Moving Mountains

Sep 10, 2021


What do you do after hoisting buildings and tunneling under water fails? You move a mountain. Find out why Chicago’s River flows backwards.

Recently, I had the fortune of co-leading a Team Optimization event in the Windy City. Perched above the buzz of downtown Chicago, I could see the characteristic teal blue of the Chicago River inviting me down to the Riverwalk. Before my meeting, I darted down to street level for (predictably) a no-foam soy latte and a side of oatmeal topped with crunchy walnuts and chewy raisins. The Riverwalk lines a man-made canal that --quietly, and without fanfare-- reversed the direction of water flow in January 1900.

[Reversing the Chicago River took] men, machinery, creativity, and pure chutzpah! ~ Tim Samuelson, Cultural Historian

At the time, the Chicago River was contaminated by the city’s –ahem- sewage, and it naturally drained into the Chicagoan’s source for drinking water, Lake Michigan. Fearing waterborne disease, the city enlisted engineer Ellis Chesbrough who suggested redirecting the water back over the St. Lawrence continental divide and, ultimately, to the Mississippi River!1, 2 The canal was dredged and completed 13 years later, much to the chagrin of residents of St. Louis, who now artificially lived downstream Chi Town and its wastewater.

What reminders does this feat of engineering provide leaders?

  1. Don’t Give Up: Chesbrough’s idea to reverse the flow of the Chicago River was actually his third option. His first failed solution required buildings to be elevated by up to 10 feet by manpowered jacks to accommodate a ground-level sewer system. His second failed solution tunneled fresh water under the lakebed into the city from 2 miles away.3 On what crazy idea are you currently working? What is possible if it works?
  2. Ask for Forgiveness: Expecting an injunction from Missouri, canal diggers worked quickly to remove the last of the frozen clay. At dawn, January 2nd, the river was reversed. Though St. Louis filed suit, it was (obviously) denied. Even the U.S. Supreme Court believed Lake Michigan’s water refreshed the Mississippi River.4 Which bold idea needs more consideration? For what do you need a pardon?

To this day, the Chicago River slowly winds from east to west, past St. Louis, and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. … And to this day, the calcium carbonate in Lake Michigan gives the river its recognizable turquoise blue color.5 As I returned to the hotel conference room, I reveled in seizing the day and making the most of my morning. Then I realized I was separated from my destination by bridges-- draw bridges! I scurried across one of many bridges crossing the Chicago River to avoid getting trapped on the wrong side. My latte, once slowly savored, was now splashing through the lid. If you’ve got a bold idea that needs your courage and commitment, don’t give up. If you’ve made a decision that affected others downstream, seek a pardon. We know that with a bit of tenacity, you can move mountains.

Sources: 1, 3, 4 PBS: Modern Marvels | Reversal of the Chicago River (5m 17s); 2 The Center for Land Use Interpretation: Divided We Stand (map); 5 NASA: Whiting in Lake Michigan.

by Michelle Sugerman • Leading Synergies, LLC • © All Rights Reserved

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