Call me clueless, but I’ve always associated the city with a single body of water, the lake. I don’t even call it Lake Michigan. First it was Foster beach, later North Avenue beach and Oak Street beach and Montrose Harbor, and eventually just the lake.
More than 50 years of living within a mile of the Chicago River or one of its branches or channels had left virtually no trace of a second body of water on my mental image of Chicago. But a couple good books, The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History by Libby Hill and The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond by Michael Williams and Richard Cahan, reminded me a river runs through it.
Hidden in plain sight
Lake Michigan is hard to miss, but the Chicago River, at least in my experience, is hard to see. Views of the lake, from anywhere along the many miles of lakefront, are generally unobstructed. Views of the river, on the other hand, from anywhere other than the river’s banks, are generally nonexistent.
As a young child, I often played at River Park, where there are actually two rivers: the North Shore Channel meets the North Branch of the Chicago River. I swung on the swings, played in the children’s sprinkler, took tumbling and baton twirling classes, attended the annual pool shows and Scout Jamborees and plugged spouts of the old stone water fountain with my thumbs to make water in the other spouts squirt higher, but I don’t recall seeing much of the river. In fact, for most of my life I have crossed the Chicago River, by car, bike or train, on a daily basis. I never see it though.
A river well worth reading about
Mark Twain used the above words to describe the Mississippi River in the first sentence of his book, Life on the Mississippi, but the same is true for the Chicago River. It’s well worth reading about because, as we all know, it is an engineering marvel. It’s the reason this place is a city and not a big sandbar and lots of mud. The Chicago River shaped the layout of the city’s blocks and neighborhoods and suburbs. It took away sewage and spurred industrial growth. It gave us a variety of recreational and open spaces (notwithstanding my aforementioned river blindness in these recreational spaces).
I’ve come to realize a thorough understanding of the city requires knowledge of the Chicago River and its history. This week, for example, the Chicago Tribune published a quarter-page article about a recent federal study recommending separating the lake and the river as a means of preventing Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes. (“Engineering wonder may halt carp flow, report says,” Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune, January 7, 2014) Only after you truly understand what it took to join the lake and the river can you begin to appreciate what it means to suggest returning them to their native state of separation.
Libby Hill’s book (disclosure: I received a review copy) provides that comprehensive background and more. Not only has she researched everything about the river since Marquette and Jolliet first laid eyes on it, Hill recounts her own explorations of the river’s entire length and sheds light on the complicated network of North Branch forks.
I enjoyed it all — the text, maps and photos, but particularly the sections about the river where I grew up and where I currently live. Little did I know how prominently these areas figure in the river’s story. And now when I drive or walk around, I look for the river.
In The Lost Panoramas, we see not just the Chicago River at the time it was reversed, but the surrounding landscape as well. The haunting black-and-white panoramic images in this book are part of a larger collection of more than 29,000 photographs taken for the Sanitary District between 1894 and 1928, then stored and forgotten until a few years ago. The images are captioned, with date and location, and organized geographically, from the Mississippi River northeast along the waterways through Chicago and north to Wilmette and the lake.
The photo-journey into the city conveys a sense of exhilaration as well as doom. The environmental impact downriver of the newly created canal was immediate. By the early 1900s, before the project was even completed, deterioration of the natural landscape became apparent.
As with Libby Hill’s book, I particularly enjoyed images of areas near where I grew up. There are several early photographs of construction along the river in Albany Park and an early shot of McCormick Boulevard, adjacent to the newly completed North Shore Channel, looking like a road of endless possibilities.
Your river stories
I know those of you who grew up in Albany Park enjoyed a closer relationship with the river than I did. I’d love to hear some of your memories of the river. To get the conversation started, here’s a reader’s recollection of River Park from an earlier blogpost about temporary, post-WWII housing located immediately west of the North Shore Channel:
“I recall the point where the river and the channel came together at the dam. I don’t remember ever going into the river, but on many occasions I jumped over the river when the water was low. Both banks were concrete. The dam was a few feet away with the water always churning beneath it. There was a footbridge at Albany and Carmen, which connected River Park to the field.” — Roger Cohn
Books Reviewed in this post:
by Libby Hill
by Michael Williams and Richard Cahan