Stevenson H.S. Historians Come Up Winners in Chicago River Reversal Project

  • Stevenson High School students Matthew Li, Bridget Zhu, Erin Yuan and Govind Prabhakar.Erin Yuan

    Stevenson High School students Matthew Li, Bridget Zhu, Erin Yuan and Govind Prabhakar.Erin Yuan

Friends of the Chicago River
Updated 7/3/2019 11:23 AM

Stevenson High School students Matthew Li, Bridget Zhu, Erin Yuan and Govind Prabhakar recently were awarded Outstanding Entry medals at the National History Day competition at the University of Maryland, College Park for their effort "Reversing the Flow of History: Triumph and Tragedy of the Chicago River."

The four rising seniors tapped as a primary resource Friends of the Chicago River's Ecology Outreach Manager Mark Hauser, who has taught countless teachers and students about the river system through the organization's Chicago River Schools Network.


Explaining the pros and cons of the 1900 reversal of the river, Hauser "provided us with very helpful articles, maps, and fact sheets with succinct summaries of the river's history, the reversal process, and what [Friends of the Chicago River] aims to improve in the future," said Yuan.

"As a city, we need to raise awareness and increase appreciation for the river's incredibly fascinating past. It's only this way that the Chicago River can achieve a more sustainable triumph," said Yuan.

"Few people were aware of the river reversal's widespread and long-lasting effects, including on the environment and the economy, so it was important to us to shine light on them. By examining how history impacts us today, we can better learn from the past," added Zhu.

The river was reversed in 1900 by building the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and connecting the Chicago River to it.Because the canal was built lower than the river, it reversed the flow, carrying waste from Northern Illinois downstream to the Illinois River and eventually into the Mississippi. Today, treated wastewater is released into the river by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District though heavy storms can force combined sewage overflows, which allow untreated water into the system.

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"The river's reversal altered our perception of it," Hauser told the students, noting that for decades after the river was reversed it was treated as part of the sewer system.

"I wish they had designed a blue/green corridor along the river with parks and access for all. We are slowly changing that," Hauser said.

"Mark helped us refine our claim to balance what we analyzed as 'triumphs' and 'tragedies' to fit the theme of National History Day," added Yuan. "We're very grateful his time and support for our research."

"I learned about the importance of perspective through this story. The adage of history being written by the victors holds a lot of truth, and by researching the reversal we found out about the stories from the 'losers.' It was also really exciting to learn about the continual consequences from the reversals and to search for those stories in a multitude of sources," said Prabhakar.

The students also credited Daniel Larsen, History Fair Club sponsor; Peter Anderson and Dawn Forde, American Studies teachers at Stevenson High School; and Lisa Oppenheim of the Chicago History Museum.

For more about Friends of the Chicago River go to

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