The Chicago River
From Your Window
by Paul Frisbie
If you live in the Chicago area you’re
never very far from the banks of the Chicago River. It’s a dominant
feature of the downtown landscape, where its three major branches
slice through the business district like an urban canyon. Boats and
barges use it as a city street, and busy river buses rush commuters
to and from the train stations.
Elsewhere the River is more discreet. You’ll find it meandering
through a quiet residential neighborhood or hiding behind the corner
grocery. You’ll encounter it while strolling through a city park or
while looking out the window of a favorite restaurant. It’s a
refuge for wildlife and a playground for boaters. And wherever it
goes it adds a little magic to the urban landscape.
This book will help you identify some of the boats, birds, bridges,
fish and animals that you’ll find along the river. You’ll also find
some useful information about things like Chicago River boat
rentals, Chicago River environmental organizations and Chicago River
parks. We hope you’ll enjoy this book, and that this book will help
to increase your enjoyment of the Chicago River.
Title: How The Chicago River
Subhead: A Quick History of the Chicago River
Until the middle of the 19th century most
commerce in North America moved by water. There was no network of
paved highways; no web of interconnected rail lines. The most
efficient way to get around was by boat. And at what is now
Chicago, Illinois, there was a spot where the waterways of the Great
Lakes and the Mississippi river system came together. Starting at
roughly Western Avenue and 31st Street and ending at Harlem Avenue
and 51st, a short portage linked the Des Plaines and Chicago
rivers. The Des Plaines took you west to the Mississippi. The
Chicago River took you east to the Lake. The portage between them
tied together half a continent.
(MAP: Shows link between waterways. Caption: The
discovered the portage thousands of years ago, and introduced it to
the French trappers and explorers when the fur trade brought
Europeans to the Midwest. The most famous visitors were Joliet and
Marquette in 1673, and LaSalle in 1682. Marquette came through
again in 1674 and wintered at the Chicago River portage.
(Picture: Log cabins in a river
with big fur trading canoes. No caption.)
The Chicago River wasn't a big one.
The North Branch flowed south from what is now Gurnee. The South
Branch ran north from 33rd street. They met at Wolf Point -- next
door to where the Merchandise Mart stands now -- formed a single
channel and headed east to Lake Michigan. It wasn't a big river,
but its location made it an incredibly useful one. And it gave its
name to a settlement that eventually sprang up along its banks.
(Map: The outline of the
Chicago River, Wolf Point, Bubbly Creek, etc. Caption: The
town grew slowly at first. In around 1784 Jean Baptiste Pointe Du
Sable set up a farm and fur trading post on the north side of the
river at what’s now Michigan Avenue. He moved on in about 1800 or
so, but three years later the United States government built a fort
and fur trading post right across the river from Du Sable’s old
place. Half a mile down the River French fur trappers and Anglo
adventurers from the old Northwest frontier had started to settle at
Wolf Point. They were here because of the portage. The fur trade
was booming, but Chicago was still a transit point and not yet a
(INSET. Picture: The Municipal
Device. Caption: Chicago’s Municipal Device. You can see the
River's configuration in the City of Chicago's municipal device.
It's an inverted "Y, representing the three major branches of the
Chicago River. )
But the whole
Midwest was rapidly filling up with settlers. In 1836 work began on
the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The old Chicago portage would be
bypassed by a major waterway stretching from the Chicago River’s
South Branch in Bridgeport to the town of LaSalle on the Illinois
River. Barge traffic from the inland rivers would link up with
sailing ships from the Great Lakes, and Chicago would be the
(Map: The various artificial
waterways. IM Canal. Sanitary and Ship Canal. Cal Sag Channel.
Caption: Chicago’s canals.)
Almost overnight the
Chicago River became one of the busiest harbors in the world. The
city it served grew at an explosive rate, from a population of 350
in 1833 to one million by 1890.
(INSET: Picture: The North
Avenue Turning Basin. Caption: The Chicago River isn't wide enough
to let ships or barges turn around and head back the way they came.
So the river was widened in several places to solve the problem.
You can see one at North Avenue. )
With the increase in
population came pollution. The South Fork of the Chicago River's
South Branch picked up the name Bubbly Creek because its surface
boiled with escaping gases from the decomposing carcasses of dead
animals discarded by the city's booming stockyards. The whole river
was a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste. In warm
weather its surface was actually flammable in places, posing a
hazard to the new port's swarms of wooden ships.
Thunderstorms washed so much sewage out of the Chicago River that it
reached the city's water supply intakes out in Lake Michigan and
caused regular epidemics of typhus and cholera.
(INSET: Picture: A goose.
Caption: Goose Island was created when William Ogden cut a new
channel to create highly valuable waterfront property. The
excavated clay was made into bricks and sold as well. The island
got its name from the flocks of geese kept along the River by early
So in 1892 work began
on another artificial waterway: the Sanitary and Ship Canal. The
new channel was wide enough and deep enough to let large ships
replace the old canal boats. And it directed the Chicago River’s
water away from the Lake and south to the Gulf of Mexico. The
Chicago River now ran backwards -- uphill, if you like. It does so
to this day.
(INSET: Picture: The river
mouth. Caption: There are four sets of locks on the Chicago
River. They keep the River flowing away from the lake while
allowing shipping to travel in either direction.)
There were additional
refinements to the River. In 1904 the North Branch of the River was
straightened between Belmont and Lawrence Avenues. In 1910 the
North Shore Channel was built from Wilmette to Lawrence Avenue to
feed lake water into the Chicago River’s North Branch. In 1928 the
South Branch was straightened between Polk and 18th Streets. And
there’s nothing left of the West Fork of the South Branch, the
little stretch of water that had made the original portage
possible. Bit by bit it was filled in, and by 1938 it was entirely
(Picture: Canoeists in the
The Chicago River has
been reshaped and redirected over the years. Even its uses have
changed. Nowadays kayaks, canoes and pleasure boats vastly
outnumber the barges. But from portage to canal to playground, the
Chicago River has always been one of the city’s greatest assets.
Title: How Do They Move That Thing?
Subhead: The Bridges of the Chicago River
Chicago features more movable bridges than
any other city on the planet. More than 100 of them cross the
Chicago River. Some carry trucks and autos; some carry railroads.
And most of them can still be opened to let a ship pass through, a
necessary feature back in the days when the River still bristled
with tall-masted commercial traffic. Chicago was the unofficial
world headquarters for movable bridge design, and engineers
everywhere looked to Chicago for ideas and inspiration.
Bascule Trunnion Bridge
Bascule is a French word that could be
loosely translated as “see-saw” -- and that’s exactly how a bascule
trunnion bridge works. A huge weight
the bridge span. Rocking it back and forth opens or closes the
bridge. It’s a single
leaf bascule trunnion if one bridge span is used to reach all the
way across the river. It’s a double leaf bascule trunnion if two
opposing bridge spans meet in the middle of the river. Most Chicago
bridges use this design.
(Picture: Michigan Avenue
bridge. Caption: Bascule trunnion bridge at Michigan Avenue.)
(Diagram: Shows how bascule
trunnion bridge works. Caption: The bascule trunnion bridge.)
Center Pier Swing Bridge
The bridge span is mounted
on a pier in midstream and rotates like a
compass needle. When
it's open you've got two channels; one on either side of the pier.
This turned out to be a bad design for the Chicago River. The
channels were too narrow, so ships kept hitting the piers. We've
quit building these bridges in Chicago, but we've still got one
(Picture: Center pier swing
bridge Caption: Center pier swing bridge at North Avenue)
(Diagram: Shows how center pier swing bridge
works. Caption: The center pier swing bridge.)
Schurzer Rolling Lift Bridge
A Schurzer rolling lift bridge uses a counterweight like a bascule
trunnion. It tilts back and forth on an enormous roller. We've got
one at Cermak Avenue.
(Picture: Schurzer rolling lift
bridge Caption: Center pier swing bridge at Cermak Avenue.)
(Diagram: Shows how a Schurzer
rolling lift bridge works. Caption: The Schurzer rolling lift
Vertical Lift Bridge
A vertical lift bridge uses counterweights to lift the bridge
span like an elevator. Some of the machinery is housed in the
little building on the center of the bridge.
(Picture: Vertical lift bridge
Caption: Vertical lift bridge at 18th Street)
(Diagram: Shows how a vertical
lift bridge works. Caption: The vertical lift bridge.)
Title: What‘s Afloat?
Subhead: Working on the Chicago River
The Chicago River is still a working
waterway, although the heaviest traffic has moved down to Calumet
Harbor. Most of the boats you’ll see on the River are pleasure
craft, but there’s still quite a bit of commercial traffic
coming and going. River barges and tugboats, for example, are
quite common. Watch for the Daryl Hannah. It‘s a tugboat
named for the movie star daughter of Donald C. Hannah, co-owner of
Chicago’s Hannah Marine, a barge transportation company.
(Pictures: Each boat description is
accompanied by an image.)
Title: Who’s Building That Nest in
My Barbecue Grille?
Subhead: Birds of the Chicago River
Currently more than 300 different bird
species can be spotted along the Chicago River during the course of
the year. Some are full time residents. Some come and go with the
seasons. Millions of migratory birds pass through the region, and
the Chicago River
and lake front are important stops on their flyways. So many birds
rest here that the City of Chicago asks skyscrapers to dim their
lights during migration periods. The bright lights can confuse and
disorient migratory birds, causing them to crash into buildings.
The full-time resident birds don’t have as much trouble with light
-- like other Chicagoans they’ve gotten used to it.
(Pictures: Each bird
description is accompanied by an image.)
Title: What Are These Strange
Tracks Along the Riverbank?
Subhead: Animals of the Chicago
Illinois’ buffalo are long gone, and you
won’t find any wild elk in the Chicago area anymore. But the River
still provides a habitat for more animal species than you might
think. Red fox still hunt for birds and small rodents along the
river, just as they always have. Muskrat still den in its banks.
Mink go fishing, or compete with the fox to chase rabbits, mice and
frogs. Opossums and raccoons still appear after dark, foraging for
food. Many animals are gone -- but many have adapted.
(Pictures: Each animal
description is accompanied by an image.)
Title: Why Is That Pond Making So
Subhead: Reptiles, Amphibians and Crustaceans of the Chicago River
You’ll find reptiles and amphibians living
in all kinds of surprising places along the River, but they like the
marshy areas best. It‘s frogs who make much of the noise you hear.
Like some bird species they sing to attract mates, no doubt with the
firm conviction that their calls are just as melodious as any
songbird’s. Crustaceans remain in the water all the time.
reptile/amphibian description is accompanied by an image.)
Title: What Was That Splash?
Subhead: The Fish of the Chicago River
Early settlers reported catching five-foot
Muskie in the Chicago River. Sturgeon were so plentiful that
Chicago was briefly one of the world’s great exporters of caviar.
But it wasn’t long before pollution rendered the River virtually
lifeless, and for a long time the River was barely more than a
sewer. Thanks to environmental legislation things have finally
begun to improve again, and today the River is making a slow
comeback. Some 61 species of fish currently make their homes in
the River, a number that would have seemed impossible just decades
ago. Recently naturalists were excited to spot an Iowa darter — a
humble little fish, perhaps, but the first one seen in the Chicago
River for more than a century.
Title: Fishing in the River)
Copy: Unfortunately, bacteria levels in the Chicago River are still
too high. Kayaking, canoeing and boating are certainly safe enough,
but Friends of the River really can’t recommend swimming in the
River, drinking the water or eating the fish. We hope to get there
one day, but there’s still a great deal of work to be done.)