Reversing the River: Prologue

More citizens are falling ill from unsafe drinking water, and the negligence of Chicago’s industry is to blame. When the city’s Sanitary District unveils a solution, they elect renowned bachelor, Charles Randolph Price, as a trustee. Having grown weary of luxury and rumors of his incompetence, such an undertaking is exactly what Charlie needs. After all, how difficult could it be to reverse the river’s flow?

Chicago, Illinois

the late 1890s

For too long, the city of Chicago had suffered from unsafe drinking water, which sickened and killed those unable to buy water from a safer source than the lake. (Bottled spring water from Wisconsin was a preference among civic leaders.) The magnificent churn of factories and all of Chicago’s industry freely dumped their effluent into the river, and this waste drifted directly into Lake Michigan — the source of the city’s drinking water. The problem vexed the city’s leaders for years, with countless ideas proposed, attempted, discarded, abandoned, failed.

Now, here was an elegant solution: reverse the flow of the river by constructing the Sanitary and Ship Canal. Simple!

The logic of the task was astounding, as was its scope. Because flowing water seeks its lowest point, dig a canal to draw the flow away from the lake, instead of toward it. In short, redirect the river. Simple! No more pollutants coursing into Lake Michigan, and then into the kitchens of fine Chicago citizens. Let the filth travel downriver to St. Louis instead…surely the waters of the Des Plaines, the Kankakee, the Illinois, and the Mississippi rivers would disperse and cleanse this polluted water. Thus the “sanitary” part of the name; as for the “ship,” the new waterway would attract more factories, pleased to gain access to new shipping lanes and this alternative for moving freight to keep the railroads from bleeding the market.

All they had to do was dig, which they had been doing since the project officially started on September 3, 1892. On “Shovel Day,” one of the trustees overseeing the project boldly proclaimed the venture, “a mighty channel which will rank with the most stupendous works of modern times.” So it began, and so it continued: Dig and blast, and dig, and blast and dig — scooping and carving through clay and bedrock — the engineers producing new machines and unheard of techniques to conquer each and every problem encountered — nothing had licked them yet.

Mr. Charles Randolph Price was not an original trustee for the Sanitary District of Chicago, the group of men overseeing the construction of the canal; rather he was elected to fill a space that opened as the project continued, a tremendous honor for any man, but especially for Charlie Price, whose family had sought vindication that his place with the city fathers was secure.

The Prices were prominent, having arrived in Chicago in 1831, with Charlie’s paternal grandfather instrumental in bringing about the Illinois & Michigan Canal. However, Charlie had been perceived as a dilettante, taking a longer grand tour of Europe than was customary for a young man, even allowing that his mother had come from the East. About Charlie, there were whispers of a most unkind sort. Eventually, he harnessed the confused gyrations of his mind, settling into suitable pursuits, including some land arrangements that offered financial benefit to several Chicago men sorting through the aftermath of the Panic. Given that Charlie’s father had been a key consultant on Daniel Burnham’s water purification system at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, it was fitting to endorse his only son in this public way. The apple couldn’t fall too far from the tree, the other trustees imagined.

Charlie was an attractive man, with sleek black hair and an intent gaze. Sartorially, he was rather splendid, though no one would accuse him of being a dandy as there was an affect of carelessness to his attire that was hard to pin down, as if his waistcoat being of finer fabric and better cut than other’s was due course; as if French percale shirts mysteriously appeared upon his broad chest with no effort of selection on his part. He was charming, always one for a clever joke, and rarely boastful. These factors, combined with his elevation in stature, launched him to the forefront of the city’s most eligible bachelors — which bored him, young ladies and their fluttery eyelashes.

What did not bore, him, however, was an intimate connection with the massive engineering project to reverse the flow of the Chicago River. The grandeur of the undertaking captured Charlie’s imagination as nothing had, not the frescoes in Italy nor the fine champagne in France. If man truly could conquer this river and bend it to his own needs — for the greater good of the city, of course — then, surely, anything could be accomplished…if one set one’s mind to it. Transform east-west into west-east? Reverse the very nature of a thing? Simple.