Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The 1849 Calamity on the Chicago River.

A year after the Illinois and Michigan Canal joined the Chicago River to the Illinois River in 1848, an event occurred that must have caused some questioning of the wisdom of that engineering feat.
The 1849 Chicago River Flood - A Daguerreotype Photograph.
It had been a snowy winter, followed by a rapid thaw and three days of rain. The interior of Illinois was waterlogged, and the rivers and streams ran over their banks. On March 12, 1849, at about 10:00 o'clock in the morning, a massive ice dam on the south branch of the Chicago River breaks free with devastating results.

There were at least ninety vessels of various sizes on the river, and most were torn from their moorings and hurled them against bridges and decimated many of the wharves too.
As the mass of ice, water, and entangled ships were swept along, a small boy was crushed to death at the Randolph Street bridge. A little girl meets her death as a ship's mast falls into a group of onlookers, a number of men are reported lost upon canal boats which have been sunk.

Late in the afternoon a man was spotted waving a handkerchief from a canal boat a few miles offshore, but there were no undamaged boats to send to his rescue. Forty vessels were completely wrecked and dozens were carried into the lake as debris. The lock at Bridgeport[1] was totally destroyed, the Madison, Randolph and Wells Street bridges were swept away, resulting in no bridges left spanning the Chicago river.

The loss by the flood is thus estimated:
  • Damage to the city $15,000
  • To vessels $58,000
  • To canal boats $30,000
  • Wharves $5,000
Totaling a whopping $108,000 ($3,161,713 in 2017) in damages. The figures given are lower than what the actual loss really was. 

The city went to work with a will to repair the great damage. In the meantime the river was crossed by a number of ferries. Besides the boat at Randolph Street, a canal boat lay across the river, upon which people were allowed to cross on payment of one cent each. The ferry at the Lake House at the corner of Kinzie Street, Rush Street, and Michigan Street, the safest and the most pleasant on the river, was free. A schooner was used at Clark Street; fare, one cent. Mr. Scranton’s old ferry was running at State Street the fare was the same as the others were charging. 

Other temporary appliances were brought into use to bridge over the inconveniences of the next few months. These ferries were generally overcrowded with passengers who, in their eagerness to cross the Chicago river, sometimes rushed aboard, recklessly, and it is a wonder that fatal results did not follow.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.


[1] The first bridge built in Bridgeport was a small (unknown type) bridge over the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago river, which may have been for the crossing of a road that had come before Archer Road was built. When the canal opened in 1848, the first bridge over the canal (at the lock) was washed away by the Flood of 1849 but was rebuilt. The street leading to the lock site bridge was called Post street, eventually, which connected to Lisle Street (also known as Reuben Street) -- later renamed Ashland Avenue.