Excerpt 1: Chronology
Prehistory through the Eighteenth Century
440 million years-395 million years before the present
20,000-14,000 years before the present (approximately)
14,000-13,000 years before the present
13,000-11,000 years before the present
11,000 years before the present
13,000-10,000 years before the present
Approximately 10,000-3,000 years before the present
6,000-4,000 years before the present
Approximately 3,000 years before the present
August 14, 1816
July 4, 1836
April 16, 1848
December 25, 1865
September 3, 1892
January 1, 1939
April 13, 1992
|Excerpt 2 : Introduction|
Not content with gathering wild onions or beaver skins, but restless to create something ever bigger, we struggle to put human impact on nature. We shape and reshape nature to our vision. Nature provides a complex situation and challenges. We have our own natures, which include ambition, commercial interests, and, because we are animals, bodily wastes. And so ensues a mighty struggle.
A river is a work in progress, the force of running water sculpting its history on the land. Here in the Chicago area, natural forces took thousands of years to shape and reshape a glacial landscape drained by a river flowing on an almost flat plain. There were no natural waterfalls, no merrily tumbling brooks, no bubbling spring that could be identified as the single source.
"You could not step twice into the same river," Heraclitus reminded us in the fourth century B.C.E., "for other waters are ever flowing on to you." As if in conversation, the Japanese writer Kamo no Chomei replied in the year 1212, "The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration; so in the world are man and his dwellings." Throughout the written history of the world, rivers have been the metaphor of time, of both change and immutability, of spiritual ritual and connection. Rivers are magical. People are drawn to them as steel to a magnet.
Perhaps that is because rivers are always doing something, even though they often look as if they are doing nothing. They are carrying sediment from here to there, carving and re-carving their banks. They are covering tracks here, uncovering a sandbar there, receiving seepage from beneath their banks, dissolving the life-sustaining minerals for the animal and plant life that rely upon them. Depending upon conditions, the character of a river varies by the climate, by the weather, by the day, even by the hour. Sometimes natural change comes very quickly. In a cataclysmic storm, the river might alter its course, leaving a trace of water in an oxbow lake. Even without a cataclysmic event, the river will change its course due to its tendency to erode and deposit sediments on its banks. It is following natural laws and processes. But when man alters those processes during a few short years, the effects may be devastating.
Imagine a raindrop falling on the land. Every raindrop that falls on a land area is subject to the force of gravity. Gravity pulls it down either into the ground or along a slope, toward sea level. Eventually that raindrop is funneled into a small rivulet that becomes part of a larger series of rivulets that eventually funnel into a particular stream. The entire land area that feeds a stream makes up that stream's watershed.
In the Chicago region, raindrops and snowflakes find their way into many embryonic rivulets of water that weave together into tributaries of the Chicago River's two slow-moving branches. The branches merge to form the main stem that originally emptied into Lake Michigan.
The river's landscape has a long ancestry of gradual evolution from the formation of ages-old bedrock to the glacial and post-glacial events that formed both the river and Lake Michigan. Tribes of people native to the continent settled here first and lived here for 13,000 years before Europeans arrived and immediately contemplated change.
Depending upon an early voyager's experience of rivers, the Chicago looked like a creek, a brook, perhaps even a river. But everyone agreed it was slow-moving. It was "placid," "modest," "a stream with a gentle current," "a sluggish, slimy stream, too lazy to clean itself," and had "the appearance of a canal, narrow and deep." It was "limpid," "clear, transparent." It was given various names, among them "Chikagou Creek," "Garlic Creek," and "River of the Wild Onion," presumably in recognition of the powerful aroma of the plant, which also had various names—wild onion, wild leek, wild garlic—that grew in the vicinity.
When Maj. Stephen H. Long described the river on March 4, 1817, he said of it:
The Chicago River is but an arm of the lake [Lake Michigan], dividing itself into two branches, at the distance of one mile inland from its communication with the lake. The north branch extends along the western side of the lake about thirty miles, and receives some few tributaries. The south branch has an extent of only 5 or 6 miles, and receives no supplies, except from the small lake of the prairie [Mud Lake, at the portage connection with the Des Plaines]. . . . The river and each of its branches are of variable widths, from 15 to 50 yards and, for 2 or 3 miles inland, have a sufficient depth of water to admit of almost any burden.1R. Graham and Joseph Philips, who were in Chicago in 1819, said the river varied in depth from between ten to 40 feet.2
In 1803 the young United States built Fort Dearborn on a rise of sand across the stream from the sandbar. The new country had to protect its new territory. Historian J. Seymour Currey contends that the first choice for a fort was at the St. Joseph River, another entrance to a portage route from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi, but the inhabitants were too hostile, and so Chicago was chosen.4 (Was Chicago already destined for the epithet "Second City"?)
There is a story that when the Potawatomi threatened to attack the fort just before the massacre of 1812, the fleeing Americans, anxious to keep their supply of alcohol from the natives, hastily dumped it into the garrison's drainage ditch that led to the river. This is perhaps the first instance of Chicago River pollution. Following the massacre and the fort's destruction, the soldiers rebuilt the fort and dug a shortcut through the long, narrow sandbar that diverted and lengthened the river's path, and thus their own, to the lake. Although the channel quickly closed up, this is the first recorded attempt to alter the river's course. It foreshadowed the many modifications that human settlement would impose on the river. Even before that cut through the sandbar, the original Fort Dearborn's short drainage ditch into a tributary had begun in a small way to alter the watershed's drainage pattern.
Eventually, the demands of growing commerce led to changes in the river, from the complete removal of the sandbar at its mouth to the replacement of the portage route with the Illinois and Michigan Canal, the fulfillment of a centuries-old dream. As the city grew, the river became polluted by the waste-disposal needs of both people and industry, requiring further changes to the river. The river became a sewer.
Edwin Gale, who arrived in Chicago on May 25, 1825, as a young boy, reflected in 1902 on the fate of the river he loved:
Nature designed that our creek should flow placidly along from source to mouth midst matted grasses and graceful ferns. Man deemed otherwise. He demanded it should hide the garbage of a large city deeply beneath its transparent surface . . . and that, in spite of all, it should remain as clear as when the paddles of Indian canoes alone lifted its glittering diamonds to the sunshine.5Humans turned the river into a sewer, but the river rebelled and began to threaten the life force of the growing metropolis. It stank. It violently overflowed its banks, carrying the seeds of devastating illnesses out into Lake Michigan and polluting the city’s drinking water supply. People just wanted it to go away. Several attempts, very early in the young city’s history, did make the water go away from Lake Michigan, at least some of the time, and run unnaturally in the direction of St. Louis on the Mississippi.
The removal of the sandbar and the construction of the I&M and Sanitary and Ship Canals were monumental nineteenth century public works serving both commerce and sanitation. They are illustrative of the proverbial spirit of Sandburg's "City of the Big Shoulders." Chicago met its successive problems by changing the river, sometimes in the process creating new problems, but facing them, too, with its undaunted "I will" motto.
In the earliest years of the twentieth century, though draining and ditching on the upper reaches of the North Branch accelerated, and two new artificial tributaries, the Cal-Sag and the North Shore Channels, were built, human values were in the process of change. The years encircling the turn of the century ushered in a new attitude toward the river and a new aesthetic towards civic projects in general. The evolving science of ecology, the growing sophistication concerning public health and cleanliness, and the emerging ideal of civic beauty impacted the idea of river improvements. As the century matured, an enormous challenge confronted Chicago: how to undo much of what it had done to the river, but within the confines of the metropolitan setting that the river had done so much to make possible.
After the Sanitary and Ship Canal was opened in 1900, the water from Lake Michigan mixed with the river water in the Main Stem, making it clean enough to accommodate an annual swimming race. The event, called the Chicago River Marathon, was held from 1908 through 1930 and extended from the life-saving station at the east end of the Main Stem to the Jackson Boulevard bridge on the South Branch. Johnny Weissmuller of Olympic and Tarzan fame, representing the Illinois Athletic Club, won the three-mile race in 1926 with a time of 56 minutes and 48 seconds and bettered his time when he won again in 1927.
Cruise ships began to ply the waters alongside freighters and other industrial vessels. On the rainy morning of July 24, 1915, the steamer Eastland was docked along a wharf in the river, boarding 2,500 passengers for a cruise to a Western Electric Company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. In one of the worst maritime disasters yet recorded in the United States, the overloaded ship broke from its moorings and rolled over just a few feet from shore, killing more than 800 people.
By the early 1920s, with the river dredged and widened, the docks neatened, and a gleaming new Michigan Avenue bridge spanning the water, dignified businessmen began to commission solid, dignified buildings facing the river. The South Branch was straightened, and little by little its offensive forks filled in, leaving only "Bubbly Creek," the South Fork of the South Branch, to remind us of the Union Stock Yards and that Chicago was once Carl Sandburg’s "Hog Butcher to the World."
Today, the downtown Chicago River is approaching Daniel Burnham's ideal in his 1909 Plan of Chicago: a sedate European-like stream flanked by walkways, flowing through a glistening city. Instead of industrial traffic plying a foul-smelling gutter, pleasure boats predominate. Instead of the hodge-podge of docks and wooden swing bridges, handsome drawbridges cross the river, and the seawalls are orderly, if a bit shabby in places. Skyscraper hotels, office towers, and riverwalks line the banks. On late summer afternoons, the sounds of jazz mingle with the conversation of office workers at riverside restaurants. Upscale residential developments, often with public river frontage, are in place or in the planning stages along several reaches of the river.
There were other land and water routes to the Mississippi from Lake Michigan. Why was the Chicago River chosen as the gateway to the interior? The early entrepreneur-explorer René Robert Cavelier sieur de La Salle favored the route of the St. Joseph and Kankakee Rivers instead of the unreliable portage route between the Chicago and the Des Plaines Rivers. How did the sleepy little stream, flowing over land so flat that it could hardly ever carve its own valley, end up in an artificial canyon approximately 12 feet below a major city, or cramped into skinny ditches secreted behind thick lanes of shrubby growth in Chicago's northern suburbs? When and how was the "engineering wonder" of reversing the river achieved? The many changes to the river were influenced by the needs of transportation and commerce, public health and soil drainage, unencumbered by ecological concerns that were not yet part of the civic consciousness.
Often reflecting and often leading the national movement to restore a river, the present-day Chicago River pioneers explore new approaches, some high-tech, some low-tech, to improve the quality of the river habitat so that aquatic creatures will return. Ironically, however, our communities continue to build in the Chicago River watershed and even in its floodplain. We pave over the watershed's surfaces, causing increased and faster runoff, enhancing downstream conditions for what are called 100-year floods to strike more frequently than once a century. In our most successful attempts, we work to mimic natural processes. The challenge will take time, money, and experimentation. The river will never completely recover its original processes, but we humans can attempt to undo some of the damage we have done and have a river that can be a safe, healthy, and enjoyable part of our lives.
This book tells the story of the synergy between the river and the people of greater Chicago. In relating the story of the major changes in the river, the book places those changes in the context of their times: contemporary visions of need and possibility and the contemporary state of technological development. The book does not chronicle minor widening or narrowing projects along the river. As for today's vast number and variety of river restoration projects, there is space for only a few examples. The story does not address either the architecture along the river or the history of the bridges that cross it. Many fine books already address these topics, and a list of references will lead readers to such sources.
The Chicago's story is one of degradation and redemption, of scorn and embrace. It is an inspiring story of confident
spirit and impressive accomplishments, but also an ironic story of unintended consequences and unforeseen twists of fate. It
is the story of people of vision working together. And, for all its local particularity, it is also a microcosm of the uneasy
relation between nature and civilization, especially when the welfare of a great city is at stake. The river's story is a
good story, and this book undertakes to tell it.
1. Extract from a report of Major Stephen H. Long, 4 March 1817, cited in testimony by Clarence W. Alvord, United States of America v. Economy Light and Power Company, District Court of the United States for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, in Chancery. No. 29776 (1910), 111.
2. R. Graham and Joseph Philips, 4 April 1819, cited in testimony by Clarence W. Alvord, U.S. v. Economy Light and Power Co., 114.
3. Long, cited in U.S. v. Economy Light and Power Co., 111.
4. J. Seymour Currey, The Story of Old Fort Dearborn (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1912), 20-21. According to Bill Hinchliffe, Chicago Archicenter docent, in personal communication with author, 1 January 1999, some of Chicago's southeast siders tell an even different version of the story: that the fort was proposed for the Calumet River, but an Indian girlfriend of one of the soldiers who lived north, near the future Chicago, led the decision to build on the Chicago River.
5. Edwin O. Gale, Reminiscences of Early Chicago and Vicinity (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1902), 304.