New Book Tells the Complexity of Building a Massive Canal System

Jul 26, 2012

Richard Lanyon writes about an innovative public works engineering effort to save Chicago from a perilous nuisance and public health crisis.

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. Though it is an unlikely place for a large city, with flat topography and poor drainage, being on the shore of the Great Lakes and near to a river into the continent, Chicago was destined to be. Building the Canal to Save Chicago written by Richard Lanyon tells the story of the complexity of implementing a massive and innovative public works engineering system to save Chicago from a perilous nuisance and public health crisis.
During the 1800s, Chicago’s location 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 the water supply and toilet. The river became overwhelmed with the commerce of a port city and its sewage. Flooding from the interior tore through the city to get to the lake. 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. Without the infrastructure of this canal system, Chicago may not have survived the limitations of the natural systems to become the vibrant metropolis that it is today.
Chicago is a city that went on to grow and prosper because of the pioneering effort of its local leaders who conceived, financed, and implemented the canal system. After more than a century of service, the canal system continues to provide economy and efficiency in water transportation, protects public health and welfare by efficient drainage of treated wastewater and urban storm water, offers an amenity for waterfront property, allows reuse of water for industrial cooling, and is an outlet for those seeking water recreation in an intense urban setting.
This book imparts to readers the history of this little understood canal system in Chicago. With its flat topography, any disturbance of the surface drainage system may have profound effects on the future welfare of the city.
Technically oriented readers will enjoy reading the details of the engineering and construction challenges in building the canal and many bridges. Those who may feel technically challenged will enjoy the photographs and captions. The rich archive of photographs is a story in itself.

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