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The Chicago River is a river that runs and flows through Chicagomarker, including the downtownmarker. Though not especially long, the river is notable for the 19th century civil engineering feats that directed its flow south, away from Lake Michiganmarker, into which it previously emptied, and towards the Mississippi River basin. This was done for reasons of sanitation. The river is also noted for the local custom of dyeing it green to commemorate St. Patrick's Day.


Originally, the river flowed into Lake Michigan. Its course jogged southward from the present river to avoid a baymouth bar, entering the lake at about the level of present day Madison Street. Today, the Main Stem of the Chicago River flows due west from Lake Michigan, past the Wrigley Buildingmarker and the Merchandise Martmarker to Kinzie Street, where it meets the North Branch of the river. The North Branch is formed by the West Fork, the East Fork (also known as the Skokie River) and the Middle Fork, which join into the North Branch at Morton Grove, Illinoismarker. From downtown, the river flows south along the South Branch, and into the Illinois and Michigan Canalmarker and Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. From there, the water flows into the Des Plaines River and eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexicomarker.


Early non-Native American settlers

Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, the Founder of Chicago, was the first non-Native American to establish a permanent residence near the Chicago River. He built his farm on the northern bank at the mouth of the river in the 1780s. In 1808, Fort Dearbornmarker was constructed on the opposite bank on the site of the present-day Michigan Avenue Bridge.

At one time, and as late as 1830, the north branch of today's Chicago River was known locally as Guarie’s (or Gary's) River. Guarie is a phonetic spelling of the name of an early settler/trader by the name of Guillory, who lived along the Chicago river sometime around 1778.

Early improvements

In the 1830s and 1840s, considerable effort was made to cut a channel through the sandbar to improve shipping. 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 west to make room for a railroad terminal.

Reversing the flow

Originally, the river flowed into Lake Michigan. As Chicago grew, this allowed sewage and other pollution into the clean-water source for the city. This contributed to several public health problems, including some problems with typhoid. Starting in the 1850s, much of the flow was diverted across the Chicago Portage into the Illinois and Michigan Canal. In 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago, then headed by Rudolph Hering, completely reversed the flow of the river using a series of canal locks, and caused the river to flow into the newly completed Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. 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.

Recently, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaignmarker 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 west to east, toward the lake.

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.marker Supreme Courtmarker 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. 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.

Eastland disaster

In 1915, the Eastland, an excursion boat docked at the Clark Street bridge, rolled over, killing 844 passengers.

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 Kinzie Street. Most of the 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.


The Chicago River has been highly affected by the industrial and residential areas around 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 Yardsmarker and the meatpacking industry, was once so polluted that it became known as Bubbly Creekmarker. "'Bubbly Creek' is an arm of the Chicago River, and forms the southern [sic; Bubbly Creek runs north from the yards] boundary of the yardsmarker; all the drainage of the square mile of packing-houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide. One long arm of it is blind, and the filth stays there forever and a day. The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily. The packers used to leave the creek that way, till every now and then the surface would catch on fire and burn furiously, and the fire department would have to come and put it out. Once, however, an ingenious stranger came and started to gather this filth in scows, to make lard out of; then the packers took the cue, and got out an injunction to stop him, and afterwards gathered it themselves. The banks of 'Bubbly Creek' are plastered thick with hairs, and this also the packers gather and clean." 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. There are concerns that silver carp and bighead carp, now invasive species in the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, may reach the Great Lakesmarker through the Chicago River. 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.

St. Patrick's Day

As part of a more than forty year old Chicago tradition, the Chicago River is dyed green in observance of St. Patrick's Day. 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".

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. The secret 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.

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.


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. The first movable bridge was constructed across the main stem at Dearborn Street in 1834. Today, the Chicago River has 38 movable bridges spanning it, down from a peak of 52 bridges. 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 Loopmarker:

Other bridges:

Famous buildings

Buildings lining the Chicago River.
Many of Chicago's landmark buildings line the banks of the river. A partial list follows:

Main branch

South branch

See also


  1. Lake Michigan Diversion Supreme Court Consent Decree
  2. White House's green fountains: St. Pat's, Mark Silva, March 17, 2009

External links

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