There may be no place more important to the origins of Chicago itself – and of its environmental injustices – than the 3 way intersection between the Chicago River’s South Branch, it’s South Fork(!), and the Sanitary and Ship Canal. Early explorers found a navigational holy grail of sorts in the Chicago region -the easiest connection yet discovered between the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Gulf of Mexico through the heart of the country. While not yet a direct connection, the proximity of the Chicago River to the DesPlaines River provided a relatively easy portage that ultimately allowed those entering through the great lakes to reach the Mississippi via the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers. Since that “easy portage” consisted of carrying materials 2 miles over an area tellingly known as “mud lake”, in 1848, the I and M Canal was completed, connecting the waterways directly. Later and more infamously, the larger Sanitary and Ship Canal followed part of the I and M’s path, but was dug much deeper in order to cause the river’s flow to be reversed, and it to send Chicago’s waste downstream rather than toward Lake Michigan.
As though that was not enough, this area is also the origin of perhaps the most famously polluted body of water in America at one time. Immortalised in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the muckracking turn of the century novel, the South Fork of the Chicago River flowed past the stockyards on which much of Chicago’s economic power depended. Chicago’s geopolitical position, defined by the St Lawrence/Mississippi connection, meant that it was the logical place for western ranchers to bring livestock in order to have it distributed back east. Due to the need to minimise spoilage, animals were driven to Chicago live and then butchered at the Union Stockyards, which were, at the time, the largest such slaughter complex in the world.
The South Fork of the South Branch provided an apparently quick and easy way to dispose of stockyard byproducts and live animal waste, minimizing immediate threats to human health. However, Bubbly Creek itself quickly became a hazard to human health and sensibilities, as the offal detritus grew and quickly overcame the river’s ability to dilute it.
Famous photos show chickens walking across the thick sludge that covered the river’s surface, and waterborne illness became endemic in the mostly immigrant and low income areas that surrounded this part of the River. The novel made this area known worldwide with its tales of the the horrors of the slaughter houses and meat packing plants, but in so doing start a revolution in regulation of industry in the public interest, leading to the Pure Food Act, the FDA, and many other bodies that safeguard our health and well-being.
Past Urban Environmental Justice classes I have taught have paddled other portions of hte Chicago River, which offer other environmental lessons. But Professor of Sustainability Mike Bryson has been fearlessly taking students to paddle Bubbly Creek with Friends of the Chicago River for years, and I was very fortunate to be invited to join him on such a paddle this past summer. It was such an eye opening experience that I was inspired to implement it in my own course!
The indomitable Friends of the Chicago River folks instructed us in both technique and in the ecological and social context of the space in which we were paddling. What a study in contrasts! Once the most famous polluted waterway in America, Bubbly Creek is still not the picture of ecological health, and we passed at least one pipe that is there to accomodate combined sewer overflow when neccessary.
Bubbly Creek still is a dead end, thanks to it being partially in filled early in the 20th century. But the creek once boasted only a couple dozen kinds of fish and now over 70. And we saw turtles and all manner of waterfowl, including both endangered black-crowned night herons and the fascinating tool using green heron.
At the turnaround point on the paddle, we stopped to talk about the way that the area’s human and non-human life had been basically treated as worthy of sacrifice the name of industry. Interestingly, as the Bridgeport area we paddled through has had an influx of more expensive homes, an increasing number of cleanup plans have been floated.
We paddled South into a brisk wind, but that meant we got back the boathous eabout a quarter the time it took to paddle out. The majority of the students had not paddled before, so their performance was especially impressive! Huge thanks to Friends for introducing another community of new paddlers to an amenity we are coming to love and cherish.