The river was crucial in Chicago’s development as a major center of the lumber and meatpacking industries during the nineteenth century. Access through the Illinois & Michigan Canal to the Des Plaines River and the Mississippi River system provided opportunities for trade and shipping throughout the Midwest. A series of wholesale lumber docks was developed along the river near its connection to the canal at Bridgeport. Meatpacking plants and the stockyards used the river as a drainage system with two sewers, one of them infamously known as “Bubbly Creek” emptying directly into the South Branch. Water from the South Branch upstream of the stockyards was used as a source of fresh water for cattle troughs.
By the 1870s the dumping of waste from industrial and commercial development led to visible signs of pollution and increased concern about threats the river posed to public health. Between 1889 and 1910 the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago completed two major engineering projects to direct the flow of the river into the Des Plaines River and divert wastes away from Lake Michigan. The 28-mile Sanitary and Ship Canal was constructed between 1889 and 1900. Locks located near Lake Michigan and at Lockport diverted the flow of the North Branch, South Branch, and Main Stem into the canal and to the Des Plaines River. The completion of the 8-mile North Shore Channel in 1910 diverted wastes from the northern suburbs from Lake Michigan into the North Branch.
With the decline in industrial and commercial activities associated with the river system, increased attention has been paid to its ecological and aesthetic values. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the “Deep Tunnel” project of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District was designed to divert all stormwater runoff from the Chicago River System. In 1992 the Chicago Rivers Demonstration Project was initiated to assess the ecological condition of the river system, make recommendations for restoration programs, and identify opportunities for increased public use of the river and the lands associated with it. The study identified more than 30 vegetation classes associated with lands bordering the rivers that provide habitat for wildlife species and opportunities for recreation for Chicago area residents.
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