Excerpts from:
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 Created Chicago
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 Chicago Portage)

Native Americans 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 Chicago River)

 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 destination. 

(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 transfer point.   

(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 Irish immigrants.)

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 gone.

 (Picture:  Canoeists in the River)

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
 counterbalances 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 left.

(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 bridge.)

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 River
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 Much Noise?
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.

(Pictures:  Each 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.

 (INSET:  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.)




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