“That stream which has smelled to heaven” — Illinois State Quarter Coin

Today, the Illinois State Quarter Coin remembers when the efforts of man forced the Chicago River to change its course on January 2, 1900.

The Chicago River had, for many years, dumped the city’s sewage into Lake Michigan.

As the city continued to grow, the sewage grew as well and began to contaminate the area of Lake Michigan where the city pulled its potable water.

The Chicago Drainage Canal project re-routed the Chicago River such that the sewage would be sent down the Mississippi instead of into Lake Michigan.

The Engineering News and American Railway Journal of January 11, 1900 provided details of the newly opened canal:


Opening of the Chicago Drainage Canal.

After many delays the water has been at last let into the Chicago Drainage Canal, and a definite step has thus been made in the long continued controversy between the Drainage Board and the special commission appointed by Governor Tanner to see if the work done complies with the requirements of the law.

The two sides to this controversy were presented at considerable length in our issue of Dec. 7, 1899.

During the last week of the year, a large dredge was at work completing the “collateral channel,” described in the above article, which channel is parallel with Kedzie Ave., and runs from the South Branch of the Chicago River towards the canal.

A timber sluiceway with gates was fitted in the canal end of this channel, with a timber flume from the sluice gates to the canal, the end of the flume being turned eastward, or up-stream, so as to prevent the rush of water from washing the opposite bank of the canal.

A ridge of earth was left unexcavated between the channel and the sluiceway, and it was understood that this would not be cut through or the gates opened until the official permission had been granted by the Special Commission.

On the morning of Jan. 2, however, the trustees of the Drainage Board, with the Chief Engineer, Mr. Isham Randolph, met at this place, and the dredge was put at work.

A few minutes after 11 a. m. the ridge was cut through, the gates were removed, and the water of the river was admitted to the canal.

There was no ceremony, but the step was taken quietly and with some secrecy, in order to prevent the work from being stopped by an injunction.

The flow of water is only about side of the basin, are provided to control the flow 50,000 cu. ft. per minute, at which rate it will take from 8 to 10 days to fill the canal to the level of the sill of the locks at Lockport.

The canal is 28 miles long, from the Chicago River (at Robey St.) to the controlling works at Lockport. The distance from Lake Michigan to Robey St. is 6 miles, and below Lockport is the tail-race, 6,500 ft. long, which carries the water to the Des Plaines River.

The total distance from the mouth of the river to Joliet is about 40 miles.

The bottom width of the canal is 160 ft. in rock and 202 ft. in earth, although the earth excavation has been taken out to a width of only 110 ft. for the greater part, this being sufficient for the present flow of 300,000 cu. ft. of water per minute.

The depth is about 36 ft., with a minimum depth of water of 22 ft.

The canal extends from the Chicago River at Robey St., to Lockport, where it terminates in a broad basin for vessels to turn.

Sluice gates and a bear-trap dam, at one side of the basin, are provided to control the flow of water from the canal into a tail race leading to the Desplaines River, the flow being then along the valleys of the Desplaines and Illinois River to the Mississippi.

The main object of the canal is to reverse the flow of water in the Chicago River, which receives practically all the city’s sewage, and thus prevent the sewage from polluting Lake Michigan, from which the city draws its water supply.

It is also planned to make this part of a great waterway for large vessels extending from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi.

The cost to date has been about $33,000,000. The bill for the canal was passed by the Illinois Legislature on May 29, 1889, and accepted by vote of the people Nov. 5, 1889.

The actual work of construction was commenced Sept. 3, 1892. The work has been in charge of the following chief engineers: Lyman E. Cooley, Feb. 1, 1890, to Dec. 10, 1890. Wm. E. Worthen, Dec. 17, 1890, to April 21, 1891. Samuel G. Artingstall, May 9, 1891, to Jan. 16, 1892. Benezette Williams, Jan. 16, 1892, to June 7, 1893. Isham Randolph, June 7, 1893, to date.

In this connection we give below the remarks made by Mr. Randolph at the annual banquet of the Western Society of Engineers, Jan. 2, which (as already noted) was the date on which water was turned into the canal:

“The little barrier of earth which kept back the flow of Lake Michigan from that great ditch which we have dug was broken about 10 o’clock this morning (Jan. 2, 1900), and now the waters are running through the sluiceway from which the channel is to be filled.

“The sills of the gate at Lockport are 15 ft. above Chicago datum. The closed gates will hold the water up to the level of Lake Michigan, even though that level should reach 5 ft. above datum.

“This channel must be filled full to the brim before the work can be completed.

“At Campbell Ave. there is a dam across the channel made by dumping earth to protect the bridge work which has been in progress there for some time past; and that bridge work, for its magnitude and speed of completion, challenges comparison in the way of rapid substructure construction.

“It will take about eight days to fill the channel. After that the barriers which I mention will be removed and the full flow of 300,000 cu. ft. of water per minute can be passed through this channel toward the Mississippi.

“Chicago has done all this, and with this magnificent achievement added to the many which she has wrought before, what we now hope for is that this great government of ours will take hold where Chicago has left off and complete her enterprise, and that her ships and boats shall pass from Chicago to the Gulf and beyond through this channel, which we hope will be within the near future.

“The story of the canal has been told too often for me to dwell upon it here, but I cannot drop the theme without speaking of those who have gone before, and those who have held up my hands in this mighty work.

“Those who preceded me planned wisely and well. There has been but little that I could change or better, and in the mighty work I have had the strong hands and fertile minds of many faithful helpmates.

“Without this loyalty I could have accomplished nothing, and I wish to make a record of it here. Within a very few days I hope you will mark a noted change in the condition of the Chicago River.

“That stream which has smelled to heaven for so many years is about to be cleansed and pure waters flow where vile streams have festered for so long.”


The Illinois State Quarter Coin shows with an image of the construction of the Chicago Drainage Canal.

Illinois State Quarter Coin