The desolate stretch of territory alongside the South Branch of the Chicago River is littered with the shed husks of the city’s industrial past. Along overgrown banks, the rusting ribs of derelict warehouses poke out beneath crumbling storage silos. Just before South Ashland Avenue cuts across the river, there is a small spit of land where the South Branch splits—a couple of acres at most. Canal Origins Park is choked with weeds and windblown trash. Its concrete path leading to the river is lined with historical signs, now sun-bleached and obscured by a palimpsest of graffiti tags. A line of electrical pylons marches along the riverbank toward the hazy skyline of downtown, four miles distant.
Locals gather at a railing, fishing in the brown water. One angler, a retired limo driver originally from Michoacán, Mexico, chomps a cigar beneath his handlebar mustache and surveys the scene. I ask him if he ever eats fish from the river, and he just laughs. He’s a regular here, he tells me, but returned to the spot only a few days ago after having stayed away for weeks.
“The day after it rained, there was so much dead fish floating around,” he says, gesturing toward the river with his cigar. “Hundreds of ’em.” Chicago’s sewer system, overwhelmed by the heavy rainstorm, had overflowed again. He points to the concrete drainpipes that had disgorged tens of thousands of gallons of untreated waste and pollutants into the river. “They tested the water, said it was safe,” he says. “Maybe it was. I left, and I didn’t come back. It was horrible—the smell.”
It’s been a troubled stretch of water for a long time. Made infamous in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, the south fork of the South Branch served as the gutter for the vast Union Stock Yards, at one time the world’s largest meat producer, where several hundred million head of livestock were processed in the century after the Civil War. As Sinclair vividly described it, the creek was so clogged with grease and offal that people would mistake it for solid ground and fall in. Sometimes the surface would catch fire. Bubbles of methane would periodically rise up from the depths and burst, giving it its nickname, Bubbly Creek.
A shout goes up at the rail as a second fisherman struggles with his bent-double rod. (“Might’ve got one!” he yells out to his friends, before adding the requisite punch line: “But it’s got three eyes!”) When he finally hauls his catch onto the bank, it is revealed to be not a fish at all, but rather a large (and angry) red-eared slider turtle. A group gathers around as he frantically tries to remove the hook without losing a finger to the turtle’s snapping beak. Eventually the hook is freed, and everyone steps back as the dripping creature scuttles to the edge and launches itself over, splashing down and vanishing beneath the murky water.
The turtle is a strange visitor in such a profoundly altered landscape, one where the natural world seems buried beneath a sedimentary burden of human detritus. But as unloved and forgotten as this little river junction appears, it has been as central to Chicago’s history as the skyscrapers piled up theatrically in the distance. It’s hard to ascribe majesty to such a dirty, ruin-crowded waterway, a rill so narrow it can be easily spanned by a well-thrown baseball. But it would be even harder to overstate this river’s importance to both the past and future of its city. Chicago—and America along with it—grew up around this river. A burgeoning nation’s commerce, sweeping migrations of humanity, colossal feats of engineering and architecture: all combined on either side of its banks to form the “stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders” that Carl Sandburg invoked in his great poem “Chicago.”
More than a century ago in this exact spot, human ingenuity shaped nature to its will, smashing through the earthen barrier that separated the Mississippi River drainage area from the vast freshwater reservoir of the Great Lakes, stitching together the commercial energies and distinct ecosystems of the North American continent. The consequences of that decision are still playing out today in a metropolis where more than seven million people draw their drinking water from Lake Michigan—and where those same people pump their sewage back into the river. Myriad threats, from water pollution to flooding and invasive species, have made the question of what to do about the Chicago River one of the most important questions facing the city. And simply by asking it, Chicagoans are acknowledging a basic existential struggle.