How Has Chicago Responded to Historic Epidemics?

How has the city of Chicago responded to previous epidemics in our history? The current Coronavirus pandemic has shuttered Chicago unlike any other event in living memory. History is happening now. As of today, all schools, restaurants, bars, and public gatherings have been shut down. These containment efforts are the latest chapter in a story that goes back to the very founding of Chicago. Urban environments, especially a vast metropolis like ours, have been hot spots for contagion throughout human history.

To help put the current efforts to “flatten the curve” into context, we ought to look back at previous tactics Chicago used to battle pandemics. Some rather distinctive physical features of Chicago’s cityscape are actually direct responses to disease and contagion.

We research stories from Chicago history, architecture and culture like this while developing our live virtual tours, in-person private tours, and custom content for corporate events. You can join us to experience Chicago’s stories in-person or online. We can also create custom tours and original content about this Chicago topic and countless others.

Raising the City

Chicago epidemic history raising streets
Manually raising the streets and buildings was a way to battle epidemics in Chicago’s history. Image via Wikimedia.

Public health crises have threatened Chicago across its history. Cholera ravaged the population as early as the founding of the village of Chicago in 1832. Though medical science wouldn’t be able to comprehend and treat the issue for decades, it was Chicago’s watery setting which exacted a dreadful toll on its citizens. Our city is built atop a marshland, with a small prairie river draining directly into Lake Michigan. A setting that is, in all honesty, the dead opposite of ideal for avoiding waterborne contagions like cholera. The city’s streets and waterways were notoriously noxious–filled with human, animal, and industrial waste.

The city made repeated efforts to rid itself of potential contagions. Some initial efforts, like street sweeping, were comically misguided. Yet others, along with medical advancements, have made Chicago a more sanitary city.

The city hired famed sewer engineer Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough to solve its wastewater problem. Yes, I swear, this dude really was famous for his sewage engineering! Chesbrough knew that digging into the waterlogged layers of hardpan and clay would be a ton of work and a giant mess. (These layers would also confound architectural engineers). So in the 1850s, he advised that the city rise up instead.

Subsequently, workers laid sewers at the existing street level. They then piled a new surface atop. Part of this process was also to elaborately jack buildings up to the new street level, sometimes as high as ten feet. This process was repeated in even-grander fashion with the famous Upper and Lower streets. These route trash, deliveries, and other potentially obstructive or unhealthy services away from the public. So, when you see our layer cake of a city rising up from the Chicago River, you can thank Chesbrough and Burnham.

Reversing the Flow of the Chicago River

chicago yacht charters river boat tour skyline chicago architectural boat tour
This boat tour cruises towards the mouth of the river is actually churning upstream due to how Chicago responded to epidemics throughout its history. Photo via Wikimedia.

Many boat tour guides may say that Chicago’s most dramatic effort to fight disease was the reversal of the Chicago River. Even with the streets raised, the river indeed remained a stinking sewer. Nauseatingly, the Union Stock Yards dumped its toxic waste into “Bubbly Creek,” which poured directly into the South Branch. Such dangerous waste flowed down the river and into Lake Michigan, the source of Chicago’s drinking water. According to legend, an 1885 storm flushed so much sewage into the lake that it caused an outbreak of cholera which killed 90,000 people. Happily, that story is just a legend. Rumor has it that the story was concocted to launch the TARP project in the 1970s. Regardless, sending wastewater into Lake Michigan was asking for an epidemic for much of Chicago’s early history.

When it was completed in 1900, the Sanitary and Ship Canal saved lives by reversing nature itself. The US Army Corps of Engineers built a damn and canal across the mouth of the river in downtown. They also cut a canal from the North Branch to Wilmette. Another canal connected the South Branch with the Des Plains River and the Calumet River. This vast engineering job sent all of Chicago’s water upstream, towards downstate Illinois and the Mississippi River basin. (The latter was much to the chagrin of St. Louis).

The removal of contagions from Chicago’s water supply removed much of the danger  of epidemic that had felled so many. When we do private boat tours, we like to remind people of what an incredible feat this was – not just for the time, but for all of history.

The 1918 Flu Pandemic in Chicago

The 1918 flu outbreak was among the worst disaster in Chicago’s history. The local response to the 1918 flu has direct parallels and lessons for the current Coronavirus pandemic. We delved into what happened in this piece.

Chicago Detours in the Time of Coronavirus

We tell this history because history is happening right now. The safety of our tour guests and staff is top priority on our tours. We have been employing the hygiene and social distancing precautions outlined by the CDC and the Chicago Department of Public Health. As the city has shuttered, so have we. We have cancelled tours until March 31, at least. This tour cancellation period may extend further.

Wishing you and yours health and safety.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide


Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tourscontent production, and virtual tours.


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

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