Even before she started her research, Libby Hill knew exactly how she was going to begin her book on the Chicago River: with the great plague that followed the flood of August 2, 1885. It was a familiar piece of river history, and it played out in spectacular panorama in her mind’s eye. That Sunday, five and a half inches of rain fell on the city in 18 hours. The Illinois and Michigan Canal, which was supposed to carry sewage and surface water away from Lake Michigan, proved sorely inadequate for this kind of load–in spite of the costly “deep cut” that had enlarged it a few years earlier. A number of historical accounts, including a 1979 essay reprinted in 1998 by the Chicago Historical Society, reported that “not only did the sewers prove totally inadequate but the Des Plaines River overflowed into the canal, the canal overflowed into the Chicago River, and vast amounts of filth were carried into Lake Michigan and the city’s water supply….The subsequent outbreak of cholera, typhoid, and other waterborne diseases was estimated to have killed 12% of Chicago’s population–one person out of every eight!”

Images of this immense disaster flooded Hill’s mind: the scene, she thought, would not have been unlike the one during the years of the Black Death in 14th-century Europe–corpses piled in the streets, terror rampant, rich and poor alike stricken and lost. It would make a smashing opening. But when she went to original sources seeking firsthand descriptions, she came up dry. “I went to the Northwestern University library looking for every gory detail,” she says. “I wanted these grisly stories. But the papers reported that a northeast wind came and the water went into the sewers and out to the I and M Canal. They said, ‘The city sewers are clean, the rain washed them out, the water never reached the [drinking water] crib.'” City statistics showed no significant rise in the number of deaths from typhoid or other waterborne diseases in 1885, and there were no reported deaths from cholera. “The illnesses [that were reported] were occurring all the time and didn’t have anything to do with the flood. I said, this is not the story of the river.”

The sinking of this urban legend was one of the biggest surprises Hill encountered in the six years she spent working on The Chicago River, which was published this month. A former librarian (22 years at Evanston’s Roycemore School) with a yen for science, Hill went back to school to get a master’s degree in geography and the environment. She had just finished in 1994 when she attended a public meeting held by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, learned there was no complete written history of the river, and determined she would produce one, mostly because “I wanted to learn about it myself.” Finding the subject more complex than she anticipated, she solicited chapters from experts, thinking she would edit them into a book. When the chapters came in either too disparate or overlapping, it was agreed she would use them as source material and write the book herself. The result is an impressively thorough, unexpectedly engaging account of the lazy stream that is Chicago’s original raison d’etre and of its relationship with the city: how the river was first valued as a natural passage between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, then turned into a despised open sewer, carrying the waste of the burgeoning town and its stockyards, and finally, in a major feat of engineering, fully reversed in its course.

Hill teaches a class at Northeastern Illinois University and conducts workshops for the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. The Chicago River, which could have warranted a lavish package, was published by the local Lake Claremont Press as a modest paperback. It is available at local bookstores or through the publisher (773-583-7800). –Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.