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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, December 3

Gapers Block

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You've seen them from the lakefront, while at the beach or traveling along the lakefront bike path. The cribs out on Lake Michigan are mysterious structures, pods hunched in the water just a mile or two from the shore, but these water intake cribs are the first stop on the water's journey from the lake to your kitchen or bathroom faucet.

Early settlers in Chicago obtained their drinking water from the Chicago River, but, as the river quickly became polluted, they turned to the lake for their water supply. Having no infrastructure yet in place, the early Chicagoans simply carried water home in buckets or had water delivered by private vendors.

However, the lack of an adequate sewer system at the time led to increased and unchecked pollution of the area's water supplies. In the second half of the 19th century, the rapidly growing city was repeatedly plagued by outbreaks of cholera, typhoid fever, and dysentery as a result of the poor drainage and poor water quality.

Chicago's first water tunnel and intake crib was completed in 1867. The tunnel was two miles long, lined with brick, and built 60 feet below the lake. The first crib was constructed from wood and connected to the still-standing Chicago Avenue Pumping Station located on North Michigan Avenue, famous for being one of the few buildings to survive the Chicago Fire in 1871. This achievement marked the beginning of our current water filtration system.

Today Chicago has four active water intake cribs. They are the Wilson Avenue crib, the Four Mile Crib, the William E. Dever Crib and the 68th Street crib. The Dever crib is the most recent, completed in 1935 and named for a former Chicago mayor. According to the book Hands on Chicago, a boat travels to each crib every week containing a four man crew to monitor the crib. However, the book was published in 1993, and I do not know if that is still the current practice.

The tunnels leading from the current cribs were built nearly 200 feet beneath the lake and vary in diameter from 10 to 20 feet. Lake water enters the cribs and flows through the tunnels to pumps at purification plants located near the shore of the lake where the water is then treated. From the purification plants, the water flows through more tunnels to the pumping stations, then from the pumping stations through the city water mains, and finally to your faucet. Pretty cool, huh?

Fun Fact: The Stickney Water Reclamation Plant at 6001 West Pershing Road in Stickney, IL is the "largest wastewater treatment facility in the world." The plant services more than 2 million people from Chicago and over 40 suburbs and can process up to 1.2 billion gallons of water a day.


Chicago Public Library. Down the Drain: Chicago's Sewers: The Historic Development of an Urban Infrastructure
This seems to be one of our favorite digital collections on Gapers Block. I last mentioned it as a resource for my column on the city's vaulted sidewalks and it has recently been mentioned in Merge so, for the love of God, read it!

Heise, Kenan and Mark Frazel. Hands on Chicago. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1993.

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
This agency was founded in 1889 as the Sanitary District of Chicago, charged with protecting the water quality of Lake Michigan. The website may not be pretty, but it contains an astonishing amount of information.

Chicago Authors: First Lines

WILLIAM KUNSTLER: What is your name?
WITNESS: Richard Joseph Daley.
WILLIAM KUNSTLER: What is your occupation?
WITNESS: I am the mayor of the city of Chicago.

The workday begins early. Sometime after seven o'clock a black limousine glides out of the police station on the corner, moves less than a block, and stops in front of a weathered pink bungalow at 3536 South Lowe Avenue. Policeman Alphonsus Gilhooly, walking in front of the house, nods to the detective at the wheel of the limousine.
--Mike Royko, from Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago.

Mike Royko was born in Chicago in 1932. He began his long writing career as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News in 1956. Royko was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in the area of commentary for his columns in 1972. When the Daily News folded in 1978, Royko went to work for the Chicago Sun-Times. However, he is best known for the column he wrote for the Chicago Tribune which ran from 1984 until his death in 1997. Royko's unauthorized biography of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, Boss, was published in 1971.

Have a topic you would like to see in "Ask the Librarian?" Send your suggestions to librarian&ly;at>gapersblockcom and it may be featured in a future column.

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brian / June 3, 2004 10:02 AM

The interesting thing is, sewage treatment was a huge problem for almost all large cities, not just Chicago. But Chicago's struggle against swamp and water seems coupled with some of the largest engineering marvels in the world, from the reversal of the river to the "Big Dig".

Pete / June 3, 2004 11:42 AM

"Chicago: We Can't Win a World Series, But We Sure Know How To Dig a Ditch!"

Alice / June 3, 2004 2:01 PM

Hey, we aren't the City of Big Shoulders for nothing. This is a town that works!

"Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;"
--Carl Sandburg, "Chicago"


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