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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

To 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.

"Basically, 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 River.

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."

"It's really 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 river."

Photo: John R. Boehm


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 in 1885.

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.

Despite that particular marvel of engineering, the city more than a century later still hasn't completely solved its sewage problem.

The 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.

The 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

Not 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.

While 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

Of 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 commercial.

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.

The 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

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