- Bubbly Creek is an arm of the Chicago River, and forms the northern boundary of the Union Stock Yards; all the drainage of the square mile of packing-houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide. One long arm of it is blind, and the filth stays there forever and a day. The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily. The packers used to leave the creek that way, till every now and then the surface would catch on fire and burn furiously, and the fire department would have to come and put it out. Once, however, an ingenious stranger came and started to gather this filth in scows, to make lard out of; then the packers took the cue, and got out an injunction to stop him, and afterwards gathered it themselves. The banks of ‘Bubbly Creek’ are plastered thick with hairs, and this also the packers gather and clean.—Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, 1906
Original 1865 Union Stock Yards Plan showing location of the proposed slip, later to be known as “Bubbly Creek.”
Chicago Tribune, October 10, 1885
Yesterday morning a party of twenty men, guests of Singer and Talcott (Stone Company, 210 Market street), started from the foot of Franklin street, on the tug Mariel (US No. 91564) to take a trip up the river, through the canal to Lemont and Lockport, with a view to considering the sewage condition. Most of the party were from Joliet and Lockport. After a short run out into the lake the boat started on her way up the river. The trip as far as the Stock-Yard branch was uneventful. When that point was reached the friends of the passengers were assembled on the banks to watch the boat commence her perilous voyage to the south. At first, handkerchiefs were waved in the air and fond farewells were exchanged. Soon, for obvious reasons, the handkerchiefs were put to less romantic but better use. As the boat passed the place where the pumping machinery stirs up the water so that the full force of the aroma could be appreciated, a small urchin on the bank shouted out, “Hey, scully, look at der man in de plug hat. He’s goin’ to be sick.”
The prophecy was correct.
“Somebody smoke, for heaven’s sake,” ejaculated one of the group in the bow. His behest was not obeyed, as no one was willing to remove his handkerchief from his nostrils long enough to light a match. Soon the tug overtook a propellor which was stirring up the black, slimy fluid with his screw.
The stench was unendurable. “I’m a prohibitionist,” gasped a clerical-looking man, removing his handkerchief long enough to speak, “but give me some brandy.” It was the original intention to go to the Stockyards, but by unanimous consent the plan was given up. The water itself presented the most disgusting sight that could be imagined. The sewers were continually pouring their contents into the stream, and, as there was absolutely no current, the refuse matter floated on top. There was a black, greasy scum upon the surface, dotted here and there with dead dogs, cats, old shoes, rotten apples, etc. The tug finally cut her way through the slime and reached the pumping works on Ashland avenue, where the party landed and inspected the surroundings. The reporter left them here and they pursued the even tenor of their way down the canal to Lemont, intending to return by train.
The Stock Yards Slip and Bubbly Creek
Chicago Chronicle, May 2, 1896
BIG SEWER ASSESSMENTS.
Commissioner of Public Works Kent sent to the county court yesterday the rolls of special assessments for the Eighty-third street sewer system. The system extends from the shore of Lake Michigan between Seventy-ninth and Eighty-seventh streets west to Robey street, Then for a distance of one-half mile on each side of Western avenue the sewer will run to Thirty-ninth street.
It required 1,551 pages to contain the rolls and 13,500 postal cards were sent to property owners notifying them the case will be heard in the county court dusing the May term. The special assessment amounted to $1,300,000. The plan formerly was for the sewer to empty into Lake Michigan, but this had been changed and the outlet will now be into the stock yards slip, otherwise known as the south branch of the Chicago River. Thence it will run into the drainage canal.
The first estimated cost of the sewer was $1,600,000. The old area to be drained was six miles, while under the present plan the area will be eleven square miles. The sewer is th ne twelve feet in diameter.
Inter Ocean, April 26, 1899
TO PURIFY STOCK YARDS SLIP.
Thirty-Ninth Street Conduit WIll Dispose of Sewage.
By the completion of the Thirty-Ninth street conduit the malodorous stock yards slip, known as Bubbly creek will become a stream through which the waters of Lake Michigan flow to empty into the drainage canal. Ever since the creek, or slip, became a repository. for the sewage of the Town of Lake the polluted waters have, after each rainfall in the hot-weather season, emitted a stench that rivaled the rendering tanks of the packing-houses. Three shifts of men, working eight hours each, gite promise of speedy change from present conditions to the anticipated purifying of water and atmosphere as weil. When finished the conduit will divert all of Lake and Hyde Park sewage to the canal, and the slip will be kept pure by ceaseless flushing.
Chicago Tribune, August 22, 1900
BUILDING THE LARGEST DREDGE
Lydon & Drews Completing Biggest Excavator on Fresh Water-Work in Stock-Yards Slip.
The largest dredge on fresh water is being completed by Lydon & Drews at their yards in the North Branch, and will be put into service soon. It will cut out eight cubic yards of material at a single scoop. The building of the dredge called for some extraordinary material. Two timbers, forty inches square on the ends and fifty feet long, were brought from the Pacific coast for the spuds or legs. The hull is built of wood. It is 125 feet long, 42 feet beam, and 12½ feet deep.
The dredging of the Stock-Yards slip to a depth of twenty feet below city datum from the South Fork to Halsted street will open up a half mile of the river for navigation which has never been accessible for boats. The work is now being done.
Inter Ocean July 14, 1901
Stock Yards Acres Acquired.
In a similar manner title to an eighteen-acre tract of land, sold last April by the Robbins estate to Wells M. Cook for $115,000, passed to John A Spoor. The purchase caused much comment at the time, because it is the most valuable unsubdivided tract in the vicinity of the stock yards, having a frontage of 1,727 feet on a line which would be Thirty-Ninth street, If extended through the yards, the stock-yard slip on one and the south fork of the Chicago river on the other of the two sides of the triangle. This land has long been a matter of much speculation, and at the time of the sale last spring it was thought that the Union Stock Yards and Transit companies had acquired it.
Mr. Spoor said yesterday that he had purchased the land as an investment, the price, a fraction over $6,000 an acre, being very attractive. He added that the drainage trustees would sooner or later be compelled to improve the river in this vicinity and in that case the land, which readily affords 3,000 feet of dockage, would pay handsomely.
Inter Ocean, August 14, 1904
MENACE TO PUBLIC HEALTH FINALLY TO BE REMOVED
Drainage Board to Purify the Dead End of the Stock Yards slip at Thirty-Ninth Street.
The dead end of the stock yards slip at Thirty-Ninth street, which for years has been a menace to public health, is to be flushed and purified by connection with the new Western avenue trunk sewer. This was decided upon yesterday afternoon at a conference between the drainage board, members of the board of local improvements, and interested property owners. The sanitary district agreed to make the improvement at a cost of $60,000.
The plan is to build a conduit on Thirty-Ninth street between the stock yards slip and Western avenue, which will drain and flush the stagnant water in the west fork of the south branch of the Chicago river.
It was decided by the drainage board to compel the owners of property which will be benefited by the improvement to bear a small portion of the expense of building the connecting conduit. This will be accomplished by spreading a special assessment if it is found the law will authorize such a levy.
The engineering committee of the drainage board awarded the contract for constructing the superstructure of the new bascule bridge at Harrison street to the Jackson & Corbett company, the lowest bidder, at its figure of $151,900.
Action on the proposition to give the drainage board’s water power to the city of Chicago was postponed until May 16.
Union Stock Yards
Chicago Tribune, June 20, 1915
The requiem over Bubbly creek will be delayed for several weeks if Mayor Thompson heeds the request of the Oakland Business Men’s association.
The association yesterday sent a petition to the mayor asking him to veto the ordinance providing for filing in the west fork of the creek. The petition says the ordinance is inadequate. The businesa men want to have an ordinance for burying the east fork, also known as the stockyards slip, as well as the west branch.
The Vile East Fork.
One of the big features of the association’s plan is to open up Thirty-ninth street from Halsted street to Ashland avenue. The stockyards slip now intervenes. The petition says:
- The east fork of Bubbly creek, is a vile and open sewer which violates all the laws of sanitation, and nothing in the ordinance under considenation gives the community any relier therefrom. There is nowhere else a sewer so vile, on such a large scale.
The same property owners own the two banks of the two forks of Bubbly creek and the ordinance practically makes a present to them amounting to $100,000, without any concession on the part of these property holders.
The ordinance does not pretend to arrange for the extension of Thirty-ninth street and does not solve any of the vexed questions of transportation east and west.
The stockyards slip was dug out of a city street in 1869. Prior to that time Thirty-ninth street was a state road extending from the lake to the city limits. For forty-five years the slip has been used by the packers as a catch basin.
We wish to have due consideration given this whole problem, especially as the installation of great settling tanks will cost $800,000, of which the sanitary district—which means the city–will pay half.
Chicago Tribune, January 23, 1917
Advocated of the plan of opening Thirty-ninth street between Halsted street’ and Ashland avenue won a victory yesterday before the board of local improvements.
After a brief hearing, brief because those presert came either to urge the improvement or to listen silently, the board passed a resolution in favor of the necessary condemnation proceedings. This section of the street now is occupied by Bubbly creek, which will have to be filled in if the plan is carried out. The resolution will be presented to the council tomorrow and probably will be acted upon next week.
But the next big step will be to persuade the drainage board to build a big sewer to replace Bubbly creek. This task will be undertaken at once by the members of the Greater Thirty-ninth Street association under the leadership of Congressman Mann.
As the district through which the street is to be opened contains scores of railroad tracks, one plan under consideration is to build an elevated street for the entire distance of a mile. The engineers for the local board are wrestling with that problem now.
Chicago Tribune, April 25, 1920
Opening Thirty-ninth street is of the first magnitude from a humanitarian and hygiewic standpoint. It will give the people back of the yards easy and convenient access to the lake front parks and bathing beaches and equally easy access to the splendid new McCormick zoo near Riverside. It should increase realty values tremendously.-Walter D. Moody. managing director of the Chicago Plan commission.
BY AL CHASE.
Maybe it’ll give a bad odor to this story to start out by talking about Bubbly creek when it’s all about how Thirty-ninth street is going to grow up and be a regular honest to goodness city thoroughfare, but unfortunately Chicago’s-most notorious bit of water figures conspicuously in the growing up of Thirty-ninth street.
Every Chicagoan has some time or other either heard of or smelled Bubbly creek, more politely designated on maps as “Stockyards slip.” Ever since bubbles began to rise to the semi-solid surface and waft their uncertain odors over Chicago we’ve heard about once a year that Bubbly creek was to go.
But the next year we found it still hanging round and annoying every one whose nose was in good working order. It got to be a public nuisance, but no one seemed to be able to get it to leave us.
Lake to Zoo.
But now comes along a movement which slowly has been gathering an impetus that promises to be strong enough to wipe out Bubbly creek for good. It’s the project fostered by several civic and business organizations along Thirty-ninth street to fill in the creek, connect up missing parts of the thoroughfare, and make it one of Chicago’s most important streets, a continuous paved way running in an al most straight line from the lake and the magnificent new bathing beaches planned directly west to the great McCormick zoölogical gardens in the forest preserve district near Riverside.
What gives the greatest boost to this big city and county improvement is the fact that the Chicago plar commission has approved the idea and has its engineering experts busy studying it. A report is expected to be made shortly.
At present no through street passes the drainage canal west of Kedzie avenue. That means that the whole southwest side is cut off from traffic both north and south, east and west. The great Corwith freight yard of the Santa We railroad also blocks the street from getting west.
A tentative plan is to swing the traffic north of Thirty-eighth street at Central Pari, avenue and then parallel the Alton tracks to Cicero avenue with a new noncrete road and then turn north and connect with Thirty-ninth street again and from there continue in a straight line west to Ogden avenue at Riverside.
From Halsted street to Racine avenue, one-half mile, Bubbly creek is to be filled in, according to present plans, and the intercepting sewer which empties in from the east at Halsted street is to be carried west to the new terminus of “the south fork of the south branch” at an estimated cost of $1,000,000.
Permission has been granted by the government to fill in the creek and the sanitary district has agreed to the project and has its engineers working on it and has appropriated $25,000 for preliminary work. All of the property owners on both sides of the creek have dedicated enough property to the city to make the street.
From Racine avenue to Ashland avenue property owners have approved the plan of extending Thirty-ninth street across-their land. A bridge will be built over the “west arm of the west fork of the south branch of the Chicago river” or else the fork filled In, for here will be the big activated sludge plant so long talked of.
A Few Whys.
According to Charles G. Mollan, president of the West Thirty-ninth Street Improvement association, here are some of the reasons for improving the street:
- Thirty-ninth street is a full section line, a township line, the center line of the city and near the center of population.
There is no through passageway of any kind between Halsted street and Ashland avenue for a mile and a half and Thirty-ninth street is at the center of this condition.
It also is the center of a rapidly growing industrial territory, including the Kenwood and Central manufacturing districts.
Back in the Sixties.
Back in the sixties Thirty-ninth street was the southern city limits, and was an unpaved country road running from the lake to Riverside and known as Egan avenue after Dr. Egan of Kenwood. It passed the old state fair grounds where McKinley park now is.
In 1864 the three stock yards in the city were combined as the Union stock yards and located where they now are. Five years later at their request the city vacated one mile of Thirty-ninth street for the building of a slip, but only half a mile was dug.
Instead of being used for navigation, however, it has been used as an open sewer. Stock yards waste was dumped here until it became “the most pestilential spot in the city,” according to the health department. The current caused by the opening of the Thirty. ninth street sewer helped clear it up considerably.
Something Doing Soon.
Some of the organizations backing this “lake to zoo” movement are the Greater Thirty-ninth Street association, the West Thirty-ninth Street association, the Oakland Business association, the South Side Business Men’s association, Southwest Side Affiliated clubs, and the Thirty-ninth Street Extension committee of the Central Manufacturing district.
“The original Chicago plan called for the widening and improving of Thirty.ninth street,” said Mr. Mollan, “so we feel confident that as soon as the plan commission’s engineers report is made, we are going to see something doing along Thirty-ninth street. It’s going to be one of Chicago’s greatest thoroughfares some day—and one of the best smelling. when we bury Bubbly creek.
Chicago Tribune, September 5, 1920
Taps for Bubbly Creek. Chicago’s most notorious and also most highly scented bit of waterway is going to be buried at last. Services will be held, with appropriate music and speeches, next Wednesday afternoon at 3 o’clock.
At that hour Charles G. Wacker, head of the Chicago plan commission and members of the sanitary district, armed with spades, will dig up the first bit of earth in old man Bubbly’s grave. And then a big steam shovel will take a hand in the ceremony and dirt will fly.
The digging will be to make a temporary channel to accommodate the alleged waters of Bubbly Creek until a big conduit can be laid in the dry bed of the creek. The old creek will then be filled in and Thirty-ninth street will be opened up from Halsted street to Ashland avenue- a first step in the big lake to zoo project by which Thirty-ninth street will become one of Chicago’s great thoroughfares.
Both Gov. Lowden and his honor have been invited to come and wield shovels, but Chairman J. F. Cornelius chairman of the publicity committee, was pessimistic about their coming.
“They probably would wield ’em all right.” he said, “but not on the sur rounding real estate. I don’t believe they’ll come.”
A big parade will tour the central manufacturing district and other parts of the south side, starting from Western avenue and Thirty-ninth street at 1:30 p. m.
Charles G. Mollan of J. H. Van Vlissingen & Co. and president of the West Thirty-ninth Street Improvement association, is chairman of the cómmittee on arrangements.
Sewers from the Union Stockyards flow into the South Fork of the South Branch, known as Bubbly Creek. Meatpackers dumped so much blood and the remains of so many animals into the creek that it started bubbling with methane and hydrogen sulfide gases. Even though the dumping stopped with the stockyards closed in 1968, the creek still bubbles as it wanders toward the Sanitary and Ship Canal. This is near Thirty-Seventh Street west of Racine Avenue. July 1, 1924
Chicago Tribune, July 20, 1921
BY AL CHASE.
Bubbly creek—Chicago’s most notorious and odoriferous bit of alleged water way—yesterday blew a $4,000 bubble into the lap of 80 year old Mrs. Susan A. Robbins of New York City, who for twenty years unknowingly has been the owner of 51,166 square feet of the bottom of stockyard’s slip—Bubbly’s more dignified designation.
About the same time that Mrs. Robbins discovered she had been about the world’s oddest landlord for two decades without being aware of it, the buyers of her submarine real estate holdings, the National Box company, made the disconcerting discovery that they had been paying taxes on Mrs. Robbins’ 51,166 square feet of ooze and water for twenty years, also unintentionally.
Bubbly to Be Buried.
Charles G. Mollan, a member of the realty firm of J. H. Van Vlissingen & Co., which represented the buyer, and president of the Pershing Road association, played the rôle of Columbus in this unique marine romance.
In order that Pershing road be made a magnificent thoroughfare, 108 feet wide, from the lake to the new Chicago zoölogical gardens on the Des Plaines, Bubbly creek must quit forever blowing bubbles. To do this it is to be quietly burled and a $1,000,000 sewer take its place.
But the National Box company, with a plant on the north bank of Bubbly, was the only property owner along the creek which couldn’t give easements to the sanitary district or dedicate the property to the city till they owned from their dock line to the center of the creek. They had supposed they owned this and had been paying taxes on it for twenty years. Mrs. Robbins supposed she had sold it years ago.
Finds Real Owner.
But Mr. Mollan’s investigation disclosed the real owner and closed the deal whereby the last obstacle to Pershing road, formerly known as 39th street, becoming one of Chicago’s greatest cross streets.
Mrs. Robbins is the widow of George A. Robbins, who with his brother at one time owned 200 acres along Morgan and Racine, between 35th and 39th streets. Years ago it was the boast of these two New Yorkers that they owned the largest piece of industrial vacant property in Chicago. W. D. Kerfoot & Co. represented Mrs. Robbins in her unusual sale.
Chicago Tribune November 2, 1924
Completion of Sewer to End Stockyard Stench
Most of the stock yards stench, engineers assert, will not be with us next year because by that time the sewer replacing Bubbly creek will have been completed. From west of Racine avenue the new sewer is rapidly being pushed toward Halsted street, where it will connect with the main south side sewer. This construction, when completed next spring. will have cost $2,500,000, but the land reclaimed is valued at $250,000. The sewer itself is large enough to permit a train to pass through.
The infamous Stockyards Slip, an open sewer along Thirty-Ninth Street (now Pershing Road) that connected the stockyards to the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River at Racine Avenue. This photo shows the slip looking east from Morgan Street after it was emptied in preparation for building a covered sewer along the route. The smell from the yards and the slip persuaded many people of means to move as far north as possible.
Chicago Tribune, December 29, 1925
1925 Chicago’s Greatest Year in Sanitation.
Edward J. Kelly, Chief Engineer, summarized construction work in the district during the year as follows:
4. The ancient cesspool, Bubbly Creek, on the southwest side, eliminated and replaced with a 23 foot sewer.
Chicago Tribune, June 20, 1926
The above photograph shows how Pershing road will appear when it occupies the land secured through the filling in of Bubbling Creek between Halsted street and Ashland avenue. Pershing road eventually will connect the outer drives along Lake Michigan with the region about the Fox river. Rendering by Acro studios.
Chicago Tribune, October 25, 1937
SOUTH SIDE RIDS ITSELF OF CREEK; GETS A VIADUCT
With the opening of Pershing road between Hasted street and Ashland avenue yesterday
the dream of south side residents became a reality and old odoriferous Bubbly creek, which formerly occupied the present roadbed between Halsted street and Racine avenue, became just a memory.
Ald. Hugh C. Connelly (111th), in whose ward the improvement is located, cut a ribbon barrier permitting a large motor cavalcade to cross the viaduct over the Chicago Junction railroad tracks at Racine avenue, the last link in the project. The total cost of filling in the creek and constructing the road is estimated at approximately $1,700,000. The work was done by the state highway department with the aid of federal funds.
The new road provides the only east-west thoroughfare between 35th and 47th streets. Nearly thirty years ago a movement was started to fill in Bubbly creek, which carried sew. age from the packing plants in the stockyards, and to build a road in its place. In September, 1920, an ordinance was passed providing for the project.
None of the money spent on the project was provided by the city, and last night state highway department workers were ordered to paint out the name of Ald. Connelly, which had been painted on each end of the bridges for yesterday’s celebration.
Chicago Tribune, October 25, 1937
VIADUCT OPENED AS LAST LINK IN PERSHING ROAD IMPROVEMENTS—Crowd at ceremonies yesterday when 1,200 foot structure at Racine avenue over Chicago Junction railroad tracks was formally opened to traffic. The viaduct completes improvement of Pershing road between Halsted street and Ashland avenue. The entire project, including the filling in of Bubbly creek, cost about $1,700,000. The improvement runs through the stockyards district.
Pershing Road Viaduct
Chicago Land Use Survey
Chicago Tribune, June 27, 1999
By Patrick T. Reardon
Bubbly Creek always has been treated as something of a joke.
It was the branch of the Chicago River that for three-quarters of a century was the sewer for the slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants of the Union Stock Yards. Into it were dumped the wastes of the killing pens: the blood and urine of tens of thousands of animals a day, the manure, the unusable body scraps. A thick, brown scum collected along its banks, thick enough for small birds to walk on. Large bubbles, which gave the streamlet its name, rose from decaying matter caked on the bottom and burst, foul-smelling, into the air. Downstream, near the river’s mouth–this was before the river’s course was reversed–even there, sometimes, the water would have a red tint, evidence of the gory work being carried out five miles to the southwest.
Few Chicagoans actually saw Bubbly Creek. Just the poor, the Lithuanians and the Poles, the Czechs and the Slovaks who lived in the cheaply built wood-frame homes near its banks. The poor died there as well. The tuberculosis rate in the neighborhood was among the highest in the nation. Each summer, inhabitants were plagued by millions of flies and mosquitoes, drawn by the stockyards, by the city’s main garbage dump to the west and by Bubbly Creek. Then there were the mice and rats and other vermin. The area was, writes Chicago historian Dominic Pacyga, “a classic Victorian slum.”
Bubbly Creek is officially designated as the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River, and it was once pristine. For much of its recorded history, it had two forks of its own: A natural one ran west; the other, created when clay was dug to make bricks, ran east.
The western fork, extending from Racine Avenue almost to Western Avenue just south of Pershing Road, provided drainage for the area that became Gage Park. It didn’t work very well, and in the mid-1800s the community was known as “Little Venice” because of its frequent floods.
The eastern fork, which was excavated in 1869, proceeded on a straight line from Racine to Halsted Street along the northern edge of the then newly constructed 320-acre Union Stock Yards. It was known as the Stockyards Slip, but, even though its creators had promised city officials that it would be a “navigable stream,” it was really just a sewer for the slaughter plants–just as the western fork became a sewer for the packinghouses along its banks.
In 1906, Bubbly Creek was a small but hard-to-forget element of Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle,” an expose of the degradation of the workers and residents of Packingtown and the dangerously unsanitary meat-processing procedures in the plants. Soon afterward, the local settlement house and business group joined with the Chicago Drainage Board to demand that Bubbly Creek, a danger to health and an insult to the quality of life, be filled in.
That’s when the comedy got rolling. “Bubbly Creek is explosive” was the opening sentence of a 1912 newspaper story that told how a health department inspector “put some of Bubbly Creek’s water into a bottle for the purpose of a laboratory inquiry. He put the bottle in a sack, swung it to his shoulder and–it came down in a shower of shattered glass.” The cause of the explosion, the reporter explained, was methane, “a product of decomposition and bad disposition.” The story also noted: “It is chronicled that a year ago a man fell on the creek and crawled ashore on the surface.”
It appears that the story of the exploding bottle really was true, but the man crawling across the surface of Bubbly Creek is one of many tall tales that were widely propagated. Few newspaper readers (or reporters) knew the waterway firsthand, so it became the stuff of urban legend. Bubbly Creek was also, in some way, a stand-in for the stockyards, the smell of which wafted far across the city. The yards themselves it was useless to complain about. They were too important an industry for the city. But little Bubbly Creek, like a scapegoat, could be ridiculed in their place, and, it was hoped, eliminated.
Eventually, the worst parts of Bubbly Creek were eliminated–but it took half a century. By 1919, much of the western fork had been filled in. Then, after 18 more years of protests and lobbying, the eastern fork was covered over to make way for an extension of Pershing Road. Twenty-three years after that, the last noxious remnant of the western fork was gone, replaced by an actual sewer.
Today, Bubbly Creek is nowhere near as repugnant as it once was, but neither is it clean and pure.
Take a boat ride down the stream on a hot summer day and odds are you’ll notice a greasy film on the surface and a blackness to the water itself. This isn’t so bad at its northernmost point where Bubbly Creek enters the South Branch of the river, just east of Ashland and just north of the Stevenson Expressway. But, as you go south, the film gets thicker, the blackness deeper. Dead fish float on the surface, and, of course, there are the bubbles.
Even today, Bubbly Creek bubbles. Its surface looks as it would in a steady, misty rain, but these aren’t raindrops–they’re tiny pockets of gas, hundreds of them, popping at every moment to the surface, filling the air with a stale, dead odor, not overpowering, not like the old days, but not pleasant either.
These come from decaying matter on the creek bottom, but this time the stockyards, which closed in 1971, aren’t to blame. This time, the cause is the inability of Chicago’s sewers to handle heavy rains.
About 12 times a year, the rain comes down upon Chicago so fast and in such volume that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s sewage treatment plants, including the Racine Avenue Pumping Station at the southern tip of Bubbly Creek, are unable to handle it. As a result, millions of gallons of untreated sewer and storm water are discharged directly into the Chicago River.
The river itself has a strong enough current that the untreated water is flushed downstream where it’s diluted by the relatively fresh water in the river, the Sanitary and Ship Canal and other waterways. That’s not the case with Bubbly Creek. The streamlet has such a weak flow that not much flushing takes place. Instead, the solid wastes settle on the bottom, start to decompose and, in the process, create the methane that forms the bubbles that rise to the surface to give the creek its distinctive aroma.
These discharges used to happen about 90 times a year. But they were sharply reduced in 1985 with the completion of the first elements of the Deep Tunnel project. Now, if the sanitary district can nab the $300 million in federal funding needed to dig a huge reservoir near west suburban McCook, the hope is to reduce those discharges even further: to five times a year by 2008, and to once a year by 2013.
What this has meant is that, many times throughout the year, particularly in the cold-weather months, Bubbly Creek isn’t so fetid. It’s not as if you’d want to swim in it, but the smell is often absent and the bubbles are few.
Fish are starting to swim in the creek again (at least when the water isn’t so repulsive), and, along the banks, foxes and beavers thrive. Black-crowned night herons, members of an endangered species, take up residence from time to time, as do hawks and ducks.
Right now, the land bordering Bubbly Creek is a new type of urban wilderness. Some factories still operate, and scrap yards. But many buildings are empty. Others have been leveled, leaving vacant lots dotted with large concrete blocks and covered by a mix of tall weeds, colorful wildflowers and fast-growing trees.
Few Chicagoans see Bubbly Creek today. Only three bridges span it; only two streets (36th Place and 37th Street) extend to its edge, and then only on the east side. And because of the stream’s lack of depth (only 3 feet at one place), only shallow-bottom boats can ply its waters.
Two hundred years ago, the settling of Chicago transformed the stream. Now, Bubbly Creek is at the start of another transformation.
Improvements in water quality already have turned much of the rest of the Chicago River into a magnet for new homes and a playground for boating, bird-watching, biking and even fishing (although, at most locations, the fish aren’t considered safe to eat).
Bubbly Creek won’t catch up until the sewage discharges from the Racine Avenue Pumping Station are further reduced. But already city officials are talking about residential development along its banks. The stream will never be completely clean–it is an urban waterway, after all–but odds are, sooner rather than later, Bubbly Creek will be remade as a place of beauty, the butt of no more jokes. It’s only a matter of time.
As it did once before, Bubbly Creek waits, unnoticed, ignored, for the change that is to come.