Take Me to the River

Chicago River books

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.

Chicago area waterway

Map of the Chicago area Water System by Lea Radick. Source: Medil Reports, http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/govt/story.aspx?id=156704

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.

Looking back 

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:

The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History

by Libby Hill

The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond

by Michael Williams and Richard Cahan









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8 Responses to Take Me to the River

  1. Everett Melnick January 9, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

    Growing up in Albany Park and later living in Ravenswood Manor, one block west of the river, water always played an important part of my life and still does. From building rafts from used Good Humor sticks and torn paper cup pieces to fishing for crawdads from the banks of the river branches in River Park with pieces of raw chicken tied to kite string, then as a teenager building a 12 foot long pram dingy in my basement shop, covering it with fiberglass in the garage and going on its maiden voyage down (or up) the Chicago River to its confluence with the South Branch with an old Evinrude 5 H.P. engine for power and a spare gallon gas can and a pair of oars for back up are some of my fond memories of Albany Park and the Chicago River. Fishing and boating is still a major part of my life as is living on or near the water.

  2. Frances Archer January 9, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

    Everett, what an impact growing up near the river has had on you! Have any photographs to share of your dingy? Would love to see it. You can reach me via the contact form if you do. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Everett Melnick January 10, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    Sadly, I have no pictures of my Pram. My father and I built it from a set of plans I sent away for from Science and Mechanics magazine. The original plans called for it to have canvas glued to the hull to make it more watertight but I was intrigued by fiberglass material that I had seen at a small storefront supply house on Montrose east of Kedzie. The owner was amazed that I took such an interest in it and gave me a lot of good help and advise as well as a good price on the materials. Photography was very expensive in those days and in our family used only for weddings and bar mitzvahs. I can remember taking a roll of black & white film into the drug store on Kedzie & Ainslie. They wanted fourteen dollars to develop them so I never went back to get them. I used my Pram on Lake Geneva, Lake Michigan and the river until I went away to college then I sold it with the car top carrier and engine for $300. I always dreamed of building a much larger boat but wood has pretty much been replaced for boat building.

  4. Frances Archer January 12, 2014 at 10:10 pm #

    This explains why so few photographs are available.

  5. Howard Glantz January 13, 2014 at 2:10 pm #

    I grew up living on the corner of Whipple & Argyle across from River Park just west of the Chicago River , between 1940 and 1950. The feeder channel we called the Creek which entered the River over a small dam and waterfall. The Creek would freeze over during very cold weather and became our hockey rink. The Park during Febeuary would be flooded by the Fire Department and that would be our skating rink. We would sled down the River bank and crash into the protective fence and down a small hill on the East side of the skating rink. Someone would bring skies that you could tie onto your shoes and ski down a ten foot hill.

    We would fish for carp but never keep or eat them as the River was disgusting.

    Once in a while a barge would come up the River with a load of sand or rocks, rarely a motor boat or fishing boat.

    I was in the Park when a small boy fell into the River at the waterfall. Two of the older boys went in after him but never found him. His body was found a few blocks away. For many years his mother would walk thru the Park to the falls almost every day at twilite in an old brown trench coat. She was always alone and never talked to anyone that I could tell.

    A neighbor of ours fell in just before the falls and his dog, that he said was an retired Army K9, went in after him. He got out after saving his dog.

    When the water lever was low you could catch turtles alone the bank of the Creek. On the North side of the Creek at the falls was an old construction dump site where we would hunt rabits and small snakes with bow and arrows or BB guns. Today North Park College has a football and track field there that takes up the entire park west of the River.

  6. Frances Archer January 15, 2014 at 9:16 am #

    Thanks, Howard, for sharing these recollections. It’s wonderful to read of a time when kids could skate on the river. I suppose that’s not done these days. And I’m glad to know it was called the Creek.

  7. Dennis Cotter March 31, 2015 at 9:55 am #

    Does anyone remember a place called Bicycle Hills? As best as I can remember, It was nothing more than a series of empty lots adjacent to the river somewhere between River Park and Bryn Mawr (sp) ave.

    It was a kick to ride our bikes over the hills and dirt track. My memories are from the 1945-50 era.

  8. Howie Glantz March 31, 2015 at 1:03 pm #

    It was called Devil’s Hill or Bicycle Paradise between Foster and a little north of Bryn Mawr. I rode it from about 1947 until about 1951. We lived on Whipple at Argyle until 1950 and Bryn Mawr at Francisco after that.

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