2020 marked the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District when, in 1870, Congress appropriated the first funds to undertake improvements to the harbor at the mouth of the Chicago River and Calumet harbor.
We share a lot of our history with the City of Chicago and worked hand-in-hand solving many problems together through the years.
By building the harbors authorized by the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1870, Army engineers created an important shipping center that contributed to Chicago’s growth.
By 1900, massive growth and expansion of navigation was underway. The Corps constructed harbors and harbor improvements along the Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin shorelines, and in the 1930s completed the Illinois Waterway, linking Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River.
During World War II, the Chicago District supervised several of the largest wartime construction projects in the Corps’ military construction program including the Douglass aircraft plant, several immense ordinance projects, airfield runway extensions and military hospitals in the region.
Other district highlights include construction of the McCook Reservoir, a nationally significant engineering marvel that was a part of the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan published in 1972; and directing the emergency relief effort for the Great Chicago Tunnel Flood of 1992.
"I remember the long hours," said David Handwerk, planner in the Planning Branch, who helped coordinate district efforts with the City of Chicago during the tunnel flood. "We had a night crew and a day crew both working over 13-hour shifts. The first few days were longer than that. Seven days a week pretty much for the duration. I recall the district engineer at the time slept in a cot in his office when he wasn’t on site."
Handwerk began his career at the district in October 1984 – first in planning, then Project Management, and his last year in 2000 at chief of Civil Design. He recently returned to the district.
As the McCook Reservoir project manager, Mike Padilla, Programs and Project Management Branch, began work on the reservoir in 1993 when he was still an engineering intern, worked on the project from 1993 to 2000, and after a period with Seattle District, took over managing the project again in 2010.
"I am so proud of this project. I experienced basement flooding at an apartment building I once lived at, so solving this problem was personal for me. I look back in wonder at all the challenges we faced as the project progressed and our success in solving them. Placing the reservoir into service for the first time in 2018 was the highlight of my career. Big Civil Works projects sometimes take decades but they are worth waiting for," said Padilla.
The McCook Reservoir spanned 30 years and the first stage was completed in 2018. A project partnership agreement was signed with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago in 2019 for construction of McCook Stage Two.
The McCook Reservoir would be the Corps’ contribution to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago’s Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, which would seek to solve the decades-long dominant engineering challenge in Chicago – handling of combined sewage overflow.
In the State of Indiana the Corps chose an abandoned refinery site for a confined disposal facility constructed in two stages after nearly 40 years of ceased dredging. High levels of contamination in both dredged sediments and surrounding areas added complexities.
"Addressing the legacy of Indiana Harbor is a major accomplishment for the Chicago District," Jennifer Miller, chief of Environmental Engineering, said. "Over 100 years ago, we helped to construct what would become a major economic and strategic force for the nation – the harbor itself. Our country’s victory in World War II and subsequent rebuilding were all dependent on the steel industries in Indiana. But those industries left a legacy that needed to be addressed. Chicago District is lucky enough to serve the nation by protecting the Great Lakes and addressing historical environmental issues. The past cannot be redone, but the future can be what we make it. Our efforts for environmental dredging and ecosystem restoration in Indiana are a foundation for the future."
The Chicago District boundaries have changed dynamically over the years, but the most significant was in 1980 when the district was reduced to six counties in the Chicago metropolitan area and three in Northwest Indiana.
In 2020, the Chicago District’s 150th year, the district expanded again to the Upper Illinois River, eastern Wisconsin and northern Indiana and expanded its business lines of coastal storm risk management, navigation, aquatic ecosystem restoration, regulatory, emergency management, recreation and interagency support services.
Though founded in 1870, the Corps’ presence dates back to 1830 when Army civil engineers surveyed and mapped the most practical route for connecting the waters of Lake Michigan with the Illinois River. The maps produced outline Chicago Harbor improvements and establishes the eventual Illinois and Michigan Canal route.
In 1833 a town was incorporated there.