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How Has Chicago Responded to Historic Epidemics?

By Alex Bean on March 17, 2020


How has the city of Chicago responded to previous epidemics in our history? The current Coronavirus pandemic has shuttered Chicago unlike any other event in living memory. History is happening now. As of today, all schools, restaurants, bars, and public gatherings have been shut down. These containment efforts are the latest chapter in a story that goes back to the very founding of Chicago. Urban environments, especially a vast metropolis like ours, have been hot spots for contagion throughout human history.

We as a tour company have also ceased operations. We launched virtual talks and tours during the shelter in place edict. See the full list, including “Historic Happy Hour for Curious People.”

To help put the current efforts to “flatten the curve” into context, we ought to look back at previous tactics Chicago used to battle pandemics. Some rather distinctive physical features of Chicago’s cityscape are actually direct responses to disease and contagion.

Raising the City

Chicago epidemic history raising streets
Manually raising the streets and buildings was a way to battle epidemics in Chicago’s history. Image via Wikimedia.

Public health crises have threatened Chicago across its history. Cholera ravaged the population as early as the founding of the village of Chicago in 1832. Though medical science wouldn’t be able to comprehend and treat the issue for decades, it was Chicago’s watery setting which exacted a dreadful toll on its citizens. Our city is built atop a marshland, with a small prairie river draining directly into Lake Michigan. A setting that is, in all honesty, the dead opposite of ideal for avoiding waterborne contagions like cholera. The city’s streets and waterways were notoriously noxious–filled with human, animal, and industrial waste.

The city made repeated efforts to rid itself of potential contagions. Some initial efforts, like street sweeping, were comically misguided. Yet others, along with medical advancements, have made Chicago a more sanitary city.

The city hired famed sewer engineer Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough to solve its wastewater problem. Yes, I swear, this dude really was famous for his sewage engineering! Chesbrough knew that digging into the waterlogged layers of hardpan and clay would be a ton of work and a giant mess. (These layers would also confound architectural engineers). So in the 1850s, he advised that the city rise up instead.

Subsequently, workers laid sewers at the existing street level. They then piled a new surface atop. Part of this process was also to elaborately jack buildings up to the new street level, sometimes as high as ten feet. This process was repeated in even-grander fashion with the famous Upper and Lower streets. These route trash, deliveries, and other potentially obstructive or unhealthy services away from the public. So, when you see our layer cake of a city rising up from the Chicago River, you can thank Chesbrough and Burnham.

Reversing the Flow of the Chicago River

chicago yacht charters river boat tour skyline chicago architectural boat tour
This boat tour cruises towards the mouth of the river is actually churning upstream due to how Chicago responded to epidemics throughout its history. Photo via Wikimedia.

Many boat tour guides may say that Chicago’s most dramatic effort to fight disease was the reversal of the Chicago River. Even with the streets raised, the river indeed remained a stinking sewer. Nauseatingly, the Union Stock Yards dumped its toxic waste into “Bubbly Creek,” which poured directly into the South Branch. Such dangerous waste flowed down the river and into Lake Michigan, the source of Chicago’s drinking water. According to legend, an 1885 storm flushed so much sewage into the lake that it caused an outbreak of cholera which killed 90,000 people. Happily, that story is just a legend. Rumor has it that the story was concocted to launch the TARP project in the 1970s. Regardless, sending wastewater into Lake Michigan was asking for an epidemic for much of Chicago’s early history.

When it was completed in 1900, the Sanitary and Ship Canal saved lives by reversing nature itself. The US Army Corps of Engineers built a damn and canal across the mouth of the river in downtown. They also cut a canal from the North Branch to Wilmette. Another canal connected the South Branch with the Des Plains River and the Calumet River. This vast engineering job sent all of Chicago’s water upstream, towards downstate Illinois and the Mississippi River basin. (The latter was much to the chagrin of St. Louis).

The removal of contagions from Chicago’s water supply removed much of the dangerĀ  of epidemic that had felled so many. When we do private boat tours, we like to remind people of what an incredible feat this was – not just for the time, but for all of history.

Fighting Polio in Chicago

polio epidemic legs in bracesIn the early 20th century, polio epidemics were a constant and looming threat in Chicago. This terrifying disease paralyzed or killed thousands of children and young adults each year. In 1952, the Chicago Tribune reported 700 cases of polio in the city. They then declared an epidemic. The newspaper recommended to their readers how to avoid spreading the epidemic, advice which might sound familiar to us all right now:

“Keep the hands clean, especially before eating. … Avoid exposure, and stay out of crowds during an epidemic.”

The creation of the polio vaccine in the 1950s put a halt to that epidemic in Chicago history.

The 1918 Flu Pandemic in Chicago

The 1918 flu outbreak was among the worst disaster in Chicago’s history. The local response to the 1918 flu has direct parallels and lessons for the current Coronavirus pandemic. We delved into what happened in this piece.

Chicago Detours in the Time of Coronavirus

We tell this history because history is happening right now. The safety of our tour guests and staff is top priority on our tours. We have been employing the hygiene and social distancing precautions outlined by the CDC and the Chicago Department of Public Health. As the city has shuttered, so have we. We have cancelled tours until March 31, at least. This tour cancellation period may extend further.

Wishing you and yours health and safety.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide

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