I would call it the most important two feet of clay in the entire world. Without those two feet a great city never would have existed, Teddy Roosevelt would very likely have remained a one term president, and the American Century would have never happened.The two feet had to be clay because clay is impervious to water, which is ironic since clay is created by soaking limestone in the black acidic waters of a quiet lake, one probably surrounded by a forest, such as today’s Wisconsin Dells (above). If the clay had been less than two feet high, the clay would not have mattered. If it was much more then two feet high then Lois Jolliet would have returned from exploring the Mississippi by a different route and the Mississippi would have been a different river. Fourteen inches of clinging, grasping clay is what made the American nation what she would become. And the lake that produced that clay was Lake Chicago, predecessor to today’s Lake Michigan.In 1818 fur trader Gurdon Hubbard, working for Roosevelt’s American Fur Company, made his first trip following the south fork of the ‘Shikaakwa’ (or slunk weed) River from the village of “Chicago” on Lake Michigan, until the stream gave out. From there they “portaged” seven miles.“Our empty boats were pulled up the channel, and in many places, where there was no water and a hard clay bottom, they were placed on short rollers, and in this way moved along until the Mud Lake was reached, where we found mud thick and deep, but only at rare intervals was there water….” Fighting off swarms of leeches and clouds of mosquitoes, it took Hubbard three days to reach the clear flowing water of the Des Plaines River, three days to cover seven miles. But the Des Plaines ran into the Illinois River which carried him and his bateau’s 12 tons of trade goods into the very hinterland of America.Three times over the last 300,000 years glaciers have ground across North America, successively scrapping the landscape bare and then recreating it on their retreat. When the last of the Wisconsin glaciers paused 20,000 years ago, they left behind a trash heap of sand and clay called the “Valparaiso Terminal Moraine”.Behind that ridge, when the retreat resumed, a melt water lake formed, Lake Chicago. The moraine blocked the drainage from this lake into the Mississippi River system to west and south, so the waters sought a new path to the Atlantic, heading east for the Saint Laurence River, giving birth 12,000 years ago to Niagara Falls. The dream of breaching that moraine was first achieved by the 96 mile long Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848. It drained the Mud Lake and provided locks to lift narrow canal boats and their 100 ton loads 35 feet up to join the Des Plaines River at Joliet. From there a series of locks provided an easy journey so Michigan apples could be sold in St. Louis and New Orleans. The canal created Chicago as a transportation hub.But that did not stop Chicago from aggressively pursuing the railroads in the 1850’s. Because of this aggression, the city grew. By 1867, the 300,000 citizens of Chicago had so fouled their Lake Michigan shoreline that to reach clean drinking water required a tunnel to be dug two miles out under the lake. The success of these big government projects, the water tunnel, the canal and the railroad infrastructure, encouraged the long held dream of breaching the moraine in a more grand fashion and converting Chicago from a mere lake port into a seaport. The plan also pitched the idea of reversing the flow of the Chicago River, so that it could be used to carry Chicago’s waste water away from the lake, which was the source of the cities’ drinking water. On Saturday, September 3, 1892, Frank Wenter, President of the new Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago, turned the first ceremonial shovel of earth in the village of Lemont, Illinois, which was to be the central point of the Sanitary and Ship Canal.The new canal, built in the name of progress and “clean water”, would excavate 44 million cubic yards of clay and stone to create a canal 28 miles long, 202 feet wide and 24 feet deep, which would terminate, for the time being, in a dam in the hopefully named Lockport, Illinois. It would take eight years to finish the work and the final cost would prove to be $45 million.The New York World newspaper examined the social changes this ‘progress’ brought to the sleepy village of Lemont(below). Out of the town's 9,000 residents “…4,000 are gamblers, thieves, murderers or disorderly women. There are 100 saloons, 40 gambling houses, 20 dance houses and three theaters…Everything is running wide open and licensed. Mayor McCarthy says the money is used in street improvements. Within three months 30 dead bodies have been found…and no one has been punished…Every Sunday excursions of the worst classes go to Lemont from Chicago.”Businessmen in Missouri were not slow to awaken to the threat the new canal posed to their wallets, should locks later be installed to allow ocean going ships to follow the canal all the way to the Mississippi. St. Louis had lost the race to become the rail center of the nation even before they realized there was a competition. They did not want the Mississippi to become a secondary trade route as well. So as the Chicago Sanitary Canal approached completion St.Louis businessmen began to raise concerns about Chicago sewage fouling the drinking water of towns along the Mississippi. In response, in 1899, the Metropolitan Sanitary District launched a study which claimed that the Illinois River had cleared itself of Chicago’s sewage before it reached Peoria, where the Illinois joined the Mississippi. Besides, the study alleged, St. Louis drew most of their drinking water from the Missouri River. Still, on Wednesday, January 17, 1900, the state of Missouri formally asked the United States Supreme Court to grant an injunction to stop the canal from being filled and opening. So on Sunday, January 21, the directors of the Sanitary District tried to quietly and quickly make it a fait accompli. The Chicago Tribune explained why that did not prove a simple thing to achieve.“…B.A. Eckhart was the first to reach the narrow watershed at Kedzie Avenue and Thirty-filth Street. He jumped out of his carriage, dragging with him a set of new shovels for the trustees…."I had an awful time getting these shovels at this time of day."…a dredge was already hard at work throwing up the clay from the cut…. Less than eight feet (of ice and frozen clay) separated the waters of the lakes from the waters of the Mississippi…It was exceedingly slow work, for the clay was like a rock…Four large charges of dynamite were placed in the ridge…A few fugitive pieces of clay did fly into the air. But as a grand opening it was a failure…."Then the ambitious trustees, armed with their shovels, descended into the cut and began to push away the pieces of clay and ice which held back the lakes…With the regularity of a pendulum the arm of the dredge swung back and forth….The ice from the river rolled in and blocked the channel…"Push the ice gorge away with the arm." shouted the foreman…The arm dropped behind the ice gorge and then with resistless motion swept the whole of it into the Mississippi Valley. ".... It is open! It is open!" went up from scores of throats as the water at last (flowed) after two hours of constant endeavor…Like school boys on a vacation, the drainage officials waved their arms and shouted.”It was done. On May 2, 1900 Admiral George Dewey, hero of the battle of Manila, dedicated the official opening. But it would not be until 1907 that a lock would be built (above) to control the 36 foot drop from the canal level at Lemont to the Des Plaines River, and complete the dream of ocean going ships reaching the Mississippi via Chicago.Soon after the canal opened the construction techniques, such as the locks used to raise and lower ships over the Valparaiso Moraine, would be used by many of the same engineers in the construction of the Panama Canal (above). It was that endeavor, championed by Teddy Roosevelt, which ushered in the American Century. The lesson here is that no human endeavor, be it the creation of the Sanitary and Ship Canal, or manned space flight, is ever truly a wasted effort, even if the future profit is not immediately apparent.And the Chicago canal proved something else as well. As recorded by William C. Alden in the 1902 “Chicago Folio” for the U.S. Geological Survey Atlas of the United States (volume #81), excavations for the canal and its locks unearthed the story of the entire continent. Beneath the clay and beneath limestone is the bedrock of Chicago; “Potsdam Sandstones”. That sequence explained the history of the place. Chicago sits upon beach sands, the bottom of shallow sea. We know it was shallow because above the sandy bottoms corals grew, and left their lime rich skeletons hundreds of feet thick atop the sandstones. And then the sea had been replaced with a freshwater lake, surrounded by forests, whose leaves fell into the waters, turning the waters acidic, and converting the top layer of the limestone to clay.And then the glaciers had come, and scrapped across the clay, piling it up in a terminal moraine, which prevented the waters of the lake from finding their way to the sea via the Mississippi river, until humans arrived and stood upon their two feet of clay and thought, "I can do this. I shall do this".
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