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updated: 9/21/2011 7:55 AM

Flooding an ancient problem in Arlington Heights

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When torrential rains fall in Arlington Heights, we have residents at village hall complaining of water in their streets and basements, as we did this month. So many of the early creeks in town have now been buried that we expect excess water to be controlled. But not wholly, not yet.

When we are not experiencing torrential rain in town, we tend to forget what a watery place it is and has been from its beginnings.

"It was 'Water, water, everywhere,' to quote Coleridge," as an early resident once told me.

If they could see a "water map" of early Arlington, those with wet basements would not be surprised. This town was, as another old-timer once told me, "seriously waterlogged."

Now many of the original watercourses are filled in. Homes are built on areas that regularly flooded in early days. Today it is hard to believe Ida Harth's story of bringing her pail and broom every spring to the marsh west of what is now Olympic Pool and sweeping numerous wiggly little fish into her pail to take home for dinner.

Other old-timers have described to me standing on a bridge across north Dunton and another over what would one day be Northwest Highway near the underpass where Catherine Coy said, "Kids used to fish off the bridge."

Daisy Daniels writes in "Prairieville, U.S.A." that there was a natural watershed at the northwest corner of the village in the 19th century. Let's imagine we are trying to describe Arlington in 1887 for the quasquicentennial next year. We'd think of a small cluster of houses and taverns downtown, with a couple of hotels. Some churches north of the tracks. That can sound charming.

But there was also, 125 years ago, a not-so-charming open ditch starting somewhere near Memorial Park, the little triangle park off Chestnut that was refurbished this year.

That open ditch was eight feet wide in places, and, according to Daniels, "was the dumping place for almost any kind of refuse, from deceased animals to tin cans. Typhoid fever was prevalent."

Basements of stores were filled with water after every rain.

The ditch ran right through town. First along the railroad track and then under it a little west of Vail (and what is now Jewel-Osco). Then it flowed down to Robinson Street (which used to be south of Campbell) and east along Robinson to the present village hall site and Meyer's Pond. It didn't stop there. The overflow passed under the railroad again and flowed "north past the west side of Foundry (now Kensington) Road near Hickory Street. (This must be where Mrs. Coy saw kids fishing off the bridge.) And thence to Weller Creek.

When you realize that this eight-foot wide eyesore was just one of the water courses in town, you can see why we are still having water woes. But when you realize how much things have improved, it gives you hope that the village will find solutions for those people who today have water lapping at their foundations.