was poured over them, with new streets constructed on top of that. In order to raise buildings, workers simultaneously turned jacks placed around a structure, hoisting it up through manpower. (You can still see some houses below street level around the city.) The new sewage system helped the city grow: part of the reason many suburban townships such as Lake View on the North Side decided to be annexed by Chicago was in order to obtain better public services such as the sewer.

But Chesbrough’s ingenious system was perhaps not so ingenious as it was thought: it drained into the river, which eventually brought the waste into the drinking water of the lake, especially as the city’s population ballooned.

Chesbrough’s next plan was to move the city’s water intake further into the lake, away from the foul outpour of the river. In 1864, workers began digging a tunnel that would reach nearly two miles into the lake to an intake crib. Two teams approached each other with careful precision, one digging from the city, the other from the intake crib. In 1866, the teams met 60 feet below the lake’s bottom.

And yet the city’s drinking water remained polluted—when a heavy rain flooded the river, its putrid waste reached the new intake. The cholera epidemic of 1867 only confirmed the point, as did another outbreak in 1873 that killed 116 people. After that outbreak, public health and sewers improved so much that the Board of Health claimed in 1881 that Chicago had the third-lowest death rate in the world among cities with populations over 500,000.

But the city still wanted to address the pouring of its waste into the source of its drinking water, so it turned to Chesbrough’s last idea: reversing the river so that any waste in it would wash away from the city’s drinking water to the Mississippi and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, believing that “the solution to pollution is dilution,” as a slogan put it. In 1889, the city voted to create the Sanitary District of Chicago (now the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District) to implement the proposal.

The story of how that engineering feat was pulled off via the construction of the Sanitary and Ship Canal (and how it angered downstream St. Louis) has been well-told: it’s one of Geoffrey Baer’s 10 Modern Marvels That Changed America, and is also the subject of this fun animated video:


Although the unprecedented project has obviously had an environmental impact, it did help clean up Chicago’s drinking water—and prevent more outbreaks of disastrous waterborne diseases like cholera. Human ingenuity in response to threats including disease can be as boundless as the disease itself seems to be.

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