Simanaitis Says

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AN INTERESTING TIDBIT got me looking into what’s sorta a family matter. It involves a river that runs backwards, at least at the moment, and the tradeoffs of fooling with Mother Nature (not to say as well, with the people of St. Louis and the carp of the Gulf of Mexico).

The Chicago River. The river has been historically important as part of the Chicago Portage, a link between the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River Basin, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. North and south branches of the Chicago Rivers fed its main branch flowing into Lake Michigan. A few miles west, as part of the Mississippi River watershed, the Des Plaines River flowed south.

This and the following image by the U.S. Geological Survey from Wikipedia. 

The Chicago Portage. As noted by Wikipedia, “The approximately six-mile link had been used by Native Americans for thousands of years during the Pre-Columbian era for travel and trade… A strategic location, it became a key to European activity in the Midwest, ultimately leading to the foundation of Chicago.”

As described by Interesting Facts, “In the second half of the 19th century, Chicago was one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. In 1870, it was home to 299,000 people, and by the century’s end, 1.7 million. But along with that population boom came unfortunate side effects, including waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid.”

“The problem,” Interesting Facts says, “was in large part that the city’s sewage flowed into the Chicago River, which in turn emptied into Lake Michigan — the source of the city’s drinking water. So Chicago turned to engineer Ellis S. Chesbrough, designer of the city’s sewer system, to solve the problem once and for all.”

Tricking Mother Nature. Since the subcontinental divide was just west of Chicago, Interesting Facts writes, “if the city dug a ditch lower than both the lake and the river through the divide, gravity would take it from there. Workers began the laborious process of reversing the Chicago River in 1892. After eight years of digging (and under cover of night due to mounting lawsuits from cities downstream), Chicago blew up the last dam on January 2, 1900.” 

St. Louisans Displeased. The mounting lawsuits included those from downstream residents on the Mississippi River, now on the receiving end of effluence from stockyards as well as other Chicago byproducts.

As noted by NPR in “Floods, Carp, And Crap: The Environmental Impacts of the Chicago River Reversal,” October 14, 2019, “The reversal of the Chicago River in 1900 has been celebrated as not only an inspired solution to a vexing problem, but an engineering marvel. But little did anyone understand at the time how long the effects might linger, how far they might ripple and how controversial they might prove to be.”

NPR recounted, “In 1900, Missouri filed a suit against the Sanitary District on behalf of St. Louis, arguing the reversal of the Chicago River would eventually pollute the Mississippi, where it sourced its own drinking water. It was the first pollution case tried in U.S. Supreme Court, but it was ultimately dismissed. For one, Missouri was unable to prove the pollution in the Mississippi came from Chicago. Missouri’s allegations rested ‘upon an inference of the unseen,’ wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. And the hypocrisy didn’t help: St. Louis was sending its own waste downstream.”

Carp Elated. NPR notes a new pathway for invasive species: “Among them is the Asian carp. The invasive fish first escaped containment ponds in Alabama in the early 1970s, and by the ’90s, they were eating and breeding their way up the Mississippi, outcompeting native filter-feeders like Bigmouth Buffalo and Gizzard Shad and disrupting ecosystems along the way. They’ve since been found just miles outside of Chicago.”

This silver carp evaded three electric barriers to reach the Illinois Waterway, about nine miles away from Lake Michigan. Image from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources via AP.

It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature, But…. Recent effort have mitigated matters in ways that should please Mother Nature. One in particular is the Wild Mile Chicago, what’s called “the first-ever mile-long floating eco-park in the world.” 

Image of Goose Island from

Block Club Chicago offers details: “The first phase of The Wild Mile can be found behind the Lincoln Park REI store, 905 W. Eastman St., on the Chicago River canal on the east side of Goose Island. It features a large floating platform and walkways, as well as floating gardens with native species and other wildlife.”

The Chicago skyline is seen from Wild Mile Chicago on July 7, 2022. Image by Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The first phase was finished in June 2022, with future phases covering a mile-long stretch from Halsted Street to North Avenue.

My familial connection? Daughter Beth and family live about 1 1/2 miles west of Goose Island. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023 

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