Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal Named to National Register of Historic Places

Proximity to the Great Lakes and Mississippi River system aided Chicago in becoming one of the largest and most productive metropolitan centers in the world.  While much of that location could be called “natural,” humans manipulated the waterways extensively to not only harness them for economic gain, but also develop sanitary systems to keep the growing population healthy.

Perhaps the most famous of these manipulations was the engineering of the Chicago River.  Originally flowing into Lake Michigan, engineers reversed the flow of the river and extensively rerouted it.  Earlier this month, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (created in that process) was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The newly defined historic district wends through portions of Cook, DuPage and Will counties and includes dams, locks, control stations and spillways, according to David Blanchette, spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

“It was a trend-setting construction project,” Blanchette said. “But it was also a very forward-thinking project that combined ship access and sanitation.”[….]

Completed in the first decade of the 1900s, the canal was the largest public works project ever undertaken at the time and various equipment and techniques used in its construction were later used in other large projects, such as the Panama Canal, according to the agency.

But it was not without controversy. Waste that had previously gone into Lake Michigan instead flowed down the Des Plaines, Illinois and Mississippi rivers past other towns and cities. By digging a 28-mile canal between the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers, engineers also breached the natural barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, creating an avenue for invasive species to move between different watersheds.

In recent years, a group of Great Lakes states has been trying to have Chicago-area shipping locks closed to stop Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan. A report last month by a coalition of Great Lakes states and cities also explored strategies for installing permanent barriers in the Chicago waterway system that would re-reverse the flow of the Chicago River.

The Sanitary and Ship Canal is an important part of the past and present of Chicago’s ecosystem, and Roosevelt University’s Sustainability Studies program discusses it in seminars including SUST 210 The Sustainable Future, SUST 220 Water, and SUST 240 Waste.  For more information on these or any other of our courses, please visit our Sustainability Studies website, call 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or email

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