Chicago River

Chicago River
Chicago River
Chicago River main branch at dusk in January 2008
(viewed looking east from Wolf Point)
Country United States
State Illinois
City Chicago
Source Lake Michigan
Length 156 mi (251 km)
Map of the Chicago River
Wikimedia Commons: Chicago River

The Chicago River is a river that runs 156 miles (251 km)[1] through the city of the same name, including its center (the Chicago Loop). Though not especially long, the river is notable for being the reason why Chicago became an important location, as the link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley waterways. In the 19th century through civil engineering, the flow of the river was reversed to head toward the Mississippi River basin, away from Lake Michigan, into which it previously emptied. This was done for reasons of sanitation. The river is also noted for the local custom of dyeing it green on St. Patrick's Day.

The river is memorialized, in part, by two horizontal blue stripes on the Municipal Flag of Chicago.[2] The river also serves as inspiration for one of Chicago's ubiquitous symbols: a three-branched, Y-shaped symbol (called the municipal device) is found on many buildings and other structures throughout Chicago; it represents the three branches of the Chicago River.[3] [4]



A view of the Chicago River from the South Branch, looking toward the Main Branch (right) and the North Branch (upper left) at Wolf Point

Originally, the river flowed into Lake Michigan; its North and South Branches converged at Wolf Point to form the Main Stem, which jogged southward from the present course of the river to avoid a baymouth bar and entered the lake at about the level of present day Madison Street.[5] Today, the Main Stem of the Chicago River flows due west from Lake Michigan, past the Wrigley Building and the Merchandise Mart to Kinzie Street, where it converges with the North Branch to form the South Branch, which flows south west towards the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

North Branch

Early settlers named the North Branch of the Chicago River the Guarie River, or Gary's River, after a trader who may have settled west bank of the river a short distance north of Wolf Point, at what is now Fulton Street.[6][7] The source of the North Branch is in the northern suburbs of Chicago where its three principal tributaries converge. The Skokie River—or East Fork—rises from a flat area, historically a wetland, near Park City, Illinois to the west of the city of Waukegan.[8]It then flows southward, paralleling the edge of Lake Michigan, through wetlands, the Greenbelt Forest Preserve and a number of golf courses towards Highland Park, Illinois.[9] South of Highland Park the river passes the Chicago Botanic Gardens and though an area of former marshlands known as the Skokie Lagoons. The Middle Fork arises near Rondout, Illinois and flows southwards through Lake Forest and Highland Park. These two tributaries merge at Watersmeet Woods west of Wilmette, from there the North Branch flows south towards Morton Grove.[10] The West Fork rises near Mettawa and flows south through Bannockburn, Deerfield, and Northbrook, meeting the North Branch at Morton Grove.[11]

CTA train and kayakers on the North Branch, from the Wilson Avenue bridge

The North Branch continues southwards though Niles, entering the city of Chicago near the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue and Devon Avenue,[12] from where it serves as the boundary of the Forest Glen community area with Norwood Park and Jefferson Park. On this stretch of the river it meanders in a south-easterly direction, passing through golf courses and forest preserves until it reaches Foster Avenue, where it passes through residential neighborhoods on the north side of the Albany Park community area.[13] In West River Park the river meets the North Shore Channel, a drainage canal built between 1907 and 1910 to increase the flow of the North Branch and help flush pollution into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. From the confluence with the North Shore Channel south to Belmont Avenue the North Branch flows through mostly residential neighborhoods in a man-made channel that was dug to straighten and deepen the river, helping it to carry the additional flow from the North Shore Channel.[14]

South of Belmont the North Branch is lined with a mixture of residential developments, retail parks, and industry until it reaches the industrial area known as the Clybourn Corridor.[15] Here is passes beneath the Cortland Street Drawbridge, which was the first 'Chicago-style' fixed-trunnion bascule bridge built in the United States,[16] and is designated as an ASCE Civil Engineering Landmark and a Chicago Landmark.

At North Avenue, south of the North Avenue Bridge, the North Branch divides, the original course of the river makes a curve along the west side of Goose Island, whilst the North Branch Canal cuts off the bend, forming the island. The North Branch Canal—or Ogden's Canal—was completed in 1857, and was originally 50 feet (15 m) wide and 10 feet (3.0 m) deep allowing craft navigating the river to avoid the bend.[17] The 1902 Cherry Avenue Bridge, just south of North Avenue, was constructed to carry the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway onto Goose Island. It is rare example of an asymmetric bob-tail swing bridge[18] and was designated a Chicago Landmark in 2007.[19] From Goose Island the North Branch continues to flow south east to Wolf Point where it joins the Main Stem.

Main Stem

The Main Branch of the river, Wrigley Building, and Tribune Tower at night.

The Main Stem of the Chicago River flows due west from Lake Michigan to Kinzie Street. Notable buildings that line this stretch of the river include the NBC Tower, the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, the Trump International Hotel and Tower, 35 East Wacker, 330 North Wabash, Marina City, the Reid, Murdoch & Co. Building, and Merchandise Mart, and 333 Wacker Drive.

South Branch

From downtown, the river flows south along the South Branch, and into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. From there, the water flows into the Des Plaines River and eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

Notable buildings that line this stretch of the river include the Boeing Company World Headquarters, the Civic Opera House, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and Union Station.


Early non-Native American settlers

Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette, though probably not the first Europeans to visit the area, are the first recorded to have visited the Chicago River in 1673, when they wrote of their discovery of the geographically vital Chicago Portage.[20] Marquette returned in 1674, camped a few days near the mouth of the river, then moved on to the Chicago River–Des Plaines River portage, where he stayed through the winter of 1674–75. The Fox Wars effectively closed the Chicago area to Europeans in the first part of the 18th century. The first non-native to re-settle in the area may have been a trader named Guillory, who might have had a trading-post near Wolf Point on the Chicago River in around 1778.[21] In 1823 a government expedition used the name Gary River (phonetic spelling of Guillory) to refer to the north branch of the Chicago River.

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable is widely regarded as the first permanent resident of Chicago; he built a farm on the northern bank at the mouth of the river in the 1780s.[22] The earliest known record of Pointe du Sable living in Chicago is the diary of Hugh Heward, who made a journey through Illinois in the spring of 1790. Antoine Ouilmette claimed to have arrived in Chicago shortly after this in July of 1790.[23] In 1808, Fort Dearborn was constructed on the opposite bank on the site of the present-day Michigan Avenue Bridge.[24]

Note the "Before" map above does not include the layout of the then existing Illinois and Michigan Canal (built 1848), which did not generally affect directional flow

Early improvements

In the 1830s and 1840s, considerable effort was made to cut a channel through the sandbar to improve shipping, supervised by James Allen.[25]

In 1848, the Illinois and Michigan canal linked the river to the Illinois River and the Mississippi Valley across the Chicago Portage.

In 1900, the river's flow was reversed in order to keep Lake Michigan clean. In 1928, the South Branch of the Chicago River between Polk and 18th Street was straightened and moved 14 miles (0.40 km) west to make room for a railroad terminal.

Reversing the flow

During the last ice age, the area that became Chicago was covered by Lake Chicago, which drained south into the Mississippi Valley. As the ice and water retreated, a short 12 to 14-foot (4.3 m) ridge was exposed about a mile inland which generally separated the Great Lake's watershed from the Mississippi Valley, except in times of heavy precipitation or when winter ice flows prevented drainage.[26] By the time Europeans arrived, the Chicago River flowed sluggishly into Lake Michigan from Chicago's flat plain. As Chicago grew, this allowed sewage and other pollution into the clean-water source for the city, contributing to several public health problems, like typhoid fever.[27] Starting in 1848, much of the Chicago River's flow was also diverted across the Chicago Portage into the Illinois and Michigan Canal.[28] In 1871, the old canal was deepened in an attempt to completely reverse the river's flow but the reversal of the river only lasted one season. [29]

Finally, in 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago, then headed by William Boldenweck, completely reversed the flow of the Main Stem and South Branch of the river using a series of canal locks, increasing the river's flow from Lake Michigan and causing it to empty into the newly completed Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. In 1999, this system was named a 'Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium' by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).[30] Before this time, the Chicago River was known by many local residents of Chicago as "the stinking river" because of the massive amounts of sewage and pollution which poured into the river from Chicago's booming industrial economy. Through the 1980s, the river was quite dirty and often filled with garbage; however, during the 1990s, it underwent extensive cleaning as part of an effort at beautification by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

In 2005, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign created a three-dimensional, hydrodynamic simulation of the Chicago River, which suggested that density currents are the cause of an observed bi-directional wintertime flow in the river. At the surface, the river flows east to west, away from Lake Michigan, as expected. But deep below, near the riverbed, water travels, seasonally, west to east, toward the lake.[31]

All outflows from the Great Lakes Basin are regulated by the joint U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes Commission, and the outflow through the Chicago River is set under a U.S. Supreme Court decision (1967, modified 1980 and 1997). The city of Chicago is allowed to remove 3200 cubic feet per second (91 m³/s) of water from the Great Lakes system; about half of this, 1 billion US gallons a day (44 m³/s), is sent down the Chicago River, while the rest is used for drinking water.[32] In late 2005, the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes proposed re-separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins to address such ecological concerns as the spread of invasive species.[33]

Eastland disaster

Passengers being rescued from the hull of the Eastland by the tugboat Kenosha in the Chicago River

In 1915, the Eastland, an excursion boat docked at the Clark Street bridge, rolled over, killing 844 passengers.[34] Many of the passengers were trapped by moving objects such as pianos and tables. The site is now the location of a memorial which was dedicated in 1989. The marker was stolen in 2000 and replaced in 2003. There are plans to build an outdoor exhibit at the site as well.

Chicago Flood

On April 13, 1992, the Chicago Flood occurred when a pile driven into the riverbed caused stress fractures in the wall of a long-abandoned tunnel of the Chicago Tunnel Company near the Kinzie Street railroad bridge. Most of the 60-mile (97 km) network of underground freight railway, which encompasses much of downtown, was eventually flooded, along with the lower levels of buildings it once serviced and attached underground shops and pedestrian ways.


State Street Bridge (foreground), Dearborn Street Bridge, Clark Street Bridge, La Salle Street Bridge, Wells Street Bridge, & Franklin Street Bridge
State Street Bridge raised to allow boats to pass

The first bridge across the Chicago River was constructed over the north branch near the present day Kinzie Street in 1832. A second bridge, over the south branch near Randolph Street, was added in 1833.[35] The first moveable bridge was constructed across the main stem at Dearborn Street in 1834.[36] Today, the Chicago River has 38 movable bridges spanning it, down from a peak of 52 bridges.[37] These bridges are of several different types, including trunnion bascule, scherzer rolling lift, swing bridges, and vertical lift bridges.

The following bascule bridges cross the river (and its south branch) into the Chicago Loop:

  • Harrison Street Bridge (1960)
  • Congress Parkway/I-290 Bridge (1955)
  • Van Buren Street Bridge (1956)
  • Jackson Boulevard Bridge (1917)
  • Adams Street Bridge (1927)
  • Monroe Street Bridge (1919)
  • Madison Street Bridge (1922)
  • Washington Street Bridge (1913)
  • Randolph Street Bridge (1984)
  • Lake Street Bridge (1915)
  • Franklin Street Bridge (1920)
  • Wells Street Bridge (1922)
  • La Salle Street Bridge (1928)
  • Clark Street Bridge (1929)
  • Dearborn Street Bridge (1962)
  • State Street Bridge (1948)
  • Wabash Avenue Bridge (1930)
  • Michigan Avenue Bridge (1920)
  • Columbus Drive Bridge (1982)
  • Outer Drive Bridge, also known as Lake Shore Drive Bridge, Outerlink Drive Bridge or Link Bridge (1936)

Other bridges:


The Chicago River has been highly affected by industrial and residential development with attendant changes to the quality of the water and riverbanks. Several species of freshwater fish are known to inhabit the river, including largemouth and smallmouth bass, rock bass, crappie, bluegill, catfish, and carp. The river also has a large population of crayfish. The South Fork of the Main (South) Branch, which was the primary sewer for the Union Stock Yards and the meat packing industry, was once so polluted that it became known as Bubbly Creek.[38] Illinois has issued advisories regarding eating fish from the river due to PCB and mercury contamination, including a "do not eat" advisory for carp more than 12 inches long.[39] There are concerns that silver carp and bighead carp, now invasive species in the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, may reach the Great Lakes through the Chicago River.[40] Despite the pollution concerns, the Chicago River remains a very popular target for freshwater recreational fishing. In 2006, the Chicago Park District started the annual "Mayor Daley's Chicago River Fishing Festival", which has increased in popularity with each year.

Near the mouth of the Chicago River 2009  
Near the mouth of the Chicago River 1893  
Near the mouth of the Chicago River circa late 1800s  
Near the mouth of the Chicago River 1838  
Near the mouth of the Chicago River 1831  

St. Patrick's Day

The Chicago River during the 2009 Saint Patrick's Day celebration.

As part of a more than forty year old Chicago tradition, the Chicago River is dyed green in observance of St. Patrick's Day.[41] The actual event does not necessarily occur on St. Patrick's Day and is scheduled for the Saturday of the closest weekend. For example in 2009, the river was dyed on Saturday, March 14, 2009, whereas St. Patrick's day was on Tuesday, March 17, 2009.

Bill King, the administrator of Chicago's St. Patrick's Day committee, stated that "the idea of dyeing the Chicago River green originally came about by accident when a group of plumbers were using fluorescein dye to trace illegal substances that were polluting the river".[42] The dyeing of the river is still sponsored by the local plumbers union.[43]

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlawed the use of fluorescein for this purpose, since it was proven to be harmful to the river.[42] The ingredients used to dye the river green today are claimed to be safe and not harmful to the thousands of living organisms that find a habitat in the Chicago River.[42] Forty pounds of vegetable dye are used to color the river for the celebration.[44]

In 2009, in keeping with the Chicago St. Patrick's Day tradition, at the request of First Lady Michelle Obama, who is a Chicago native, the White House fountains were dyed green to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.[45]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ "About Friends of the Chicago River". Friends of the Chicago River. Retrieved 2007-05-20. 
  2. ^ "Municipal Flag of Chicago". Retrieved 2010-05-12. 
  3. ^ "The Municipal Device". Forgotten Chicago. Retrieved 2007-06-20. 
  4. ^ "The Chicago Municipal Device (Y-Shaped Figure)". Chicago Public Library. Archived from the original on 2006-09-03. Retrieved 2007-06-20. 
  5. ^ Hill 2000, p. 32
  6. ^ Quaife 1913, p. 138
  7. ^ Keating, William H. (1824). Narrative of an expedition to the source of St. Peter's river, Lake Winnepeek, Lake of the Woods, &c., performed in the year 1823 (volume 1). H. C. Carey & I. Lea. p. 172. Retrieved 2010-10-30. 
  8. ^ Hill 2000, p. 171
  9. ^ Solzman 2006, pp. 63–64
  10. ^ Solzman 2006, p. 66
  11. ^ Solzman 2006, p. 59
  12. ^ Solzman 2006, p. 67
  13. ^ Solzman 2006, pp. 67–72
  14. ^ Solzman 2006, p. 72
  15. ^ Solzman 2006, p. 85
  16. ^ Hess, Jeffrey A. (1999). "North Avenue Bridge: HAER No. IL-154". National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-07-17. 
  17. ^ Duis 1998, p. 95
  18. ^ "Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, Bridge No. Z-2, Spanning North Branch Canal at North Cherry Avenue, Chicago, Cook County, IL". Historic American Engineering Record. Retrieved 2009-05-03. 
  19. ^ (PDF) CHICAGO LANDMARKS: Individual Landmarks and Landmark Districts designated as of January 1, 2008. Commission on Chicago Landmarks. 2008-01-01. 
  20. ^ Quaife 1913, pp. 22–24
  21. ^ Meehan, Thomas A (1963). "Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the First Chicagoan". Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (Illinois State Historical Society) 56 (3): 439–453. Retrieved 2010-08-17. 
  22. ^ "Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable". The McCormick Tribune Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum. Retrieved 2007-05-20. 
  23. ^ "Ouilmette, Antoine Louis". Early Chicago. Early Chicago, Inc. Retrieved 17 July 2010. 
  24. ^ Durkin Keating, Ann. "Fort Dearborn". Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society. pp. 477. Retrieved 2007-05-20. 
  25. ^ Hill 2000, pp. 69–75
  26. ^ Killey, Myrna M. 1998. Illinois' Ice Age Legacy. Illinois State Geological Survey GeoScience Education Series 14.
  27. ^ "Did 90,000 people die of typhoid fever and cholera in Chicago in 1885?". The Straight Dope. Retrieved 2007-05-20. 
  28. ^ Cain, Louis P. "Water". Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society. pp. 1324. Retrieved 2007-05-20. 
  29. ^ Miller, Donald L. City of the Century (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996) p. 427
  30. ^ American Society of Civil Engineers. "Chicago Wastewater System". Retrieved 15 May 2011. 
  31. ^ "The River Under the River". Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE) at the University of Illinois. Archived from the original on April 25, 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-20. 
  32. ^ Lake Michigan Diversion Supreme Court Consent Decree
  33. ^ "Groups to study separating Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins". The Pantagraph. Retrieved 2009-02-21. 
  34. ^ Hilton, George W. "Eastland". Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society. pp. 408. Retrieved 2007-05-20. 
  35. ^ Albert F. Scharf (1908). Chicago, 1835 (Map). 
  36. ^ Solzman 2006, p. 35
  37. ^ Solzman 2006, p. 29
  38. ^ Solzman 2006, p. 25
  39. ^ "Illinois Fish Advisory: Chicago River". Illinois Department of Public Health. Retrieved 2008-03-17. 
  40. ^ Stern, Andrew (2006-02-20). "Scientists Fear Leaping Carp To Invade US Great Lakes". Reuters. Retrieved 2007-12-20. 
  41. ^ "Dyeing of the River". St. Patrick's Day Parade. Saint Patrick's Day Parade Committee of Chicago. 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-06-14. Retrieved 2009-06-14. 
  42. ^ a b c Battle, British (2003-03-20). "Other cities dye-ing to know what turns Chicago River green.". The Columbia Chronicle (The Fairfield Mirror, via UWIRE). [dead link] Also available through HighBeam Research (registration required).
  43. ^ "Green Chicago River". Sponsor website. Retrieved 15 May 2011. 
  44. ^ Lydon, Dan. "The Man Who Dyed the River Green: Stephen M. Bailey". Retrieved 2011-03-16. 
  45. ^ White House's green fountains: St. Pat's, Mark Silva, March 17, 2009

External links


Coordinates: 41°53′11″N 87°38′15″W / 41.88639°N 87.6375°W / 41.88639; -87.6375

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