Thursday, August 9, 2012

Straightening the Chicago River

Proposal for the straightening of the river (Encyclopedia of Chicago)

On this date in 1926 Chicago city officials were given word that the Director of the State Department of Construction, Mr. Leslie Small,  following Daniel Burnham’s dictum to make no little plans, signed the permit that would allow the start of a $9,000,000 project to straighten the Chicago River between Polk and Eighteenth Streets.

Chicago Mayor William E. Dever, upon hearing the news, said, “The spirit of cooperation that is carrying the project forward deserves high commendation.  It cannot be emphasized too often that a new outlet southward form the loop is one of Chicago’s most urgent needs.”  [Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1926]

The original orientation of the river at this point lazily rolled east at Polk Street, reaching almost to Clark Street and then, around today’s Fifteenth street, rolled back southwest until it ran reasonably straight again at Eighteenth Street.

South Branch of Chicago River before straightening (Chicago Historical Society)
Straightening this mile-long bottleneck promised to work miracles.  As Libby Hill wrote in The Chicago River:  A Natural and Unnatural History, “At the time, only Wabash Avenue and State Street connected the south side to the city’s business district.  Michigan Avenue was restricted to passenger cars, and Clark Street was too narrow for trucks.  As many as nine railroads squeezed their tracks into the narrow space between Clark and the river, and some railroad properties were even bisected by the river.”

The plan was to straighten the river, allowing the railroad yards to align themselves with the street grid, thereby eliminating the obstacle to street extensions in the west loop that those yards created.

It was a big project, to say the least.  It involved the movement of property valued at millions of dollars.  Seven railroads were affected.  As a May, 1929 article in Popular Mechanics Magazine pointed out, “Railroad yards on one side of the river had to be sold to rival railroads on the other side, as they changed locations when the stream was moved.  The readjustment also took a kink out of all the railroads entering two big terminals, the LaSalle and Grand Central depots.”

Straightening of the South Branch in Progress (
Shovel Day on September 20, 1928 saw a parade of “steamers, and a half dozen dredges, scows, and tugs with flags flying and whistles shrieking” move down the river to the ceremonies at Taylor Street.  [Chicago Tribune, September 12, 1928]  Commissioner of Public Works Richard W. Wolfe pulled the lever of a huge dredge, and the project began.  The Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company was the successful bidder on the huge project.

Because the river was still the principal means by which the city of Chicago flushed its toilet, sending sewage south to settle at the bottom of the inland waterway system, a new channel had to be created before the old kink in the river could be filled in.  It was a complicated procedure, stopped twice because of particularly cold weather in January of 1929 and abnormally high water levels that followed during spring and summer of that year.

On December 15, 1929—just 15 months after the beginning of the enormous project—the freighter McFarland, captained by Captain Forrest Maloney, became the first ship to sail through the newly straightened stretch of the river. 

Straightening in Progress (Chicago Daily News Photo)
The project was part of a grand plan to straighten out the southwest side of the city, and it also was to be one of the first steps in a great lake-to-sea waterway system that would connect Chicago with the Gulf of Mexico.  It was another of the scores of ambitious projects carried out in the mid-to-late 1920’s, all of them costing millions of dollars and all of them changing the city forever.

The river today, looking south with 311 South Wacker in the
foreground and River City to the rear (Chicago Urbanist)
In the end, things didn’t work quite as they were projected.  The railroads did get a much cleaner pathway into Chicago, and the city got its centralized railroad station, the great Union Station, bordered by Adams, Canal, and Clinton Streets and Jackson Boulevard. 

But the southern extension of Franklin, Wells, La Salle, and Dearborn Streets never really got off the drawing board, and for 60 years or more a significant portion of land, property that had been in the path of the eastern kink in the old river lay unused.  The great inland waterway was eventually realized, but the Chicago River got left out of the game since by the late 1920’s shipping had already begun to move to Calumet Harbor where navigation was much less forbidding.

Still, it was a heck of a plan, a big, big plan, carried out by a city with broad shoulders and a can-do spirit.