Cry Us a River
The desolate stretch of territory alongside the South Branch of the Chicago River is littered with the shed husks of the city’s industrial past. Along overgrown banks, the rusting ribs of derelict warehouses poke out beneath crumbling storage silos. Just before South Ashland Avenue cuts across the river, there is a small spit of land where the South Branch splits -- a couple of acres at most. Canal Origins Park is choked with weeds and windblown trash. Its concrete path leading to the river is lined with historical signs, now sun-bleached and obscured by a palimpsest of graffiti tags. A line of electrical pylons marches along the riverbank toward the hazy skyline of downtown, four miles distant.
Locals gather at a railing, fishing in the brown water. One angler, a retired limo driver originally from Michoacán, Mexico, chomps a cigar beneath his handlebar mustache and surveys the scene. I ask him if he ever eats fish from the river, and he just laughs. He’s a regular here, he tells me, but returned to the spot only a few days ago after having stayed away for weeks.
"The day after it rained, there was so much dead fish floating around," he says, gesturing toward the river with his cigar. "Hundreds of 'em." Chicago’s sewer system, overwhelmed by the heavy rainstorm, had overflowed again. He points to the concrete drainpipes that had disgorged tens of thousands of gallons of untreated waste and pollutants into the river. "They tested the water, said it was safe," he says. "Maybe it was. I left, and I didn’t come back. It was horrible -- the smell."
It’s been a troubled stretch of water for a long time. Made infamous in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, the south fork of the South Branch served as the gutter for the vast Union Stock Yards, at one time the world’s largest meat producer, where several hundred million head of livestock were processed in the century after the Civil War. As Sinclair vividly described it, the creek was so clogged with grease and offal that people would mistake it for solid ground and fall in. Sometimes the surface would catch fire. Bubbles of methane would periodically rise up from the depths and burst, giving it its nickname, Bubbly Creek.
A shout goes up at the rail as a second fisherman struggles with his bent-double rod. ("Might’ve got one!" he yells out to his friends, before adding the requisite punch line: "But it’s got three eyes!") When he finally hauls his catch onto the bank, it is revealed to be not a fish at all, but rather a large (and angry) red-eared slider turtle. A group gathers around as he frantically tries to remove the hook without losing a finger to the turtle’s snapping beak. Eventually the hook is freed, and everyone steps back as the dripping creature scuttles to the edge and launches itself over, splashing down and vanishing beneath the murky water.
The turtle is a strange visitor in such a profoundly altered landscape, one where the natural world seems buried beneath a sedimentary burden of human detritus. But as unloved and forgotten as this little river junction appears, it has been as central to Chicago’s history as the skyscrapers piled up theatrically in the distance. It’s hard to ascribe majesty to such a dirty, ruin-crowded waterway, a rill so narrow it can be easily spanned by a well-thrown baseball. But it would be even harder to overstate this river’s importance to both the past and future of its city. Chicago -- and America along with it -- grew up around this river. A burgeoning nation’s commerce, sweeping migrations of humanity, colossal feats of engineering and architecture: all combined on either side of its banks to form the “stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders” that Carl Sandburg invoked in his great poem "Chicago."
More than a century ago in this exact spot, human ingenuity shaped nature to its will, smashing through the earthen barrier that separated the Mississippi River drainage area from the vast freshwater reservoir of the Great Lakes, stitching together the commercial energies and distinct ecosystems of the North American continent. The consequences of that decision are still playing out today in a metropolis where more than seven million people draw their drinking water from Lake Michigan -- and where those same people pump their sewage back into the river. Myriad threats, from water pollution to flooding and invasive species, have made the question of what to do about the Chicago River one of the most important questions facing the city. And simply by asking it, Chicagoans are acknowledging a basic existential struggle.
That struggle is between two competing visions. One is remedial and pragmatic, the province of engineers and bureaucrats. In their eyes, the river can and should be cleaned up only to the point where it can operate as a safe, functional waterway that exists to meet the demands placed on it by commerce, flood control, and the dispersal of wastewater.
In the alternate vision, however, the river meets all of these demands -- and more. Its proponents seek nothing less than to turn the Chicago River into a civic treasure, its newly cleaned banks lined with parks and homes and restored ecosystems, its very presence a clear and shimmering symbol of a great city built on making, trading, connecting: a symbol of American history’s inexorable flow toward progress. And in the bargain, they seek to make the river a living -- and flourishing -- example of environmental innovation and ecological stewardship, one that generations of Chicagoans will cherish.
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The landscape of present-day Chicago was formed by the retreat of the Wisconsin glacier some 14,000 years ago, which resulted in a flat and marshy plain at the southern end of the enormous Great Lakes basin. The area was settled by Algonquian tribes, who called the slow and sinuous creek flowing into Lake Michigan shikaakwa, after the wild leeks that grew on its banks. When the French explorers Marquette and Jolliet canoed up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers in 1673, native guides showed them a portage -- a few miles of swampy land that required the dragging of boats across a mud flat -- linking the Great Lakes via the Chicago River to the Mississippi River system beyond. And so did a leech-infested marsh become one of the most strategic transit points in all of North America: a key to the continent.
From this stroke of great geographical good fortune, Chicago evolved as a center of commerce and a key transportation hub, Sandburg’s "Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler." In 1848 a canal was dug to formalize the connection between the Chicago River and the lake, and railroads started pinwheeling out from the young city’s center. By the turn of the century, Chicago had grown an astonishing fiftyfold, to 1.7 million people, making it the fifth-largest city in the world. Its breakneck population growth put enormous strain on the river that cut through the city’s center and emptied into the lake, the source of its drinking water. The river flooded frequently and had become hideously polluted: outbreaks of dysentery, typhoid, and cholera throughout the nineteenth century led to fears of a city-destroying epidemic.
The water had to be managed in some way. A municipal agency called the Sanitary District of Chicago had been formed in 1889 to address wastewater and flooding issues for the rapidly expanding city. The idea seized upon by the political bosses was devilishly simple: reverse the Chicago River. By digging a long canal to connect it to the neighboring Des Plaines River, the agency could divert the flow and effectively flush the city’s waste downstream -- and ultimately into the Mississippi -- thus protecting Chicago’s drinking supply, controlling flooding, and opening up a much faster transportation route. Their solution, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, was 160 feet wide, 9 feet deep, and 30 miles long, much of it carved through solid limestone. At the time of its completion, in 1900, it was hailed as a visionary feat of engineering, one that would wash Chicago’s troubles away and bear the city into a healthy and prosperous new future.
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One of the chief logistical hurdles Chicago has faced is how to deal with its wastewater from sewage, storms, and flooding. Because of the city’s marshy location, flooding was a problem from its inception; in 1855 the city council ordered that downtown Chicago be elevated to accommodate a new drainage system. Armies of men working in tandem literally jacked up buildings, streets, and sidewalks by as much as 14 feet.
But the city’s water problems have persisted to the present day. In July 2011, a single storm dropped nearly seven inches of rain overnight; thousands of basements were flooded, and municipal sewers containing both storm runoff and raw sewage overflowed into the Chicago River. To prevent the river from leaping its banks, the locks into Lake Michigan were opened, and millions of gallons of sewage flowed out into the lake. Such floods and sewer overflows have become increasingly common, with untreated human waste gushing into the river after nearly every heavy rain.
To deal with the problem, Chicago’s water agency in 1972 launched one of the largest civil engineering projects in history. It was officially known as the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), but was popularly known as the Deep Tunnel, a massive system which, its champions claimed, would be able to absorb runoff from even the most severe storms. More than a hundred miles of tunnels were dug through layers of bedrock, some as deep as 300 feet belowground, creating a subterranean complex with the capacity to store more than two billion gallons of wastewater. New reservoirs, the other half of the plan, would be able to hold billions more. Forty-one years and several billions of dollars later, completion of the Deep Tunnel is currently slated for 2029.
To get a sense of what the city has to deal with, I drive out to the Mainstream Pumping Station, alongside the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, 15 miles west of downtown. Passing through the enormous circular gate at the facility’s entrance gives me a sense of the Deep Tunnel’s scale: at 32 feet in diameter, it’s the same size as some of the underground pipes that carry Chicago’s waste here. This is one of three such stations in a system that serves more than 10 million people, the vast majority of whom are unaware of its existence.