Urbs in Aqua: Richard Lanyon Gives Talk for Living History Series

Richard Lanyon

By John Fitzgerald, RP/WRHS Volunteer

The latest lecture in our Living History series focused on “draining the swamp” that was Chicago. Because the low-lying north side of Chicago barely rose above the level of Lake Michigan, it had to be dried to be made livable. The story of draining the area was the subject of the lecture held Monday evening November 6 at the Budlong Woods Library. The hour-long lecture, accompanied by a fascinating collection of old photos on slides, was delivered by Richard Lanyon. With 48 years of experience, including his time as Executive Director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, Mr. Lanyon is uniquely qualified to relate the history of the agency.

An attentive audience of three dozen local residents frequently interrupted his narrative with pertinent questions. When unable to fully answer a query within time constraints, Lanyon referred the audience to several books he has written on the subject. The most recent work, Draining Chicago, focuses on the northern Cook County area over the last 160 years. The earlier one, Building the Canal to Save Chicago, deals primarily with the reversal of the Chicago River.

Here is a summary of Lanyon’s talk:
To insure plentiful access to fresh water, most urban centers have been built alongside rivers or other bodies of water. Water is used and reused and then, when no longer fresh, disposed of. The north side of Chicago has historically had an abundance of fresh water, sometimes an over-abundance, but relatively poor drainage. Water drained into rivers and, ultimately, the lake. Thus, the lake served as the primary source of fresh water as well as the depository of storm and sewage water. As development and population increased, however, this watershed and “sewershed” combination proved increasingly subject to flooding and contamination.

To ensure that the lake remained pristine, sewage and storm runoff were diverted. Primitive ditches were improved or replaced with wooden sewers and redirected to larger rivers and streams. The North Branch of the Chicago River and its tributaries were straightened and deepened. Becoming less sluggish these waterways were better able to move drainage downstream and were less prone to flooding. In an engineering feat after the Civil War, the entire central city was raised about 6 to10 feet to allow for the construction of new sewers to use gravity to drain the city. And another new north side sewer was built close to the lakeshore, paralleling its path and catching drainage which had previously flowed into the lake itself. In the 1890s the Chicago River was reversed to flow south towards the Illinois River rather than east into the lake as nature had intended. With the reversal and deepening of the river, the entire watershed could largely be directed to drain away from the lake.

Still there was a need for access to the lake to the north so that water could be used to flush the drainage system. To this end, the North Shore Channel was constructed in the early 1900s with its opening at Wilmette Harbor. A pumping station there could lift lake water into the channel and help push it downhill toward the new major sewer treatment station at Howard and McCormick Boulevard in Skokie. McCormick Boulevard itself had been constructed over a 4 ½-mile-long new sewer. At the Howard/McCormick facility water from sewers and storms and the lake could be combined in huge tanks and treated by aeration and chemicals and other means. Later named the O’Brien Plant, it became the northernmost sewershed for the entire Cook County. In recent years, with increasing demands for an even more complete cleansing and disinfection process at the plant facility, ultraviolet rays have been used on waste water to reach the highest mandated standards of water purity.

But there were still occasions when the three major Cook County treatment plants could not handle the volume of water. When severe rainstorms combined with sewage, the excess would either be stored in pits or discharged raw into the lake. This limited flooding in the city but caused pollution in the lake. As the source of metropolitan drinking water, pollution could not be tolerated. Health and good policy along with the 1972 Federal Clean Water Act forbade it. Consequently, the MWSD embarked on a massive, decades-long, multi-billion-dollar construction project known as “Deep Tunnel” designed to, once and for all, prevent the discharge of pollution into the lake. Miners dug and tunneled 200 to 300 feet below the surface to the limestone base which underlies Chicago. Open pits and abandoned quarries were linked to the tunnels to serve as temporary repositories of storm water runoff. In addition, enormous multi-billion-gallon surface holding pools were excavated to create even more storage. As a result, the need for storm water mixed with wastewater to be discharged into the lake has become largely a thing of the past. Henceforth, flooding will be contained in MWRD reservoirs until the water can be treated and released into the re-engineered watershed and sent southwest to the Lockport station and on to the Mississippi River.