Lemont Waterways: The Sanitary Canal

Picture of men in crane basket during construction of the Canal in Lemont, 1895. Photo courtesy the Lemont Area Historical Society.
Picture of men in crane basket during construction of the Canal in Lemont, 1895. Photo courtesy the Lemont Area Historical Society.

This is my favorite canal—okay, I know—that’s strange, to have a favorite canal. But what a canal!

The ambition was huge. Nothing like this had ever been done. The Sanitary District of Chicago was going to move the Des Plaines River into a new bed, and use the old riverbed to excavate a new canal, with a system of locks to reverse the flow of the Chicago River. It became known locally as “The Chicago School of Earth Moving”.

And the canal was huge. It ran 28 miles from Chicago to Lockport, averaging 150 feet wide and 22 feet deep. It took 8500 men and an assortment of newly-designed machines to remove 29 million cubic yards of soil and 12 million cubic yards of rock. In comparison, the Suez Canal is 82 feet wide and is excavated in sand, not stone. The machines and techniques developed to construct the Sanitary Canal were used to train people who constructed the Panama Canal some years later.

The equipment, newly designed just for this project, was remarkable: a grading machine pulled by 16 horses, fifty steam shovels, and a dredge 23 feet wide and 50 feet long, for instance. The picture above shows the capacity of a large crane basket, in this case filled with tourists rather than stone. I thought the dog was a nice touch. Construction was occurring at the same time as Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the country, indeed the world, was in the midst of an age of technology; the automobile had been invented but was not yet in general use.

Canal construction was such an event that the Chicago and Alton Railroad ran excursions of the construction sites, urging sight-seers to visit the sites for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to view the outstanding geological and mechanical features, describing it as “…the most stupendous and miraculous example of canal construction and channeling which the world has ever known….” People on the tour were encouraged to get off at any of six train stops, walk around the sites and machinery, and bargain for fossils, which were plentiful in the exposed stone walls.

Construction began in 1892, the Lemont section was finished about 1896, and the canal opened on January 2, 1900 (more about that in a future post). The terminus is Bear Trap Dam, now the Lockport Dam, which regulates the flow of the canal into the Des Plaines River. It is the only shipping link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

It is of note that the depth of the Lockport Dam is the same as that of the Niagara River, which connects to the Great Lakes, as does the canal. One might wonder what would happen if the dam were to fail. It has been said that Niagara Falls would run dry and Central Illinois would become a lake. I’m not going to comment about the truth of that supposition.

About Pat Camalliere

Pat is a writer of historical mysteries. She lives in Lemont, Illinois.
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