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“Chicago: The Hydraulic City and its Environmental Impact.” A paper delivered at the 15th Annual Illinois History Symposium of the Illinois State Historical Society, December 2, 1994.

Chicago: The Hydraulic City and Its Environmental Impact

John M. Lamb

First of all, what is a hydraulic city? It is one that is created with a close connection to waterways. It is created in the sense that its water connections are not natural but have to be made. It is a city that uses water for transportation on inland rivers and canals as well as on larger bodies of water, in this case, the Great Lakes. It draws its water for drinking and sewerage from the same sources that it uses for transportation. It also designs its waterways for hydraulic power. Also, the hydraulic city is very conscious of military defenses, which by extension it sees as related to its water transportation, so it has a hydraulic concept of military defense.

As to the environment, I do not mean environmental depredations, but rather the need for extensive changes via engineering to create harbors, inland transportation routes, sanitation and drinking needs, as well as hydraulic power. As a result, rivers are reversed, canals dug, harbors created, and a variety of other engineering projects are involved in the creation of the hydraulic city. All of the projects are intimately related; they create an indissoluble infrastructure. In the case of Chicago, it meant creating a river harbor and an inland transportation canal, the Illinois and Michigan Canal. It also meant creating a huge canal for sewage disposal, the Sanitary and Ship Canal, and a system of tunnels and intake cribs to obtain fresh water.

The site of Chicago should be examined to see the problems that must be solved to create the hydraulic city. It was situated on low-lying land drained by a sluggish river, the Chicago. A slight rise in the upper reaches of this river to the south separates it from the Des Plaines, which flowed south and west until it joined the Kankakee River to form the Illinois River, which flows into the Mississippi. The value of this site was reported by the first European to visit it, Louis Jolliet, in 1673. He noted that “The place at which we entered the lake [Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Chicago River] is a harbor, very convenient for receiving vessels and sheltering them from the wind.” He also noted:

“The fourth remark concerns a very great and important advantage which will hardly be believed. It is that we could go with ease to Florida in a bark by very easy navigation. It would be necessary to make a canal, by cutting through but half a league of prairie, to pass from the foot of Lake Michigan to the Des Plaines.” 1

Jolliet was followed by a more aggressive explorer and a more powerful one, namely, Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle. His observations on the future site of Chicago in 1682 were much more realistic than Jolliet’s.

“At the mouth of the Chicago River there is a sand bar that not even a canoe can pass over, at least when the lake is calm. The prairies by the lake over which travel is necessary are flooded by the great volume of water flowing down from the hills whenever it rains. It is very difficult to make and maintain a canal that does not immediately fill up with sand and gravel. The ground water is near the surface and there are some sand dunes between the lake and the river, and although a canal would be possible with a great deal of expense, it would be useless because the Des Plaines is not navigable for

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