“This river of unspeakable filth and the laughing stock of the nation”
New York Times January 16, 1900
The Chicago River has come a long way since the turn of the 20th century. At the beginning of the 21st century, I felt an urgent need to document the river because of the many substantial changes I observed. The varied and changing landscape of the Chicago River fascinated me. During my explorations, I found vestiges of an earlier time as well as the unfolding of a new conceptualization of the river.
Chicago, for much of its history, used its river for industrial and commercial purposes, such as transportation of raw materials and finished goods, and for waste disposal. Innumerable factories and shops manufacturing products of all kinds, together with warehouses, stockyards, and meatpacking plants lined the river. In addition, the residents of the city dumped their waste into the river, turning it into a noxious sewer, which emptied into Lake Michigan in close proximity to where the city obtained its drinking water. Every year many people died from dysentery, typhus and other diseases. Between 1889 and 1910, to protect the drinking water, the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago built the Sanitary and Ship Canal, which reversed the flow of the river away from the lake and into the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. This project was hailed as one of the engineering marvels of the age and saved countless lives.
Today, as the industrial and commercial uses of he river have faded, the focus has turned to aesthetics and ecology—making the river an asset to be preserved for all to enjoy. I was surprised and delighted to find that a number of obsolete industrial properties on the south side of the city had been razed and converted to public parks with trees and flowers, walking paths, and fishing spots. In spite of the incongruity of these parks being nestled between factories, warehouses, and grain elevators, they are a welcome source of recreation for local residents. Fish have returned to many areas along the length of the river where the water was previously too polluted to support them. Downtown, many older buildings have been repurposed as condominiums and offices, and a huge amount of new construction has taken place.
North of the city, forest preserves were created in the late 1800’s and built with two main goals – as a respite from the rapidly growing towns, and for flood control. When working there, I saw deer, beaver and muskrats; and had it not been for the well-groomed paths and the ever-present noise of automobiles, I would have thought I was in wilderness.
I leave for future generations an historical, visual document of the Chicago River from 1999 to 2010. I came to love the Chicago River. I found beauty in it all–remnants of the stinking, polluted past as well as the emergence of the sparkling, shiny new.