The week they killed the Illinois River…

Saw in the news the other day that Donald Trump, the real estate mogul who says he’s convinced he’s got what it takes to be President, said one of the government agencies he’d kill off as soon as possible is the Environmental Protection Agency.

Now Trump is not an entirely stupid person since he’s not been able, sometimes despite his best efforts, to squander the fortune left to him by his father and grandfather. But he does seem to be monumentally ignorant about everything other than how to bully opponents into doing whatever he thinks needs doing at the moment.

I’m sure Trump has absolutely no idea and even less interest in why the EPA was originally established, or the remarkably good things it does to make sure we don’t kill ourselves in the name of corporate profits.

After all, it’s not difficult to uncover stories recounting government bureaucracies run amuck, especially in the some of the areas regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and under the Endangered Species Act.

But before we get too enthusiastic about eliminating environmental and wildlife protection regulations because they might slow to the ability of corporate American to make an instant mega-buck or two, it might be useful to recall what the nation was like in the days before air and water quality were subjects for government regulation—and presumably what Trump and his ilk would like to see become the status quo once again.

It wasn’t all that long ago that rivers and creeks were considered to be little more than open sewers placed on the Earth as convenient dumping grounds for every human waste product from garbage and sewage to hazardous chemicals.

Starting from the era of settlement in the early 1830s, it took the pioneers and their descendants less than a century to kill the Fox River. And by the 1950s, the river was little more than a cesspool with a current. Changed as it was into a lethal mixture of heavy metals, chemical poisons such as cyanide, and raw sewage by the cities and industries along its course, the river was a daily reminder of how greed and ignorance can destroy a valuable natural asset.

While it took less than a century to kill the Fox, it took less than a week to kill the Des Plaines and upper Illinois rivers all the way from Chicago to Morris.

Sanitary and Ship Canal under construction. Photo by F.E. Compton Co., published 1914.

Sanitary and Ship Canal under construction in June 1899. Photo by F.E. Compton Co., published 1914.

By the late 1800s, Chicago was in trouble. Its rapidly growing population was daily creating about 500 million gallons of raw sewage, and the technology of the times simply wasn’t capable of dealing with it. It was impossible to continue dumping it into Lake Michigan because the city pumped its drinking water from the lake.

The only river in the city, the Chicago River, emptied into the lake, which was another problem. The slaughterhouses at the sprawling Union Stockyards had for years dumped the offal from butchering operations directly into the Chicago River, turning the stream septic by depriving the water of all oxygen. That poison, along with the raw human sewage of tens of thousands of residents and everything else dumped into the city’s sewers that flowed into the lake created a dangerous public health situation.

So the city’s engineers came up with what they figured was an ideal solution. The flow of the Chicago River and the ship canal that linked the lake with the Illinois River system via the Des Plaines would be reversed. Instead of the river flowing into the lake, the lake would flow into the river, creating a giant flushing mechanism designed to move the city’s sewage downstream to the less populated areas of the state. The sewage would be gone downstream, out of sight and out of mind. After all, who cared what happened to those living downstream?

Now the idea wasn’t completely new. Back when the Illinois & Michigan Canal was being contemplated, one of the ideas was to dig through the height of land separating Lake Michigan from the Des Plaines valley, and use lake water to keep the canal full. That, however, proved impossible given the engineering restrictions of the 1830s. In an early attempt to get sewage out of the lake in 1871, the old I&M Canal was deepened enough to introduce lake water into the canal system, but the scheme only lasted a year before the whole canal silted up and the reversal of flow halted.

But by the 1890s, such a project was not only conceivable, but eminently doable. And when the project was completed in January 1900, the locks at the old mouth of the Chicago River on the lakefront were opened on Jan. 17, lake water permanently rushed south for the first time.

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal looks tranquil in this 1904 photograph taken at Willow Springs, but the waterway was carrying a dangerous load of poisons and other pollutants that virtually eliminated all fish and other aquatic residents of the upper Illinois River.

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal looks tranquil in this 1904 photograph taken at Willow Springs, but the waterway was carrying a dangerous load of poisons and other pollutants that virtually eliminated all fish and other aquatic residents of the upper Illinois River.

In the 1911 edition of the Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, famed fisheries biologist Stephen A. Forbes, the first head of the Illinois Natural History Survey, wrote a gripping description of what happened to the river during and immediately after the locks opened.

Not that you should get the idea the Des Plaines River was a pristine stream in 1900, of course. Forbes noted that the river’s flow was “sluggish” during the low water that summer as it carried “undiluted, the sewage of a number of large suburbs” of Chicago. The sewage carried by the Des Plaines “had consequently time to reach an advanced stage of decomposition and to develop immense numbers of septic organisms before it reached the mouth of the [sanitary and ship] canal,” Forbes wrote.

At the mouth of the canal, on the day the locks opened, the Des Plaines and its noisome cargo met the “comparatively fresh” sewage from Chicago. Forbes knew the Chicago sewage was “fresh” because of its “still recognizable ingredients, such as lumps of tallow, chunks of human excrement, pieces of toilet paper, watermelon and muskmelon seeds, broken grains of corn and wheat and finely chopped straw–all coming down practically unaltered through the whole length of the canal.”

The flood of sewage continued south in the Des Plaines until it met the Kankakee River where the two streams formed the Illinois River. Further downstream at Morris on July 15, Forbes wrote, the river “was grayish and sloppy, with foul, privy odors distinguishable….Putrescent masses of soft, grayish or blackish, slimy matter, loosely held together by threads of fungi and densely covered with bell animalcules, were floating down the stream….The gases from the bottom sediments of the stream were obtained for analysis and were found to be identical with those from septic tanks….There were, of course, no fishes here, or any other animals requiring oxygen.”

By the time the raw sewage stream arrived at Peoria, at least some of the raw sewage either precipitated out or had oxidized, removing what little oxygen that remained in the water. Fish in the Illinois were driven up the Fox and other tributaries as they sought oxygenated water. And the upper stretches of the Des Plaines and Illinois were dead. That’s they way things stayed for years.

As this photo posted on the Illinois Wisconsin Fishing Blog testifies, the Fox River has rebounded from its former badly polluted state. The river now boasts growing populations of smallmouth bass, walleye, norther pike and other gamefish.

As this photo posted on Blake’s great Illinois Wisconsin Fishing Blog testifies, the Fox River has rebounded from its former badly polluted state. The river now boasts growing populations of smallmouth bass, walleye, norther pike and other gamefish.

With the emphasis on clean air and water and the passage of national laws regulating both, things slowly began turning around. It’s taken some 40 years, but today, the Illinois-Des Plaines system is popular with boaters and fishermen. The Fox, which was also badly polluted until passage of the first Clean Water Act, has bounced back as well.

It is more than likely little of any of that progress would have been made without the efforts begun first at the federal level and then in the states as appreciation of how badly we’d treated the land, air and water we depend on for life itself.

It’s true that bureaucrats often overstep their bounds—is a mud puddle in an old gravel pit really a “wetland” that deserves federal protection? But before we get too enthusiastic about throwing out government regulations, it might be a good idea to recall those “putrescent masses of soft, grayish or blackish, slimy matter,” Dr. Forbes saw floating down the Illinois River in those good old pre-regulation days. I could be wrong, but I’m not sure even Donald Trump would be in favor of going back over that ground.

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Filed under Environment, Fox River, Local History, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

2 responses to “The week they killed the Illinois River…

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