Thursday, October 30, 2014

River Boat Whistle Ban -- October 30, 1902

The Chicago River in 1902 at State Street (City Files Press)
Last night I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of hours with some great folks, the owners and crews of the First Lady fleet in Chicago and a number of ellow docents who stand on the decks of those boats in good weather and bad, giving the particulars of the great buildings that line the banks of the Chicago River.

The Leading Lady locked though the entrance to the river and spent an hour or so on Lake Michigan.  It was a perfect night – brisk, but not so cold that you couldn’t stand up on deck and nurse a Sam Adams.  The cloud cover reflected the lights of the city, wrapping the downtown towers in a canopy of diffused light that did not obscure the sharpness of the brilliantly lit city.

It was kind of magic; it felt darned good to be where I was and where I am.
It’s a far different place than it was in the old days, a hundred or more years ago when smoke belched from the chimneys of a thousand buildings running on coal.  Boilers exploded with regularity, scalding, maiming and killing dozens.

A hundred thousand horses or more clopped over cobblestone streets, requiring a huge force of street sweepers to tidy up after them each day.  Scores of coal-fired freight and passenger trains moved within blocks of the center of the city each day, whistles screaming and smokestacks belching clouds of black smoke.

And, of course, there was the river, stinking in the summer, sluggish all year long, at times running red into the lake as it carried the waste of the tanneries, distilleries, packing houses, and gas companies that lined its banks.

On this date in 1902 the members of the City Council, unable to make a dent in all of the chaos, drew the line at steamboat whistles.  “Frantic blowing of discordant steamboat whistles is under the ban in Chicago river.  Tug captains and commanders of vessels passing up and down the stream must, according to an order from the city hall, make their bridge signals short and repeat them only in case accident is impending.”  [Chicago Tribune, October 31, 1902]

John McCarthy, the city’s Harbor Master, along with his deputies, were given orders to arrest all violators of the rule and charge them with disorderly contact.  There was further talk of regulating the size of the whistles that boats used.

It wasn’t much, but it was something. 

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