Chicago River in Chicago
The Chicago River is a system of rivers and canals with a combined length of 156 mi that runs 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. 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.
When it followed its natural course, the North and South Branches of the Chicago River converged at Wolf Point to form the Main Stem, which jogged southward from the present course of the river to avoid a baymouth bar entering Lake Michigan at about the level of present day Madison Street. Today, the Main Stem of the Chicago River flows west from Lake Michigan to Wolf Point, where it converges with the North Branch to form the South Branch, which flows south west and empties into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
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. 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.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. 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. The West Fork rises near Mettawa and flows south through Bannockburn, Deerfield, and Northbrook, meeting the North Branch at Morton Grove.
The North Branch continues southwards though Niles, entering the city of Chicago near the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue and Devon Avenue, 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. 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.
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. Here is passes beneath the Cortland Street Drawbridge, which was the first 'Chicago-style' fixed-trunnion bascule bridge built in the United States, 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 ft wide and 10 ft deep allowing craft navigating the river to avoid the bend. 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 and was designated a Chicago Landmark in 2007. From Goose Island the North Branch continues to flow south east to Wolf Point where it joins the Main Stem.
The source of the Main Stem of the Chicago River is Lake Michigan. Water enters the river through sluice gates at the Chicago River Controlling Works with a small additional flow provided by the passage of boats between the river and Lake Michigan through the Chicago Lock. The surface level of the river is maintained at 0.5 to below the Chicago City Datum (579.48 ft above mean sea level) except for when there is excessive storm run-off into the river or when the level of the lake is more than 2 feet below the Chicago City Datum. Acoustic velocity meters at the Columbus Drive Bridge and the T.J. O'Brien lock on the Calumet River monitor the diversion of water from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River basin, which is limited to an average of 3200 cuft per second per year over the 40 year period from 1980 to 2020.
The Main Stem flows 1.5 mi west from the controlling works at Lake Michigan; passing beneath the Outer Drive, Columbus Drive, Michigan Avenue, Wabash Avenue, State Street, Dearborn Street, Clark Street, La Salle Street, Wells Street, and Franklin Street bridges en route to its confluence with the North Branch at Wolf Point. At McClurg Court it passes the Nicholas J Melas Centennial Fountain, which was built in 1989 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago; between May and October the fountain sends an arc of water over the river for ten minutes every hour. On the north bank of the river, near the Chicago Landmark Michigan Avenue Bridge, is Pioneer Court, which marks the site of the homestead of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable who is recognized as the founder of Chicago. On the south bank of the river is the site of Fort Dearborn. Notable buildings surrounding this area include the NBC Tower, the Tribune Tower, and the Wrigley Building. The river turns slightly to the south west between Michigan Avenue and State Street, passing the Trump International Hotel and Tower, 35 East Wacker, and 330 North Wabash. Turning west again the river passes Marina City, the Reid, Murdoch & Co. Building, and Merchandise Mart, and 333 Wacker Drive.
The source of the South Branch of the Chicago River is the confluence of the North Branch and Main stem at Wolf Point. From here the river flows south passing the Lake Street, Randolph Street, Washington Street, Madison Street, Monroe Street, Adams Street, Jackson Boulevard, Van Buren Street, Congress Parkway, and Harrison Street bridges before leaving the downtown Loop community area. 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.
The river continues southwards past railroad yards. Between Polk and 18th Streets the river originally made a meander to the east; between 1927 and 1929 the river was straightened and moved 1/4 mi west at this point to make room for a railroad terminal. The river turns to the south west at Ping Tom Memorial Park where it passes under the Chicago Landmark Canal Street railroad bridge. The river turns westward where it is crossed by the Dan Ryan Expressway; these immovable bridges have a clearance of 60 ft requiring large ships that pass underneath to have folding masts.
At Ashland Avenue the river widens to form the U.S. Turning Basin, the west bank of which was the starting point of the Illinois and Michigan Canal.. At the basin the river is joined by a tributary, the South Fork of the river, which is commonly given the nickname Bubbly Creek. A bridge used to span the South Fork at this point that was too low for boats to pass meaning that their cargo needed to be unloaded at the bridge, and the surrounding neighborhood became known as Bridgeport. The river continues to the south west, entering the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal at Damen Avenue. The original West Fork of the South Branch has been filled in; a triangular intrusion into the north bank at Damen Avenue marks the place where it diverged from the course of the canal. These channels rapidly clogged with sand requiring a new one to be cut. On March 2, 1833 $25,000 was appropriated by Congress for harbor works, and work began in June of that year under the supervision of Major George Bender, the commandant at Fort Dearborn. The dyeing of the river is still sponsored by the local plumbers union.
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.<ref name="fairfield" /> 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.<ref name="fairfield" /> Forty pounds of vegetable dye are used to color the river for the celebration.
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.
- Centennial Fountain
- Chicago's First Lady
- Illinois Department of Transportation
- List of rivers of Illinois
Notes and references
- Friends of the Chicago River
- Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago