A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
In 2011, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum hosted an exhibit of historic photographs from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Those photos and many more showing the waterways of Illinois are now part of a big photo book The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Lands Beyond by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams.
Why did the Sanitary District of Chicago (predecessor of the MWRDGC) take thousands of pictures along the Chicago, Des Plaines, and Illinois rivers between 1894 and 1928? The District anticipated lawsuits from property owners along the rivers affected by the digging of the Chicago Sanitary Canal to reverse the flow of the Chicago River, which sent all of the sewage and industrial waste away from Lake Michigan and the city into the center of the state, and it believed it could prove dilution rendered the wastes inoffensive and of no harm to the people downstream. Of course, this proved wrong in the long run, but District lawyers won many cases with the photos.
The legacy left by the photographers has transcended the narrow intent of the District Board and politicians to defend Chicago’s cause. As shown in the recent book, their photographs captured a rich and fertile downstate landscape with small towns, farms, and woodlands. In the city, however, they showed terrible industrial abuse of the river from the uncontrolled flow of wastes from factories and the south side stockyards. Readers interested in the city’s history will want to check The Lost Panoramas out. – Review by Rick