By 1860, the city’s population had burgeoned to over 100,000, and the Chicago River had become a veritable cesspool as raw sewage and waste from the numerous slaughter houses and other industries flowed freely into it. With a significant number of its citizens dying from cholera and typhoid fever, the city hired Ellis Chesbrough in 1861 to serve as the Chief Engineer of the newly formed Board of Sewage Commissioners and tasked him with improving the city’s water supply and sanitary systems.
Chesbrough’s plan called for the excavation of a supply tunnel to connect a pumping station situated five miles inland to an intake crib located two miles out in Lake Michigan, well beyond the increasingly polluted shoreline. Dull & Gowan of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania signed a contract for the massive project on October 28, 1863, and work got underway the following May.
A wooden, double-walled crib, pentagonal in shape and with a height of forty feet, was built on shore and then towed into the lake by steam tugs and sunk in position by filling its hollow walls with stone. A cast-iron caisson was lowered inside the intake crib, appropriately named Two Mile Crib, and then driven into the lake floor. After the water was evacuated from the caisson, workers entered and excavated a vertical shaft to the prescribed depth before tunneling horizontally to meet the passageway being extended from shore.
Centered atop the crib was a rectangular building that contained a kitchen and bedrooms for the crib keepers along with storage space. Above this structure was a square tower that supported a birdcage lantern for displaying a light to warn mariners away from the manmade navigational hazard. The crib was also equipped with a fog bell that was struck once every minute during periods of poor visibility. Keepers lived on the crib year-round to tend the light and fog bell, and to operate the intake doors in the crib and keep ice from forming inside the crib.
As the population of Chicago continued to grow, additional cribs were built offshore. In 1898, the existing eight water intake cribs were capable of supplying the city with nearly a billion gallons of water each day. The cribs that exist today are Four Mile Crib (1891), 68th Street Crib (1892), Carter H. Harrison (1900), Edward F. Dunne Crib (1909), Wilson Avenue Crib (1918), and William E. Dever Crib (1935). The final crew of keepers was withdrawn from duty in 1990.
To thwart terrorist activity, security systems were installed on all the intake cribs in 2002. These systems include motion detectors, video cameras, and door sensors, and are linked to the Chicago Police through a microwave link. Vessels are prohibited from entering a buoyed zone around each crib.
68th Street Crib
Built in 1892, the 68th Street Crib is so named because it lies offshore from the eastern end of 68th Street. The intake crib originally supplied two tunnels. One with a diameter of twenty feet, that fed the Jardine Water purification plant, the largest purification plant in the world at that time, and a second tunnel, with a diameter of ten feet, which fed the South water purification plant. The warning light for the crib was exhibited from a four-sided pyramidal skeletal tower topped by a lantern room, and a fog bell was tolled every twelve seconds when needed.
In 1908, work started on a second crib attached to the 68th Street tunnel system to increase the inflow to the city. On January 30, 1909, a fire broke out on this crib, known as the Intermediate Crib, which claimed the lives of seventy of the one hundred men that were working on it. The intermediate crib was replaced by the Edward F. Dunne Crib.
Edward F. Dunne Crib
Built in 1909, fifty feet from the 68th Street Crib, the Edward F. Dunne Crib is named after Edward Fitzsimmons Dunne who was Mayor of Chicago when the plans for the structure were approved. The circular crib has a diameter of 110 feet and stands in thirty-two feet of water. The interior well has a diameter of sixty feet and was connected to a pair of new tunnels.
A steel footbridge linked the Dunne Crib to the older 68th Street Crib, allowing one set of keepers to service both cribs. The navigational aids on the 68th Street Crib, which were electrified in 1923, were deemed sufficient for both structures.
The following is a newspaper article from the December 20, 1964 edition of the Chicago Tribune:Robert Melone, who is in charge of the Dunne crib, situated in Lake Michigan 2 ½ miles off East 68th street, said they would have a large Christmas dinner “the same as you would have at home.” He said the dinner would probably be a lot like the Thanksgiving dinner which he and his crew ate.
There usually are two or three men in the crew, depending on the weather, Melone said. They are brought out to the crib on a Monday and spend every other week there. Melone’s crew was lucky enough to catch both Thanksgiving and Christmas, but they’ll miss New Year’s
“We’re all family men,” Melone said. “Two of us have grandchildren.” After a thoughtful pause, he added, “That’s what I’ll miss most.”
The crib crews must keep a constant watch on huge intakes to prevent them from being clogged. In the summer the trouble is with fish. In the winter, it’s ice.
They keep ice clear with pike poles, or, if the ice begins to collect too rapidly, dynamite.