Revenge of the Chicago River

April 15, 1992

Chicago is no accident. Two mighty river systems, the St. Lawrence and Mississippi, nearly touched. It was an easy canoe portage from the little Chicago River (leading to Lake Michigan and the St. Lawrence) to the Des Plaines River (flowing to the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico). Whoever held this spot controlled the heartland of North America: First the French, then the Mayors Daley.

Like a statue with feet of clay or a palace built on sand, the American city stands on muck, landfill, crumbling masonry, disintegrating concrete, rusted iron, leaking mains, cracking conduit, ancient tunnels, relics of abandoned technology. Urban society must renew the infrastructure, or the infrastructure will do in urban society.

Chicago's first man-made disaster was the great fire of 1871. They blamed it on a cow. Don't believe it. No cow built too many wooden houses too close. Chicago rebuilt until the second disaster: sewage oozing out in Lake Michigan to the water intake cribs. In a great feat of civic engineering, taking eight years to completion in 1900, the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers were connected in the 28-mile Chicago drainage canal, and the Chicago River started flowing upstream instead of down.

This sent the sewage down the Mississippi and so cleaned up Lake Michigan that you can swim at Chicago's magnificent beaches today. The project carried barges from the Great Lakes New Orleans. But it lowered the water level of the Great Lakes while improving navigation of the Mississippi, and before war broke out between the two riverine economies, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the U.S. secretary of war to regulate the flow.

Wonders never cease. Only four years after the drainage canal, 40 miles of tunnels for electric railways carrying coal and freight made feasible the world's first great skyscraper district. Fed by this invisible source impervious to traffic jams, office buildings soared like medieval cathedrals within the Loop of the elevated transit railroad.

But time and technology move on. The elevated is rickety compared to a subway. Shipping and industry vanished from the Chicago River, a despised nuisance to traffic. Abandoned tunnels were turned into conduits for electrical systems. Yet Chicago only grew taller and marched northward.

That was the state of affairs when a section of embankment of the Chicago River fell into a disused freight tunnel, Monday, and sent water into the basements of the Loop, closing the subway, knocking out transformers, evacuating all 110 floors of the world's tallest office building, paralyzing transit, closing markets, darkening the streets, silencing the phones, shutting down commerce.

Chicagoans are seeking federal disaster aid and planning to sink a shaft from the tunnels to the deeper sewers, to dry out the basements. Two hundred buildings remained closed, but Chicago will come back. Mayor Richard M. Daley, son of Richard J., fired the acting transportation commissioner for negligence. That beats blaming a cow.

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