The Chicago River

ScienceGreat Chicago Fire (1871)Marshall FieldDeathWrigley Building

The history of Chicago -- a river runs through it.

In 1673, the site that would become Chicago was first seen by Europeans. Father Jacques Marquette and explorer Louis Joliet paddled along the South Branch of the river near where now rises the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the Wrigley Building, the towers Tribune and Trump. and (the future) Trump.

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable became the first permanent, non-native-American resident here and farmed land on the north bank around 1800. An iron pivot bridge was built at Rush Street in 1856, the first of what would become 52 jackknife, pivot, lift and bascule (from the French for "see-saw") movable bridges (some now fixed), the most of any city in the world.

In 1871, with the Great Chicago Fire raging, the river let us down. As the flames advanced northward, residents hoped that the river would stop the advance. Instead the fire leapt over the flowing water, and the thousands who had stood watching from the north bank turned and ran for their lives.

The river was the city's sewer. An 1885 storm washed an unusually large amount of human waste into the river and then out to the lake, the source of the city's drinking water. Some 90,000 people were lost to cholera and typhoid.

The city that can take a hint responded with a massive engineering project involving joining the Great Lakes and the Mississippi drainage systems with a 28-mile canal built from the south branch down to Lockport. Completed in 1900, the river's flow was then controlled by locks at its mouth and at Lockport, making Chicago the only city with a river that flows backward to the Mississippi and south.

That wondrous feat also helped Chicago rise to become the leading city of the Midwest, forcing downstream St. Louis, literally, to number two. No. 2.

In 1915, the Eastland excursion boat, tied up at the Clark Street bBridge, rolled over, killing 812 passengers and crew, 300 more lives lost than in the sinking of the Titanic. In 1992, the river went on an excursion itself, invading the basements of Marshall Field's and other downtown buildings.

We have to forgive the river's misbehavior. If not for it, we wouldn't be gathered here today or, at least, not gathered in the thriving commercial center that Chicago became.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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