On 12 March 1849, the Chicago River was the scene of a disastrous flood. This was caused by the rains of several days and the breaking up of the ice in the river. The bridges at Madison, Randolph, Clark and Wells Streets were swept away and many of the wharves were damaged. Many vessels were total wrecks and some were carried into the lake as debris.
From Andreas’ History of Chicago:
The flood which occurred March 12, 1849. was an event of most calamitous nature. For two or three days previous to that date the citizens of Chicago had been reading accounts of the remarkable rise of rivers in the interior of the State. The heavy snows of the winter had been followed by frequent and hard rains. Rock, Illinois and Fox rivers were threatening to burst their bounds and devastate the country. Their waters were higher than in 1838, and, in some localities, even than in 1833. The bridges on Rock River were nearly all swept away, and the Illinois had partially destroyed the village of Peru. The Des Plaines River was also higher than it had ever been before.
At about ten o’clock the mass of ice in the South Branch gave way, carrying with it the bridges at Madison, Randolph, and Wells streets—in fact, sweeping off every bridge over the Chicago River, and also many of the wharves. There were, in port, four steamers, six propellers, twenty-four brigs, two sloops, and fifty-seven canal boats, many of which have been either totally destroyed or damaged seriously. The moving mass of ice, canal boats, propellers, and vessels was stopped at the foot of Clark Street, but withstood the pressure only a moment, crashing vessels and falling spars soon giving note of the ruin which was to follow. A short distance below the river was again choked, opposite Kin/.ie’s warehouse; vessels, propellers, and steamers were piled together in most indescribable confusion. A number of vessels are total wrecks, and were canied out into the lake a mass of debris. A boy was crushed to death at the Randolph-street bridge, a little girl was killed by the falling of a topmast, and a number of men are reported lost upon canal boats which have been sunk, and upon the ice and bridges as the jam broke up. The bridge over the lock at Bridgeport is gone. The wharves all along the river have sustained serious injury. A son of Mr. Coombs was lost at Madison-street bridge, and James L. Millard had his leg badly fractured while on board his vessel. One poor fellow on a canal boat waved his handkerchief as a signal of distress, about ten miles out, during the afternoon; but there was no boat which could be sent to his assistance. The vessels were without their riggings, and the engines of the steamers were out of order.
The loss by the flood is thus estimated:
Damage to the city $15,000
To vessels $58,000
To canal boats $30,000
The figures given are rather below than above the actual loss. The city went to work with a will to repair the great damage. In the meantime the river was crossed by a number of ferries. Besides the boat at Randolph Street, a canal boat lay across the river, upon which passengers were allowed to cross on payment of one cent each. The ferry at the Lake House, the safest and the pleasantest on the river, was free. A schooner was used at Clark Street; fare, one cent. Mr. Scranton’s old ferry was running at State Street ; fare the same as the others. Other temporary appliances were brought into use to bridge over the inconveniences of the next few months. These ferries were generally overcrowded with passengers who, in their eagerness to cross, sometimes rushed aboard, recklessly, and it is a wonder that fatal results did not sometimes follow.