"Chicago’s River At Work And At Play"


The Chicago River has long been thought of as Chicago’s second shoreline, overlooked by Lake Michigan. In Chicago’s River At Work And At Play, author Neal Samors and photographer Steven Dahlman explore the history and future of the Chicago River.


Photo by Steven DahlmanRead an interview with Samors, view a slideshow, and read the preface of the book, written by former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

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Why did you choose the Chicago River as the subject of your book?

Well, the simple answer is the Chicago River is at the very heart of Chicago history; everything in Chicago history was tied in with the river. From Native Americans and the earliest settlers living along the river, everything was tied into the river.

Is that still true today? Are Chicagoans tied to the Chicago River?

I think it’s even more true today. Few Chicagoans were ever aware of the Chicago River. But now there is more talk about the future of the river and the threats to the river, so more people are aware of their tie to it.

What makes the Chicago River and architectural tours so iconic for tourists and Chicagoans?

The first issue is there is no way to see the buildings and the beauty of the architecture along the river unless you are on the river. The architectural tours on the river by the Chicago Architecture Foundation are great; they really give you the architectural history.

Why has the Chicago River been ignored in protection and restoration efforts compared to Lake Michigan?

The Chicago River was taken for granted. It was always a way to bring in commerce into the city and there wasn’t a draw for citizens. The lake has the beaches and the lakefront, and Lake Shore Drive. People go over the Michigan Avenue Bridge and think, ‘this is the Chicago River,’ and that’s it. Now the river has boat races, tours, and more housing is springing up along the river, so people are starting to notice the beauty.

What are some of the contributing factors that led the river to be so polluted throughout its history?

Industrial waste. For years, companies along the river dumped waste and products into the river. The biggest polluters of them all actually were the union stockyards, dumping animal carcasses into the river. That’s why you have places like Bubbly Creek now. There were no rules then about dumping. It’s only really because of the disease that broke out that people realized there was a problem.

Your title of the book is Chicago’s River At Work And At Play. Can you give me a brief history on how the river transformed from an industrial necessity to a recreational retreat for residents?

The key factor was in 1900 when the decision was made to reverse the river and have the pollution float downstream and away from Lake Michigan. It was very much a working river even into the 20th century. The river was a key source of commerce for the city.

It was former Mayor Richard J. Daley who said he looked forward to the day when people could fish in the Chicago River. It had been polluted for a very long time. The river should be seen as the waterway system. It’s a very complicated waterway system.

In the book, you discuss two tragedies along the Chicago River; one is the sinking of the S.S. Eastland. Can you give us some background on that?

The basic story was people who worked at Western Electric; it was some kind of company tour or company boat ride. They got on this boat and all moved to one side of the boat, and it contributed to it tipping over. It was awful, hundreds of people died, entire families even. It killed more people than the Great Chicago Fire even.

Can you discuss the Deep Tunnel project and the role it has in preventing water pollution?

When there are heavy rains, there are only so many places the water can go. The decision was to take big quarries where water could be poured into so it wouldn’t flood basements. They aren’t done with it yet. The goal is to have enough places to store the rainwater now to avoid pollution and flooding basements again.

What did the 1900 reversal of the Chicago River mean at the time for the city? Why was it necessary?

There was no way to get rid of the pollution. We couldn’t send it to Lake Michigan because that was the source of water for the city. With typhoid outbreaks, the decision was made with the Ship Canal to reverse the flow of the river and have it flow into the Mississippi River instead of into Lake Michigan. It has not been a perfect solution, but other suggestions are being made to fight the pollution, even re-reversing the river.

You talk about future challenges facing the security of the Chicago River, one of which is preventing invasive species like the Asian Carp. What’s the plan to prevent this threat to the Chicago River?

Currently, electric barriers are being used and so far the electric barriers haven’t solved the problems. There are strong feelings about solutions; one is building concrete barriers at certain points throughout the river because the carp is able to get through or around the electric barriers somehow. The threats to other cities along Lake Michigan make it a federal problem as well as a city problem.

Interview has been condensed and edited.


Read the book's preface, written by former Mayor Richard M. Daley:

Richard M. Daley

Photo by Steven Dahlman

People from all over the world marvel at the beauty of Chicago’s lakefront but what is often overlooked is another body of water that is just as important to our city’s history, identity and vitality – and its future.

The Chicago River.

This river and the growth and prosperity of Chicago are inextricably linked. Our great city was founded on the banks of the Chicago River. It has played an integral role establishing Chicago as a center of commerce and transportation. And its reversal was not only a huge, internationally-recognized feat of civil engineering, it also symbolized our city’s innovative spirit and ability to accomplish big things. In fact, the Chicago River is such an essential part of our City’s history that it is symbolized as part of Chicago’s flag.

I’ve always seen the Chicago River as a great asset to the City of Chicago and its residents. The restoration of the river and the ability of families and visitors to utilize it as a second shoreline was always a big priority to me during my time as Mayor. Working together with advocates, businesses and civic organizations, we made a significant amount of progress cleaning up the river and reclaiming it for the people of Chicago.

For far too long the river was neglected. Its wildlife went unprotected. Its shores were damaged. The water was so deeply contaminated because of the decades of industrial waste that ran through it.

The Chicago River was a constant part of the neighborhood I grew up in. From the 1800s on, Bridgeport was where the immigrant workers lived when they were constructing the Illinois and Michigan Canal that connected Chicago to the Mississippi River. Growing up in the Hamburg section of Bridgeport, I have strong memories of Bubbly Creek, a part of the river that used to flow through the Union Stockyards where animal carcasses were discarded and methane gas from the decomposition would bubble out of it.

Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

When my dad was Mayor, he used to say that one day Chicagoans would be able to fish in the Chicago River. Of course, that statement was met by laughter from people because at the time the river was so polluted and its restoration seemed so unlikely. But he understood how the river connected so many neighborhoods and people as well as the potential that it had to be a natural and recreational resource to Chicagoans. 

When I became mayor, I was determined to take the necessary steps to both restore and modernize the Chicago River. I’ve always said that Lake Michigan is part of the Chicago River and vice versa so we need to protect them both as a unit. Historically, since the reversal of the river, they’ve always been viewed as separate and we need to work as hard at protecting the river as we have with protecting the lake.

For years, the Chicago River was perceived as a boundary around Chicago’s downtown area or Central Business District. One of my priorities as mayor was to grow our downtown and that meant new office buildings and other real estate needed to be developed on the other side of the river. This gave us a new opportunity to think creatively about how the Chicago River could fit within, and enhance our future plans. Shortly after I was elected to my first term, my administration partnered with Friends of Chicago River, a local advocacy organization, to develop urban design guidelines for new riverfront development in downtown Chicago.  The new guidelines helped to preserve and enhance the beauty and integrity of the river, while also expanding public access to the river for downtown workers, residents and tourists in ways that were not previously considered. Working together we established Chicago as a national leader in reclaiming downtown waterways as assets. Other cities later followed our lead. 

Over the next several years, my administration adopted riverfront design guidelines for the entire 28-mile length of the Chicago River, with the goal of making it a more valuable resource not just downtown, but for the many neighborhoods it runs through. Our 1999 Chicago River Corridor Development Plan and Design guidelines, along with a new citywide setback ordinance for riverfront development, set new standards for residential, commercial and industrial development, called for more public access and a continuous public trail system 

These new guidelines generated a lot of new public attention for the Chicago River and led to new demand for riverfront development and recreational opportunities. Property values along the river, both downtown and in neighborhoods, increased and the river quickly became perceived as Chicago’s second shoreline -- a dramatic shift from its role from 100 years earlier as a sewer system.

Photo by Steven Dahlman

Our progress on the Chicago River continued into the 21st century, when I directed the Chicago Park District to create a plan that would increase the amount of public open space along the river. Chicago’s forefathers had the wisdom to create and maintain public open space along the Lake Michigan shoreline – a decision that helped maintain Chicago as one of the most beautiful, livable cities in the world – and I saw obvious benefits to Chicago’s neighborhoods and residents from doing the same along the river. With the Park District’s new Chicago River Master Plan as our guide, we began acquiring riverfront property and developing dozens of acres for new riverfront parks, while also creating new bike trails, walking paths and wildlife habitat.

With the Chicago River now a growing centerpiece of our city, beginning in 2003, my administration launched a renewed focus on water quality and conservation of the Chicago River, Lake Michigan and Chicago’s other water resources.  Many Chicagoans take water for granted because the city and region have been blessed with an abundance of fresh water resources. In fact, the Great Lakes overall represent 84% of North America’s surface fresh water and 21% of the world’s supply of surface fresh water.

But like other natural resources, there is a danger in their long-term sustainability without a plan to ensure their future. Without clean and plentiful water resources, Chicago’s future as a city would certainly be in jeopardy.

So we developed the Chicago Water Agenda and the Chicago River Agenda, both of which laid out new, forward-thinking strategies for keeping our critically important water resources safe, clean and plentiful for future generations. Both the Water and River agendas were premised on my long-held and strong belief that government should lead by example. And both laid out aggressive new policies and programs for City government, with the goal of encouraging the private sector, civic leaders and residents to follow our models.    

The City initiated a series of activities, including aggressive enforcement against illegal dumping along and into the Chicago River and removing combined sewer overflow outfall pipes along the river. While the Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s “Deep Tunnel” project became the primary long-term approach for dealing with storm water, my administration also issued new guidelines to promote innovative storm water management techniques. We launched programs to install French drains and permeable paving to enable water to be absorbed into the ground instead of sending it straight to the sewer system and increasing the risks of combined sewer overflows into our waterways. And we encouraged residents and businesses to disconnect their downspouts, use rain barrels, build green roofs and install more natural landscaping such as bio swales and native trees and plants.

We also pioneered the “ultimate disconnected downspout”, when I charged the City and Park District to install a storm water management tunnel to capture clean rainwater from the immense flat roof of the new McCormick Place West convention center building so it could be diverted straight to Lake Michigan instead of going to the sewer system. The tunnel, which is 3,400 feet in length and extends from the roof to 160 feet below the surface of the lake, has the capacity to keep an average of 55 million gallons of water out of the sewer system every year.

One of the most exciting components of our river revitalization plan was the design and construction of the Chicago Riverwalk, which is located downtown along Wacker Drive on the river’s main branch. The first phase of the Riverwalk was built into the design of the newly reconstructed Lower Wacker Drive, which opened in 2001-2002. The new East-West portion of Wacker Drive was built to accommodate a publicly-accessible walkway along the river’s edge. This included connections under each bridge to provide a continuous walkway through downtown along the river, and space for retail, entertainment, dining and recreational activities. We completed the first phase of the downtown Riverwalk in 2005 with the opening of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza and the next phase was completed in 2009 which expanded river-level walkways beneath the Michigan and Wabash bridges. This provided a continuous connection along the river from Lake Michigan to State Street. Residents can enjoy a closer connection to the river along with restaurants, cafes, water taxis, bike rentals, art exhibits and other attractions including the McCormick Bridgehouse and the Chicago River Museum.

Between 2005 and 2011, the Chicago Park District acquired more than 43 acres of new parkland along the river for parks and recreational purposes. The City built or expanded nine parks along the river, restored thousands of feet of riverbank, worked with the private sector to install more than 13 miles of riverwalk and adopted plans for several new canoe launches.

One of the things that people have to remember is that natural resources like air and water cross regional boundaries and therefore in order to take a comprehensive approach to conserving them cities need to work together. Since they are connected, efforts we make in one area ultimately help many other areas. In 2003, I organized a bi-national coalition of mayors from the Great Lakes cities in the United States and Canada and formed the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative (GLSLCI). The GLSLCI is an organization of local officials committed to working actively with federal, state and provincial governments to advance the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. We began with only about 15 mayors.  Over the years, the organization has grown to include more than 100 mayors and together we were able to deliver a strong voice to lobby for funding and ensure that these important resources are preserved for future generations. 

By the time I retired from office in 2011, we had made great strides with revitalizing the Chicago River and it has clearly come to be known as a major urban destination. The architecture tours along the Chicago River are now one of the top ten activities for tourists that visit the city. There are new boat launches up and down for the river for motorized boats and for canoe, kayaks and row boats, both for sport and for pleasure. New parks along the river host neighborhood festivals, sporting events and other community activities. Additional bike trails and signage along the river direct recreational users to areas previously off limits or undiscovered, and many new species of new wildlife can be seen all along and in the river.

I know the big strides we made to revitalize the Chicago River will continue. Yet future leaders will also have to deal with ongoing challenges such as keeping invasive species out, continuing to improve water quality, and whether or not the river should be re-reversed to improve the ecology of Lake Michigan.

Daniel Burnham in his Plan for Chicago envisioned public access to water as one of the keys to enhancing the city’s quality of life. As a city our goal has been to find innovative ways to appropriately combine the natural and built environments, such as the lake and the river, into a vibrant urban community for our residents.  I’m proud to say, we have succeeded so far.

Too bad my dad isn’t here to see it. Amazingly, the number of fish species in the Chicago River went from only 10 in 1974 to more than 70 today – and what do you know? – people are now fishing in it. 

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