Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Bubbly Creek

Where Michigan Avenue crosses the Chicago River stand four large, regal-looking towers, two on each bank, flanking the lift bridge. Only one or two of them houses the mechanism that raises and lowers the bridge, but the builders thought four would look better and more impressive. So there are four. The bridge is so delicately balanced that it only takes the equivalent of a 1950s Volkswagon engine to lift and lower it.

One of them is now the Chicago Bridge Museum, which I had never even known existed, and to which, had it not been for my friend Gary, I would probably never have given a second thought.

Chicago has more lift bridges than any city in the country, and the Chicago River is, I believe, the only river in the world that flows backward. How it came to do so is a fascinating (to me) story.

Chicago was born where two slow-moving streams, the North Branch and the South Branch joined to form the Main Stem, linking the branches to Lake Michigan. The surrounding territory was largely inhospitable marshland and bogs which the city’s growth slowly consumed. The Chicago River served as the city’s sewer and until only recently was one of the most polluted bodies of water in America if not the world. Because the sewage flowed down the North Branch and up the South Branch and into the Main Stem, all the sewage, garbage, and general debris of the city flowed freely into Lake Michigan, which was and is the city’s main source of drinking water. A water pump station was built out in the lake beyond the area of main pollution, but the pollution produced by the city’s growth soon overtook it and another station was built further out, which in turn was soon overtaken.

It was decided to dig a canal connecting the South Branch to the Des Plaines river, therefore routing the growing city’s garbage and sewage from Lake Michigan and sending it down stream to the Mississippi, St. Louis and beyond. Only because the land sloped to the west was this possible, but once the canal was opened, the river reversed its flow.

All the growing city’s industrial waste and garbage could then happily be tossed into the Chicago River and let the people downstream on the Mississippi worry about it.

As the city continued to grow, the gigantic Chicago Stockyards were constructed along another stream feeding into the South Branch, called “Bubbly Creek”…a lovely name conjuring up images of forest and glens and clear artesian water bubbling up from the earth. Unfortunately, that image would be wrong. Bubbly Creek received its name from the fact that the tens of thousands of cattle carcasses and general offal from the slaughter houses were dumped into it, and their rotting at the bottom of the creek created methane gas which bubbled to the surface.

During the great Chicago fire, a large stretch of the South Branch, including Bubbly Creek, actually caught fire.

Throughout most of its history, Chicago was known not for its beauty but for its stench. One prominent New York businessman arrived in Chicago by train, stepped onto the platform, took one whiff of the air, got back on the train and never returned. And even today, after years of devoted and concentrated effort to restore the river’s purity, swimming in and fishing from the river are discouraged.

And there you have it. As I said, fascinating. You must come and visit some day, and take a boat cruise up the river. It’s a really beautiful way to see the city. And you don’t have to hold your nose anymore.

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