I promised you a story about the opening of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The truth is, not everyone was in favor of the canal. St. Louis filed a lawsuit in 1899 to prevent the opening, fearing it would do little more than dilute Chicago’s pollution, move the contamination further “downstream” and poison the waters all the way to New Orleans. A battle ensued at the end of 1899: Missouri was preparing a case for a federal court to issue injunctions to stop the canal, and the Sanitary District was racing to complete the job before that could happen.
On New Year’s Day, 1900, the Sanitary District trustees declared the canal ready to open. That night, with no ceremony or official notice, a dredge began to work its way through a small barrier at 31st Street and Kedzie Avenue in Chicago, a thin strip that separated the Chicago River from the canal, and water began to trickle its way into the new canal. It worked its way to the dam by January 17. Once begun, the damage was done, and no injunction could now stop the flow.
Later that spring, Admiral Dewey, the great hero of the Spanish-American War at Manila Bay, paid a visit to Chicago. He was tremendously popular at the time, and was being considered to run for President. Seeing an opportunity to correct the negative feelings that had been generated about the canal, he was invited to perform an inspection tour to demonstrate to the world the great accomplishment.
Construction workers along the canal were once again involved in bitter work disputes, but suspended strikes planned for the day, and built a platform for boarding. Accompanied by Mayor Harrison of Chicago, Admiral Dewey and a host of 200 dignitaries boarded the cutter “Hilda” on May 2, 1900, for a trip down the canal to the Bear Trap Dam at Lockport.
Each town they passed along the way attempted to outdo the rest with ceremony, crowds of people, children waving flags and singing patriotic songs from the canal banks, and much cheering and setting off of cannon volleys. An elaborate luncheon was held on board, with an abundance of food and drinks for all—not a wise choice, as things turned out.
In order to ensure adequate flow, the chief engineer had ordered extra water in the canal, and as the boat neared Lockport, it began to rain heavily. The increased water level was creating an undertow, a hazardous situation as the cutter moved toward the dam.
Seeing this, Dewey suggested Harrison warn the captain to stay well clear of the controlling works at the dam. High on the excitement of the day and the honor of carrying the Admiral down the canal, undoubtedly affected by the drinking of a good deal of spirits, the captain blustered that this was his boat, he knew what he was doing and did not require any interference.
When Harrison returned to the deck, Dewey could not at first be found. Returning to the bridge, Harrison found Dewey alone at the helm. The captain was being held in a stateroom, ranting about mutiny and cursing Dewey. Dewey reassured Mayor Harrison that he was successfully getting the boat clear of the dam, but noted that he had felt in greater danger than he ever was in Manila.
Meanwhile, the rain stopped, the people, unaware of what was occurring, cheered their hero, and the trip back to Chicago was made not on the canal but by train.
This story is taken from anecdotes available at the Lemont Area Historical Society. Today the power house is operated remotely by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, and the dam is not accessible to the public. However, during the City of Lockport’s upcoming Old Canal Days celebration, free tours of the lock will be given on a first come, first served basis on June 20 and 21, beginning at 10:15 am and hourly thereafter. Boarding passes will be issued and buses will depart from Heritage Village, at 2nd and State in Lockport.