In October 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed much of the bustling city of Chicago. But, surprisingly, the flames actually started on the other side of the Chicago River. So how did the fire cross over the river and reach Chicago?
The river-jumping fire is partially explained by the high winds that spread the fire to wooden ships moored in the river. But there was also another even more important factor in the spread of the fire. In those days, the Chicago River was a shallow, sluggish sewer for the entire city. The Union Stock Yards in Chicago dumped all their animal waste into the river. People called it “The Stinking River” or “Bubbly Creek.” It was so bad that the waste was actually combustible.
All of this putrefaction flowed into Lake Michigan, where there were drinking-water intakes for the city. Waterborne diseases broke out. Every year through the 1880s and 1890s, at least 10,000 people died from cholera and typhoid fever. In 1885, fourteen years after the Great Chicago Fire, nearly 100,000 people died from illnesses carried by the river’s putrid waters.
Finally, city engineers took action. First, they started digging 28 miles of canal. They moved more earth and rocks than were moved building the Panama Canal. They set in locks and gates. Then, on January 2, 1900, a worker opened a sluice gate at Lake Michigan, and the entire Great Lakes flowed into the Chicago River, pushing it a direction it had never flowed. They reversed the flow of the Chicago River. It now flowed the opposite way—into the canal, into the Des Plaines River, into the Illinois River, and into the Mississippi.
This brought a huge flow of fresh water. Instead of shallow, sluggish, diseased water, making the community sick, the river now brought the city life. Some writers argue that Chicago would not even be around today, had the flow of the Chicago River not been reversed. The American Society of Civil Engineers named it one of the engineering projects of the millennium.[i]
This is what Jesus does. The deep channel of His grace reverses the flow of our souls. Everything that causes death is washed away. Our souls are cleansed.
Thank God for His grace – and daily decide to live in this clean grace instead of the toxic waste of sin.
[i] Kevin Miller, Wheaton, Illinois; sources: “The Reversal of the Chicago River in 1900“; “January 2, 1900: Reversing the Chicago River” by John R. Schmidt; “The Reversal of the Chicago River,” American Public Works Association