The Past and Future of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal

Civil Engineering embodies the making of grand things — like dams and bridges, highways and canals — that are the infrastructure of modern civilization. One such project in the United States is the Chicago Ship Canal, a 28-mile long construct, opened in the late 19th century to connect the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River, to reverse direction of the natural flow, open navigation from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River watershed all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, and provide additional health service by managing the sewage and waste water treatment and disposal of America’s “second city.” It remains an achievement; in 1999, the Canal was designated a Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium by the American Society of Civil Engineers and, in 2011, listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Construction and operation have been controversial since the beginning. When it became clear that the waste from the growing city, historically deposited into the river and then to Lake Michigan, demanded a dramatic response. The building process was tumultuous, with accidents, strikes, expansions, and the added demand for the ever increasing number of ships and barges transporting food from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi and vice versa. Today, operation of the canal is regulated among city and state authorities, adjacent Great Lakes states, and an international treaty with Canada.

Despite all this, the canal became and remains polluted with industrial chemicals and, because of an aversion to chlorine not fully disinfected human waste that has supported high incidence of human fecal coli form colonies that render the water unsuitable for human body contact.