Reversing a River: How Chicago Flushed its Human Waste Downstream

February 17 marks an odious anniversary. On this date in 1906, the US Supreme Court ruled that the state of Illinois could complete an ambitious and controversial public works project: Chicago’s Sanitary and Ship Canal. The case – Missouri v. Illinois– illustrated the shortcomings of government-initiated “reforms” that ignored the history of Indigenous ecological practices and the environmental realities of local waterways.

Public officials and engineers in the Windy City began planning what was popularly known as the Chicago Drainage Canal in the late 1880s. Chicagoans used nearby Lake Michigan as both the source of their drinking water and the sewer for the discharge of human waste. After a series of cholera and typhoid outbreaks led to the deaths of thousands of Chicagoans, city and state officials began touting the Drainage Canal as the solution to the city’s public health problems. The solution to the public health crisis, according to state and city officials, was to reverse the flow of the Chicago River.

It was a modern solution to an age-old problem. Chicago wasn’t the first city to do battle with its own waste. Ancient civilizations from the Persians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks and Romans all struggled with this issue. By the nineteenth century, officials in growing European and North American cities continued to search for a solution to the mountains of excreta that fouled urban streets and polluted rivers. Most famously, London’s “Great Stink” during the summer of 1858 saw the River Thames choked with human waste and the city’s air filled with wretched odors. 

Chicago faced a similar crisis as its Anglo-American population exploded. In 1833, the Odaawaa, Ojibwe, and Bodéwadmi signed the second Treaty of Chicago, transferring the lands and waterways that stretched from Lake Michigan to Lake Winnebago. Anglo-American settlers swarmed into the region. And then the city emerged as a major center of the American manufacturing, meatpacking, and shipping. From a settler population of 4,470 in 1840, Chicago became the second largest city in the United States by 1900 with a population of a little under 1.7 million.

Chicago’s rapid growth placed enormous strain on the region’s natural resources. For over a millennia Native people had cared for the land and waterways of the Great Lakes in a system that preserved both the people and the waters. Spiritual traditions and scientific knowledge taught Indigenous people not to foul the waters one drank from, or to pollute with human excreta the rivers in which community members bathed. Instead, Native people constructed refuse pits and latrines to ensure the purity of Lake Michigan’s waters. 

Anglo-Americans did things differently. They viewed rivers as open-air sewers, something that revolted the Native people, who had long viewed Euro-Americans as a pretty disgusting lot. When white Americans began settling around Lake Michigan, they continued to display what Native peoples considered poor personal hygiene and to engage in practices that polluted local rivers. They also faced a number of geographical and topographical challenges to changing their waste management. Most obviously, the city was built on thick clayey soil, a monotonously flat topography, and uncooperative river currents. As Chicago’s population grew, local rivers and streams filled with human feces, while lakes abounded with the rotting carcasses of dead animals. Devastating cholera, typhoid, and diarrhea outbreaks were the result. 

To solve the problem, officials and engineers turned to the idea of “self-purification.” This term refers to the natural process of rivers cleansing impurities from their ecosystems. As a rule, rivers with a dissolved oxygen level below 5mg/L tend to decline in health, and species die. At the end of the nineteenth century, Edwin Oakes Jordan, a University of Chicago scientists and advocate of the Drainage Canal, insisted that self-purification would help Chicago solve its waste problem and improve public health. In a series of studies, Jordan asserted that no significant levels of pollution were detected in water redirecting downstream.

So the engineers and officials agreed to fix Chicago’s waste problem with a progressive engineering feat. A 28-mile canal, or “conduit,” would connect the Chicago River with the Des Plaines River. Instead of the Chicago River emptying into Lake Michigan, pumping stations would funnel water from Lake Michigan through the canal, thereby flushing Chicago’s waste down river and toward the Des Plaines and Mississippi Rivers. To the engineers and scientists who promoted this plan, the success of the Drainage Canal rested on the idea of Progressive Era science giving riverine “self-purification” a helping hand.

The residents of St. Louis weren’t buying it. Scores of people living in downriver communities scoffed at the idea that a manmade canal could enhance the process of self-purification. Newspaper editors also ridiculed the idea. The Topeka State Journal lambasted engineers in January 1900, arguing that the proposal to reverse the flow of the Chicago River constituted an experiment “contrary to the laws of nature and contrary to the laws of gravity.” In July 1901, the Chicago Eagle added a broadly-held concern, insisting that redirecting the Chicago River would contaminate both the Des Plaines and Mississippi Rivers – which provided the drinking water for thousands of Americans.

Spurred by the distress of the state’s residents, Missouri officials sued the state of Illinois. Three cases captured national attention in the early twentieth century as Missouri and Illinois duked it out in the Supreme Court. The most consequential of these cases, Missouri v. Illinois, led to a trial that lasted from 1901 to 1906. The trial gave American scientists unprecedented visibility and sparked new donor interest in their research. But once the court heard all the expert testimony, Justice Holmes, speaking for the majority, sided with Illinois and the tide of Progressive Era reform. Missouri wanted to halt construction of the canal, and Holmes prefaced his rejection of that request by saying: “it is a question of the first magnitude whether the destiny of the great rivers is to be the sewers of the cities along their banks or to be protected against everything which threatens their purity. To decide the whole matter at one blow by an irrevocable fiat would be at least premature.”

Unwilling to act by “fiat,” Holmes left the health of American rivers for another generation to solve. The court’s decision allowed Illinois to complete the Drainage Canal and reverse the flow of the Chicago River. It was a spectacular feat of modern engineering… and it turned out that downriver residents were right: the Drainage Canal was too narrow, and the volume of human waste too large, to enable the Des Plaines and Mississippi Rivers to self-purify. 

Human waste continued to pollute America’s inland rivers. In our current era of climate crisis, barely a day passes without local news outlets reporting on failed sewage systems or malfunctioning oil and gas pipelines polluting our rivers. The Indigenous elders were right: humans needed to work with the land and its waterways, not against it. 


Reversing a River: How Chicago Flushed its Human Waste Downstream