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Transportation that built Chicago: The river system

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A look at how Chicago’s network of waterways built and are still changing the Windy City

Curbed Chicago Flickr pool/Frank G.

Chicago owes everything to its waterways. Centuries before the thriving city we see today came into existence, Chicago was the site of a portage that bridged the Great Lakes with the navigable waterways feeding into the Mississippi River. Chicago’s original native population utilized this connection by canoe as did its first documented European explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette in 1673. Its strategic importance led to the establishment of Ft. Dearborn and a small trading post followed. The rest, as they say, is history.


As the city grew and evolved, so did its waterways such as the Chicago, Des Plaines, and Calumet rivers. As a vital part of commerce, an irreplaceable mode of transportation, and catalyst for development, the story of the Second City’s “second coast” continues to be a central thread in Chicago’s identity and development.

Chicago established itself as the nation’s most important non-coastal transportation hub well before the dawn of the rail era by replacing the swampy original portage route with the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848. With the help of the Erie Canal, the Windy City became a fulcrum between the fertile farmland of the Great Plains and the wealth and industrial might of the American Northeast.

Chicago as it appeared in 1820.
Wikipedia

Agricultural goods, lumber, and other raw materials flowed through Chicago with its unique access to both the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Basin fueling local industry and manufacturing. In addition to being its main mode of transportation, the Chicago River served as a convenient sewer for heavy industry’s most noxious byproducts. Those unfamiliar with Upton Sinclair’s 1906 meatpacking exposé The Jungle need only to Google search “Bubbly Creek” to get a brief but stomach-churning understanding of the situation.

Six years before Sinclair’s eye-opening novel, Chicago was forced to enlist the help of the Army Corps of Engineers to reverse the river’s course when industrial pollutants and human waste flowing into Lake Michigan fueled typhoid and put the city’s water supply in serious jeopardy. The very thing that created Chicago threatened to destroy it. The solution used a series of locks to direct the flow into the newly completed Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal connecting the Chicago River to the Des Plaines and Calumet rivers via the Calumet-Saganashkee (Cal-Sag) Channel.

Thanks to its waterways and the emerging railroad network, Chicago experienced a miraculous recovery in the decades following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. With the advent of the skyscraper, the city literally grew up around the mouth of its bustling river and it became a city of bridges. Utilizing many designs—Trunnion, Double Leaf, and Bascule—no two bridges were quite alike and to this day feature operator houses with unique architectural designs.

A photograph of the capsized Eastland.
Wikipedia

Despite early efforts to clean up its act, the Chicago River and its greater network of canals remained a hazardous way to move goods and people. A stark reminder of the danger came in 1915 when the SS Eastland capsized on the Main Branch and 844 passengers and crew members lost their lives mere feet from the riverbank. The disaster represented the largest loss of life from a single shipwreck in the history the Great Lakes.

The 20th century saw the Chicago River’s role as a mode of mass transit diminish with the rise of the automobile, the superhighway, and the suburbs. Much of Chicago’s heavy industry migrated from the city center to its fringes. Despite this shift, the waterway soon took on new importance in the evolution of Chicago as real estate developers looked to tap into a novel idea that people would want to live by the river and use it for pleasure.

This approach was perhaps no better exemplified than with the Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City and River City developments. Bold in their architectural design, these self-contained waterfront mini cities attracted the hip jet-set crowd by featuring unprecedented amenities such as their own supermarkets, bowling alleys, and personal marinas.

With time, the Chicago River grew incrementally cleaner and evolved into an attraction in its own right. Tour boats became a great way for visitors to experience the city and its architecture. Water taxi service provided a quick—albeit seasonal—way for business commuters to travel between train stations and office high-rises. With the addition of the Chicago Riverwalk between Lake Michigan to Lake Street, the transformation of the downtown riverbank really came into its own.

A place to celebrate: The Chicago River draws thousands of revellers to its banks each St. Patricks Day with the bright green dying of its water.
Curbed Chicago Flickr pool/Ian Freimuth

The city’s return to the water has served as a catalyst for new development in places that seemed unlikely decades ago. Mixed-used mega-projects are on tap for places like Goose Island, the former Finkl Steel site, a Chicago Tribune distribution center, and a 62-acre former rail yard in the South Loop.

Building off the unquestionable success of the Chicago Riverwalk, city planners and architects are looking to the future and exploring new concepts for engaging, activating, and protecting the city’s so-called “second lakefront.” As part of the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, the recently-launched River Edge Ideas Lab showcases 27 designs by nine international architecture firms that will guide and inspire efforts to extend the existing Riverwalk south to Ping Tom Park in Chinatown.

Organized by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development and the Metropolitan Planning Council, the River Edge exhibit offers case studies of three specific locations: the back of the Civic Opera House, the Congress Parkway interchange, and the Air Line rail bridge. More than simply a design exercise, the River Edge Ideas Lab will collect public feedback to be incorporated into an updated draft of the River Design Guidelines in 2018.

A conceptual rendering of a new riverwalk at the Civic Opera House by James Corner Field Operations.
River Edge Ideas Lab

With all this focus on the future, it is still possible to glimpse the river’s past. Chicago’s most visible downtown waterways teem with tour boats, taxis, personal pleasure craft, and kayaks and it is easy to think that its industrial importance has gone the way of the dinosaur. This, however, is far from true. Out of sight of most Chicagoans, industrial shipping is still thriving at the Port of Chicago on the city’s Far South Side.

Situated at the mouth of the Calumet River next to the former site of US Steel South Works plant, this fully functional piece of Chicago infrastructure may lack the glitz and glamor of the riverwalk but is fascinating in its own right. There is even a small but dedicated group of boat enthusiasts that gather at the S. Ewing Avenue bridge and Calumet Fisheries to watch their favorite Great Lakes freighters arrive or depart.

The Calumet departs the Port of Chicago.
Jay Koziarz

There’s something special and almost calming about watching a 700-foot-long bulk carrier slowly steam in or out the Port of Chicago. It provides a unique glimpse at a side of Chicago transportation that most people don’t see. Perhaps more importantly, it serves as an awe inspiring reminder as to why Chicago was built in the first place.