It was called the “seventh engineering wonder of the world,” a herculean effort to reverse the flow of the Chicago River.
Typhoid fever, cholera and other waterborne diseases were running rampant in Chicago in the late 19th century, and for good reason: The river was being used as a dumping ground for blood and guts from stockyards and tanneries, and for mountains of human waste. That toxic stew was pouring directly into Lake Michigan, the city's source of water.
Turning the river's current in the opposite direction could wash the sewage and other detritus away from the city, via the Illinois River into the Mississippi River, and Chicago could continue its explosive growth as a modern metropolis.
That story has been told in history books and classroom lectures, but now it's coming to life in a novel way: a jazz symphony composed by Chicagoan Orbert Davis and inspired by the revelatory photo book “The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond” (CityFiles Press). In effect, Chicago history will be told here not by academics but by writers and musicians.
Co-authors Richard Cahan and Michael Williams spent years unearthing 21,834 forgotten photographs documenting in luminous black and white the reversal of the river — and its triumphant and disastrous effects on the world around it. Their 2011 book in turn has led trumpeter Davis to tell the tale in “The Chicago River,” a major opus he and his Chicago Jazz Philharmonic will perform in its world premiere Friday evening at Symphony Center, with historic photos projected on a screen.
Neither the coffee-table book nor the symphony would have happened, however, if the precious photos hadn't been discovered more than a decade ago in the basement of the James C. Kirie Water Reclamation Plant in Des Plaines. The stench of decaying film negatives attracted workers' attention and drew them to an even more precious find: 130 boxes of glass-plate negatives spanning 1894 to 1928, with written records accompanying them.
Williams began digging into the images in 2000 and spent the next several years, with Cahan, studying them. Not until they had been through everything, however, could Williams deduce that several of the plates needed to be viewed alongside one another, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, to show panoramic views the photographers had shot. That meant Williams and Cahan had to pore over everything anew to fit the pieces together, then travel along the banks of the Chicago, Des Plaines and Illinois rivers to identify the exact locations.
The result, with highlights in the “Lost Panoramas” book, documents as never before the process of reversing the river and illuminates a critical era in Chicago's history.
“You've heard stories about the reversal of the river, but nobody saw the actual pictures, the evidence,” says Williams. “Nobody had seen pictures of sewer pipes coming out of a tannery, where smoke is coming from it too. Or the stockyards, where it's just feet and feet of muck and refuse.”
Adds Cahan: “People read about Chicago in ‘The Jungle,' by Upton Sinclair, but there's never been pictures of the edge of the stockyards. Then there's this contrast to the beauty of downstate Illinois. There's this amazing connection — people in St. Louis hate us not only because of the Cubs, but because we've been dropping our refuse on them for the last century.”
Indeed, the effects of reversing the course of the river were as negative outside Chicago as they were beneficial here. By digging the Chicago Drainage Canal — known in the 1890s simply as the Big Ditch — the city reversed the river's flow and sent away a torrent of waste. The venture nearly doubled the size of the Illinois River, submerged land masses, deluged nearby waterways and killed vegetation.
“From 1903 to 1921,” the authors write, “half the river's wildlife habitat was eliminated.” The photographs, in fact, were taken partly to be used as evidence in lawsuits, which proliferated once the canal opened and the waters reversed in 1900.
That's the story composer Davis has sought to tell in “The Chicago River,” in five movements.
“I didn't consult them,” says Davis, referring to the authors, “just the book. The old adage — a picture is worth a thousand words — is true. But not only words — sounds. I can hear the music by looking at the pictures.”
Not everyone, however, would hear jazz when studying these vivid images of a rougher, more rambunctious Chicago of more than a century ago. Jazz, however, stands as the ideal music for this time and place, because the turn of the previous century marked the explosive beginnings of jazz in Chicago. Jelly Roll Morton, the first jazz composer, came here from New Orleans as early as 1910, followed by Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong and a generation of New Orleans artists, making Chicago not only the next jazz capital but the exporter of the music to the rest of the world.
“Jazz was brewing in Chicago in the early 1900s, and the sounds that these very people in these pictures were probably hearing were jazz,” Davis says.
The Mississippi River on the western border of Illinois, of course, played a key role in the development of jazz, with New Orleans musicians working the riverboats that traveled north from the Crescent City and spread the music to riverside towns like St. Louis and Davenport, Iowa, (home of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke). Which is a key part of the narrative that Symphony Center hopes to explore with its ongoing series “Rivers: Nature. Power. Culture.”
“In planning, I kept saying we had to do something on the Chicago River — I grew up hearing from my father about this amazing engineering feat of the reversal,” says Jim Fahey, director of programming for Symphony Center Presents, which commissioned Davis' symphony.
“Over the past couple of years, I've been wanting to bring the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic to the (jazz) series. … I mentioned the river idea, and (Davis) responded interestedly. The kicker was when this book came out — I thought that would be a great thing to bring to Orbert and ask him to work from.”
How well Davis' “The Chicago River” addresses its subject remains to be heard. At the very least, Davis will have added to the ever-growing repertoire of his Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, and he will have explored a key moment in our history.
“This is the Chicago story,” says Cahan. “If not for this, we all wouldn't be here.”
How fitting that the tale will be told in a music bound up with the meaning of Chicago: jazz.
Orbert Davis' “The Chicago River,” and other works, will be performed by Davis and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic at 8 p.m. Friday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $23-$54 at 312-294-3000 or cso.org
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