The working river
Arguably the very reason that the city is here to begin with, the
Chicago River was once treated as an open sewer. Now, it's seen as an amenity to be embraced and developed.
June 02, 2003
By Alby Gallun
||Clogged artery: The State Street Bridge, circa 1893, when the river was still
a critical highway of sorts for the factories that clustered along its banks. Photo: Chicago Public Library|
real estate developer Thomas Snitzer, what was once a cesspool is now a selling point.
Mr. Snitzer is building a major
housing development in Bridgeport on the banks of "Bubbly Creek," the infamous arm of the Chicago River's South Branch that
was once a stew of decaying animal carcasses discarded from nearby slaughterhouses. Not exactly a spot for a dream home at
least until recently.
"Bubbles of carbonic acid gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three
feet wide," is how muckraking author Upton Sinclair described the place in his 1906 book, "The Jungle." "Here and there the
grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times
an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily."
Ninety-seven years later, people are paying
$415,000 and up to live in Mr. Snitzer's Bridgeport Village development alongside a cleaned-up Bubbly Creek. When the single-family
project is completed, it will cover 26 acres on both sides of the river, connected by a footbridge. Rather than turning its
back to the creek, the development embraces it, with riverwalks on each bank and 12 small riverside parks.
it's not thought of as a problem. It's thought of as an amenity," Mr. Snitzer says. "What was 70 or 80 years ago an area that
people didn't think of positively has been completely transformed. The price of the homes goes up as you get closer to the
river, and that's where everybody wants to be."
Undeniably, the Chicago River is getting more respect these days. The
signs are everywhere. New condominiums are rising on riverfront properties. Barges share the river with rowing shells and
canoes. The fish population is rebounding as are the numbers of fishermen. Thirteen miles of riverwalk have been created,
with more on the way.
"There's hope," says Ralph Frese, a local canoeing enthusiast and canoe shop owner who has been
leading New Year's Day trips down the Chicago River's North Branch for 17 years. "Nature is resilient. She rebounds if given
half a chance."
The story of the Chicago River over the past 25 years is largely one of environmental progress, a theme
that will likely continue for another 25. Still, even though its industrial roots have become less visible, the Chicago River
and its South Side sister, the Calumet River continue to play the key transportation role, albeit on a smaller scale, that
French explorer Louis Joliet envisioned in 1673.
That's when Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette portaged their canoe
over the low divide between the Des Plaines and Chicago rivers, near the present-day intersection of the Stevenson Expressway
and Harlem Avenue. Joliet saw the potential of a canal between the two rivers, connecting the Great Lakes and the Mississippi
That vision became a reality in 1848, when the Illinois and Michigan Canal opened, establishing Chicago as a
major commercial hub. In 1871, more vessels visited Chicago than New York; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Charleston, S.C.; San
Francisco, and Mobile, Ala., combined, according to Donald L. Miller's 1996 book, "City of the Century."
hard to overstate the importance of the canal" to Chicago's growth in the 19th century, says David Solzman, associate professor
emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of the 1998 book, "The Chicago River." "Chicago is the gift of
The city had a strange way of saying thank you. As its population swelled, so did
the amount of sewage flowing into the river and Lake Michigan, the source of the city's water. The number of cholera and typhoid
cases exploded after heavy rains; an estimated 12% of Chicago's population died from waterborne diseases after one deluge
City officials solved the problem by building the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1900 and re versing the
flow of the Chicago River so that the sewage flowed into the Illinois River, rather than Lake Michigan.
particular marvel of engineering, the city more than a century later still hasn't completely solved its sewage problem.
Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, which runs the area's sewer system, still doesn't have enough
capacity to handle especially heavy rains: Untreated storm water and sewage have flowed into Lake Michigan 14 times since
1991, according to district officials, leading to beach closures during summer months. The Main Branch of the Chicago River
has had its flow reversed in four instances of heavy rains, most recently in August 2001.
Yet the district has come
a long way since the mid-1970s, when it began its Deep Tunnel program, a major public works project designed to boost the
sewer system's capacity. With 93 miles of tunnels already in place, the big challenge now is building reservoirs to store
untreated sewage temporarily additions that should keep untreated sewage and storm water out of basements and rivers.
district plans to build two reservoirs, one in south suburban Thornton and one in southwest suburban McCook. The aim is to
complete the project by 2014, yet that may be unrealistic because the project is underfunded, says Terrence J. O'Brien, president
of the district's board of commissioners.
The project needs about $35 million to $40 million annually from the federal
government, Mr. O'Brien says, but it's receiving only $14 million this year and $18 million in 2004.
"It kind of puts
us behind the eight ball," he says.
The Chicago River is a lot cleaner than it was in 1970, when Mayor Richard J. Daley
was ridiculed for saying, "I hope to see the day there will be fishing in the river . . . perhaps swimming." A few years later,
he said he envisioned Loop workers catching and grilling fish during their lunch hours.Fish are returning
many people are swimming in the Chicago River yet, and not many suits have been sighted casting their lines off the State
Street bridge. The Illinois Department of Public Health still advises people to eat no more than one largemouth bass caught
in the river every month; carp longer than a foot are still off limits.
The fish, however, are coming back. Twenty-five
years ago, an estimated 12 fish species inhabited the river; now, that census is as high as 63 species, thanks largely to
the Deep Tunnel project, says Laurene von Klan, executive director of the Friends of the Chicago River conservation group.
ships used to fill and empty their holds at warehouses and grain elevators in the heart of downtown, the Calumet River system
has been the city's primary industrial workhorse for nearly a century.
Indeed, rising land values along the Chicago
River after the Great Fire of 1871 caused many manufacturers, including those in the steel industry, to locate along the Calumet,
where land was less expensive. Calumet Harbor has received more annual tonnage than Chicago's harbor since 1906, and has been
connected to the Illinois River system and thus the Gulf of Mexico via the Cal-Sag Channel since 1923.
The Main Branch
of the Chicago River these days is chiefly the domain of the yachting set, operators of boat tours showcasing the city's architecture
and commuter boats shuttling workers from West Loop train stations to Michigan Avenue.
"It's still a working river,"
Ms. von Klan says. "It's just changed careers."
Photo: John R. Boehm
the 47,390 vessels that passed through the lock between Lake Michigan and the Chicago River in 2001, 35,961 were recreational
vessels and only 110 were commercial, with the rest unclassified, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In addition,
only 107 barges and 192 tons of freight passed through the lock in 2001.
That same year, 6,926 barges and 6,788 tons
of freight passed through the Thomas J. O'Brien Lock on the South Side, the first lock on the Cal-Sag Channel, according to
the Army Corps. Not including barges, 26,028 vessels passed through that lock in 2001, 23,547 of them recreational and 2,032
The Chicago River still performs an essential transportation role for many businesses on its North and
South branches. The Morton Salt facility on North Elston Avenue, now owned by Philadelphia's Rohm & Haas Co., still receives
regular shipments by barge from a salt mine in Louisiana, while Chicago-based Metal Management Inc. ships scrap metal processed
at two South Branch sites to customers in Peoria, Arkansas and even overseas.
Barges also unload about once a day at
two riverside plants owned by ready-mix concrete supplier Ozinga Chicago RMC Inc. one in Chinatown and one at Armitage Avenue.
The company's barge shipments have risen in recent years as Ozinga shifts away from shipping by truck, which is more expensive,
says Thomas Van Etten, president of Ozinga Chicago, a division of Mokena-based Ozinga Bros. Inc.
The company also brought
in more sand, stone and cement by barge to keep up with the recent condominium building boom, he says. And Ozinga has supplied
concrete to the Soldier Field construction project.
"All that material that comes in over water, you eventually see
in the buildings," he says.
Greening of the banks
The riverbank has become a popular place for condo developers, too. Thirteen
downtown projects, accounting for 2,571 units, have gone up on riverfront properties since 1998, according to Chicago-based
real estate consultancy Appraisal Research Associates Ltd.
City officials, meanwhile, have spent nearly $26 million
over the past five years trying to piece together a system of riverside parks connected by a 28-mile riverwalk.
city mandated in the late 1990s that all new riverside real estate developments include a 30-foot setback for a riverwalk.
That move, combined with subsequent land acquisitions, has allowed the city to assemble 12.7 miles of riverwalk, put in three
canoe launches and create five regional river parks, such as Ping Tom Park in Chinatown.
"The goal is to be able to
use the river like we use the lakefront," says Kathleen E. Dickhut, the assistant commissioner in the Department of Planning
and Development who is heading the riverwalk initiative.
The hard part, she says, is working around industrial users
along the river, especially on the more industrial South Branch. The city must also find as much as $30 million, probably
from the federal government, to pay for a grand promenade, including space for restaurants and retail, on the south side of
the river stretching from Michigan Avenue to Lake Street.
Conservationists still have a full agenda, too. Ms. von Klan
of Friends of the Chicago River is pushing for stricter water quality standards, and wants to see the formation of a local
storm water management agency. Mr. Frese, the canoe shop owner, says floating debris and illegal dumping remain problems on
the North Branch.
And Bubbly Creek gets stagnant and smelly every now and then during the summer. The Water Reclamation
District will try to solve that problem this season by flushing 25 million gallons of water through the stream every day,
says General Superintendent Jack Farnan, who has vivid memories of the creek as a child.
"It had bubbles as big as
basketballs," he recalls.
ę2003 by Crain Communications Inc