Prior to 1900, the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan carrying with it a feted cargo of sewage from the growing metropolis of the same name. Lake Michigan also served as the Chicago’s source of drinking water. The movers and shakers in the city decided the best way to solve their sewage/fresh water problem was to dig a twenty five foot deep, one hundred yard wide canal connecting the headwaters of the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River. About the time the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was completed, the State of Missouri appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to block the opening of the canal that would ultimately change the direction of flow in the Chicago River and flush Chicago’s sewage to the Des Plaines River, then into the Mississippi River, and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. Before they Supreme Court could hear the case, the civic leaders of the Windy City slipped out of town on the morning of January 17, 1900 and, foregoing any pomp and circumstance, opened the downstream canal gates with what the New York Times described as “undignified haste”.
In his book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes (Norton 2017), author Dan Egan describes the aftermath of this late night caper by Chicago’s leaders: “… a pale green tongue of Lake Michigan water crashed into the Mississippi basin. Chicago’s raw sewage wasn’t far behind, and it didn’t take long for the fouled downtown stretch of river to be flushed of its accumulated excrement – a city sized enema. ‘Water in the Chicago River Now Resembles Liquid,’ a Times headline deadpanned in the days after Lake Michigan water first entered the upper portion of the canal.” When the Missouri petition was finally heard, their evidence against the canal pointed out that the annual number of typhoid fever cases in St. Louis had doubled in the four years since the canal had opened. Microbiology being what it was at the turn of the last century, Missouri’s claim that the unseen typhoid bacillus from Chicago’s sewage could survive the trip downriver wasn’t enough to sway the Court’s opinion. The canal may have taken care of Chicago’s problem, but by opening a back door from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River system, they also began an ecological chain of events that will end up costing millions if not billions of dollars to manage in the current century.
These ecological storm clouds for the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River watersheds began building on October 26, 1825 when the gates of the 83-lock Erie Canal were opened and a direct link between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Erie was established. It may have been called “Clinton’s Folly” by some, but it did succeed in reducing the cost of shipping freight between New York City and Buffalo from $100 a ton to $10 per ton. The Canadians followed suit in 1824 by constructing the Welland Canal that would bypass the impassable rapids on the St. Lawrence River and allow ships to us the 40-lock system to get around Niagara Falls and allow direct travel between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. As the size of the barges and ships plying the canals grew, the locks and canals were expanded. As early as 1939, the former U.S. Ambassador to Canada made a plea to go a step further and asked the United States Congress to create a Seaway along the U.S./Canadian border that would allow larger freighters access from the Atlantic Coast to Great Lake ports deep in the heartland. After many years of political wrangling, President Eisenhower finally signed the the legislation authorizing the Seaway construction project in May of 1954.
The Seaway was sold to the public with “Eighth Wonder of the World” bravado and promises of an economic boom to Great Lakes ports. The amount of freight handled by a canal that goes through seasonal shutdowns due to ice would prove to be miniscule compared with the over the road and railway freight systems that would eventually compete with the Seaway. The ‘economic boom’ would unfortunately prove to be a negative one when the first invasive species began to appear in the Great Lakes system. Unlike the microscopic Typhoid bacillus, the sea lamprey that spread like wildfire throughout the Great Lakes were hard to miss. The effect they had on the Great Lakes commercial and recreational fisheries was devastating. It took years of research to understand their life cycle and to find a way to control the lamprey, a task now the provenance of the US Fish and Wildlife Service to the tune of $20 million annually.
The lamprey decimated the predatory native fish. Over harvesting was the last nail in the coffin of a once huge Great Lakes fishery. The next species to make its way into the system was an East Coast native known as the river herring. Their abundance in the colonial United States were a boon to the poor (smoked, they could sustain poor families like a dietary welfare plan), wild and domestic animals (bears ate them by the mouthfuls and barnyard pigs would wade right into the rivers to gorge themselves). Once they found their way into the big lakes, the lack of a major predators caused a population explosion. As Egan states: “If the lamprey were the forest fire that decimated the Great Lakes, the river herring were the weeds that followed.” By 1962, river herrings (known in the Great Lakes as the alewife) accounted for 17% of the fish mass in Lake Michigan. By 1965, the number was up to 90% and the huge numbers began to be compared with a plague of Locusts. When massive die-offs were first noticed in 1967, various theories were put forth as to why there were six foot piles of dead fish on the bottom, vast islands of rotting corpses floating offshore, and rotting fish goo washing up on the Lake Michigan beaches. It turned out to be a simple matter of an invasive species encountering extreme temperature changes that it could not adapt to and a form of renal failure caused by the lack of iodine in the freshwater that they needed to process waste materials. The total cost of the clean up in 1967 was $50 million ($350 million in today’s money) and the lost tourist revenue around Lake Michigan added another $55 million to the negative side of the ledger.
The commercial fish industry tried mightily to find a way to make a buck off the 40 million pounds of alewife they caught in 1967: alewife fish sticks, alewife breakfast sausage, and even mixing alewife into bread dough were all explored but nothing seemed to make them work as a marketable form of human food. The only markets that found them useful turned them into cat food, liquid fertilizer or mink coats (by selling them to Midwest mink farms). The estimated 6 billion to 20 billion dead fish caused a big stink, yet the billions of live fish didn’t do much to compensate. The lakes were now dominated by one species to the benefit of no one.
Vernon Applegate was the pioneer researcher who set about learning enough about the lamprey to gain some measure of control. His ultimate goal was to restore the native lake trout and return some sense of balance to the Great Lakes ecosystem. In the end, it was Howard Tanner who decided to introduce yet another non-native species to rehabilitate the Great Lakes fisheries. Tanner had been born and raised in Michigan, but had cut his teeth running the Colorado Fisheries division. When offered the chance to return to Michigan in the same capacity, he jumped at the opportunity. He arrived back in Michigan in 1967, a full three years before the massive alewife die-off hit. He assessed the collapse of the lake trout fishery in Michigan and came to the conclusion that what the Great Lakes needed was a sexier fish to lure recreational anglers to the state. It is amazing that with all of the interested government organizations involved in the whole Great Lakes watershed, Tanner was able to engineer another species shift in the lakes without so much as a public hearing or consensus among the various governmental groups. Four months into his tenure, his research lead him to believe that coho salmon native to the Pacific Ocean would be just the ticket and he was gifted a shipment of one million eggs from the State of Oregon. When planted in the spring of 1966, the coho’s normal three year fingerling to spawning adult cycle was what Tanner expected to take place. By the fall of 1966, anglers were already catching cohos up to seven pounds and Tanner knew that his idea was going to be bigger than he ever dreamed.
Had the right balance between the alewife population and the new salmon population been reached, a new predator/prey relationship could have been created. Instead, the alewife population began to crash (boom and bust is many times the norm with some species) and the salmon began dying from a bacterial kidney disease partially induced by starvation. Egan likens it to “cows overgrazing a pasture, there was a limit to the number of salmon the lakes could sustain.” By the 1990s, the salmon catch rate in the Great Lakes had dropped to 15% of what it had been just ten years earlier.
While biologists attention was focused on the natural and man-made invasions taking place, a quieter, more subtle enemy was at the gates. The foreign vessels now entering the lakes via the Seaway were carrying hundreds of gallons of ballast water in their tanks. When on-loading cargo at Great Lakes ports, the water in these tanks were pumped into the harbors. When a group of university students sampled cobble from the bottom of Lake St. Clair in June of 1988, they found some curious stones that were stuck together. When they realized that one of the stones was alive, they sent it to the University of Guelph near Toronto for analysis. It turned out to be the first discovery of the zebra mussel, native to the Caspian and Black Sea basins. Egan’s chilling description tells us what this tip of the iceberg discovery meant for the future of the Great Lakes: “(The zebra mussel) was not good news and was well known on the other side of the Atlantic for its ability to fuse to any hard surface, growing in wickedly sharp clusters that can bloody boater’s hands and swimmer’s feet, plug pipes, foul boat bottoms and suck the plankton – the life – out of the waters they invade.” The zebra mussel wasn’t the first invasive species to come in the Great Lake’s front door via the Seaway and it wouldn’t be the last. The debate on what needs to be done to close this door is ongoing and progress is slow. The invasion, however, speeds forward while the commissions, governments, and industrialists engage in an endless debate.
One would like to think that the first invasive species would have sounded the alarm for what else might be lurking out there, but foresight seems to be much harder to master than spending billions of dollars fixing the mess already created. If opening the St. Lawrence Seaway was like opening the front door for invasive species to invade the Great Lakes, then opening the Chicago Sanitation and Ship Canal was tantamount to throwing open the back door to the continent’s interior. We will examine invasive species beyond the Great Lakes in Part 2.
Top Piece Video – There are few tunes to put a happy spin on invasive species, so we will settle for a little rolling down the river. Perhaps Green River would have been more appropriate?