Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Calamity Destroyed all the Bridges over 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 broke free with devastating results.

There were at least ninety vessels of various sizes on the river, and most were torn from their moorings, hurled them against bridges, and decimated many of the wharves.
As the mass of ice, water, and entangled ships was 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 that have been sunk.
From the History of Chicago, by Alfred Theodore Andreas:
"It was then that some bold fellows, armed with axes, sprang upon the vessels thus jammed together, and in danger of destruction. "Among the foremost and most fearless were: R. C. Bristol, of the forwarding house of Bristol & Porter; Alvin Calhoun, a builder, brother to John Calhoun, founder of the Chicago Democrat newspaper, and father of Mrs. Joseph K. C. Forrest; Cyrus P. Bradley, subsequently Sheriff and Chief of Police, and Darius Knights, still an employee of the city. These gentlemen, at the risk of their lives, succeeded in detaching the vessels at the eastern end of the gorge, one by one, from the wreck, until finally some ten or twelve large ships, relieved from their dangerous positions, floated out into the lake, their preservers proudly standing on their decks and returning, with salutes, the cheers of the crowd onshore. Once in the lake, the vessels were secured, in some cases by dropping the anchors, and in others by being brought up at the piers by the aid of hawsers (a thick rope or cable for mooring or towing a ship."
Late in the afternoon, a man was spotted waving a handkerchief from a canal boat a few miles offshore, but no undamaged boats were sent 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 spanning the Chicago River.

The loss by the flood was estimated at:

  • Damage to the city $15,000
  • To vessels $58,000
  • To canal boats $30,000
  • Wharves $5,000
Totaling a whopping $108,000 ($3,295,000 today) 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 several ferries. Besides the boat at Randolph Street, a canal boat lay across the river, upon which people were allowed to cross on payment of 1¢ each. The ferry at the Lake House Hotel fronting Pine, Kinzie, and Rush Streets, the safest and the most pleasant on the river, was free. The schooner at Clark Street charged a 1¢ fare. 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 Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] The first bridge built in Bridgeport was a small bridge (unknown type) 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) -- and later renamed Ashland Avenue.


  1. It makes one wonder what measures are in place to prevent it from happening again!

    1. The hydrology of the Chicago River basin has changed such that it is almost impossible for a flood like this one to occur again.

  2. Yet another bit of our history that I was unaware of. Thanks for the info!

  3. What an amazing story! My family came to Chicago only a few years later. This helps me understand the world they were living in.


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