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The Century, February, 1902
CHICAGO’S GREAT RIVER-HARBOR.
BY ELLIOTT FLOWER.
WITH PICTURES BY H. REUTERDAHL.
“THE Cinderella of Navigable Streams” is a title that may well be given to the Chicago River. Doubtless to those who never have heard anything good of it, including many who live in Chicago, this will seem humorous, but for that very reason it fits. The Chicago River has been maligned, neglected, in fact, shamefully treated in every possible way. For fifty years it was a drudge, receiving the most contemptuous treatment from those it served. They made it a dumping-ground for their refuse; they stole from it; they disputed its right of way; they blocked it with center-pier bridges; they limited its depth by putting tunnels under it; they created sharp angles in building their docks; and then they complained of the annoyances for which they themselves were responsible, and insisted that there ought to be no river. Yet, in spite of all these discouragements, the stream did its work as faithfully as circumstances would permit, and awaited the coming of the fairy prince. He has come in the person of Uncle Sam, who purposes to see that justice is done and that, as soon as may be possible, this neglected and hard-working river shall appear in raiment befitting its rank as one of the greatest harbors in the world.
In truth, the Chicago River has a fine future before it, not alone in the way of commercial importance, but also in the way of beauty. It is not an attractive stream now, but it is destined to be one. It has improved greatly since the United States government took charge of it, and the improvement is going on steadily. It has been clarified by the opening of the drainage-canal; it has lost many of its kinks; it is being widened, and its most unsightly features are slowly disappearing. Old buildings are being replaced by better structures, the docks are neater and more substantial, the factories and warehouses are becoming more presentable—in brief, the Chicago River, both as to its water and its banks, is being cleaned up.
Before long the river will be one of the great sights of the city, a characteristic panorama, showing in a most favorable light more that has conduced to Chicago’s commercial greatness than can be seen in any other way in the same length of time. Indeed, already there are excursion steamers that make daily trips to the drainage-canal, carrying passengers along this great artery of trade that, until very recently, was considered by all but vesselmen an unmitigated nuisance.
A few steam-launches have appeared as well, and not long ago a house-boat was launched—a house-boat on the Chicago River! And yet, why not? With a house boat or a launch one can go from Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico, and vacation-trips of this description are certain to grow in popularity.
The progress made and the promise for the future seem the more remarkable when one stops to consider that previous to 1890 this Chicago Cinderella had no guardian worthy of the name, and even then it secured one only by accident. Like the other Cinderella, it always has done the work, but it has not been treated with even ordinary decency and respect. It has been a joke, a reproach, and a subject for imposition. The news that it occasionally caught fire has been more widely circulated than the fact that it ranks well up among the greatest ports of the world. That a river should burn has been considered a huge joke, but of course it never could have burned had not those who most maligned it used it as a dumping place for refuse from the gas-works and oil refineries. Then its odor has received great notoriety, and here again the fault was due to lack of proper guardianship. It became a reproach through no fault of its own, for it never was permitted to clean itself up; on the contrary, everything possible was done to make it, and keep it, thoroughly disreputable. Why, during these days of neglect and imposition it even lost its shape, and sharp angles appeared where there had been gentle curves before. The dock-builders were responsible for this, as well as for some other objectionable features. When they wanted a little more room, they took a few feet from the river, and if it happened to be on a curve, they made a corner of it that has resulted in many a troublesome blockade.
There were few friends or protectors to interfere, for even some of its legal guardians have been its enemies in the past. The elder Harrison, when he was mayor, considered it of so little importance that he wished to have it filled up, and Mayor Cregier favored the same course. As a result of this and the short-sightedness of other officials, much has been done that now has to be undone, although, as the whole city shared in the errors, it is hardly fair to place the blame on individuals.
The truth is, the magnificent future of the Chicago River has not been appreciated until lately. It has grown commercially beyond all expectations, and the improvements have not kept pace with it. When the tunnels were built, they answered all the requirements, while now they are such a menace to the larger boats that many of the latter dare not go up the river. Hardly a week passes that some vessel is not stuck on one of them, and this invariably means a blockade and consequent delay. In the matter of bridges the city has been no more far-sighted. The modern two-story steam-bridges are a vast improvement over the old wooden structures that were turned by hand but the increase in the size of boats and in the amount of shipping makes them as much out of date as the old bridges were when they were taken down. They are center-pier bridges, and progressive Chicagoans, who appreciate the needs and importance of the shipping, know that such bridges must disappear with the tunnels.
It may be said, however, that the bridge problem is nearer to solution than the tunnel problem. Many experiments have been made with bridges, and several are now in use that obviate the necessity of the center-pier that interferes so seriously with the movements of vessels. The lift-bridge at South Halsted street is one of these, but it has not proved entirely satisfactory. Boats with tall masts cannot pass under it, and occasionally it has a most annoying way of getting stuck. The spectacle of a bridge hung some distance up in the air, where it disobligingly insists upon remaining, is not pleasing to a man who is in a hurry to cross the river to keep a business engagement. The jack-knife bridge has been tried with better success, however, and relief from existing conditions may be found in this. It will take time, of course to replace all the old bridges, but the need of leaving the middle of the river free from obstructions is so apparent that there can be no doubt that it will be done.
The tunnel question is more complicated. The bridge problem is almost entirely a financial one that has no bearing on traffic; but the removal of the tunnels means the loss of that method of getting from one side of the river to the other. True, they may be lowered, but past experience makes it reasonably certain that that would be only a temporary makeshift. Either they must be rebuilt entirely, with longer approaches, or they must be abandoned and ultimately destroyed. There is a very strong sentiment in favor of the latter course, but the street railway companies, which use them almost exclusively, naturally object. Such action would mean a change in the motive power, for the cable cannot well be used on swing, lift, or jack-knife bridges. They also have a fair proportion of the public on their side. Their patrons have no objection to the lowering or the rebuilding of the tunnels, but they do not look with favor on a change that would not obviate the possibility of being” bridged.” Inconsequence, the traction companies have been strengthened in the position of in dependence that they have assumed, and so far the solution of the tunnel problem has been mostly talk. Yet it is absolutely essential that that problem should be squarely faced and solved.
These are some of the troubles that have beset, and are still besetting, the Chicago Cinderella in the struggle for prestige and personal adornment. The former, in spite of obstacles, already has been secured, and it may be interesting to note in what measure. In the total tonnage of arrivals and clearances Chicago ranks fourth among the principal ports of the world, leading all but London, New York, and Hamburg. The figures for the year ending December 31, 1900 (except in the case of New York, forwhich the figures for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1900, are
given), are as follows:
So far as the United States is concerned Chicago leads all ports except New York in tonnage, and leads even that port in the number of arrivals and clearances, the annual report showing 17,017 for Chicago and 14,019 for New York. It handles more than three times the tonnage of Boston, almost four times the tonnage of Philadelphia, and more than four times the tonnage of Baltimore. In the thirty years since 1870 this tonnage has more than quadrupled, but it is a singular fact that the annual total of arrivals and clearances has decreased by nearly 8000, due, of course, to the in crease in the size of vessels. Fewer boats are used than formerly, but they carry much more, and this has modified what is known as “the bridge nuisance.” Bridges are not opened so frequently, nor are they kept open so long.
While prestige has come with virtually no outside assistance, the feature of attractiveness has required encouragement, as was to be expected after so long a period of neglect. This encouragement has come from Uncle Sam, and the story of his action in the premises is interesting. A certain Western congressman—his identity is of no importance—wished to have a river in his district improved, and he experienced some difficulty in securing the desired action. A railroad bridge was in the way, and the company refused to remove it or to make it conform to his idea of what was right and proper.
After trying various other methods to attain his purpose, he introduced a bill in Congress placing all navigable streams under the control of the national government. As a matter of personal accommodation, in order that he might carry out his plans with respect to this one river, other congressmen voted for the bill, and it was passed. Then it was discovered that the bill applied to all navigable streams, and that the Chicago River was one of them.
So it happened that Uncle Sam took charge of it about 1890. He went at his work in a businesslike way, too, and he has been busy ever since repairing the damage previously done, and encouraging improvements of all kinds. His interest has aroused the interest of others, until Chicagoans themselves are beginning to awaken to the advantages and possibilities of their stream. His respect for its work and its needs has compelled the respect of others. His championship has given it a dignity that it did not possess previously.
When Uncle Sam sent a board to Chicago to see about straightening out the kinks and removing some obstructions, one Chicagoan had the hardihood to assert that “the Lord never intended large boats to go above Canal street,” to which General Ludlow, the chairman, replied, “There is no evidence as to that before this body.” Thereupon the Chicagoan subsided.
In the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge case the question as to whether the river was primarily for navigation again came up. The company held that the bridge was a satisfactory and suitable one when it was built, and that, if the size of the boats using the river had increased since, it was the fault of the vesselmen and did not concern the road; but the Secretary of War took a different view of the subject, and the bridge had to come down.
Then came the opening of the drainage canal, which furnished an unanswerable argument for further improvement, and the watchful guardian,UncleSam,madethe most of it. The law distinctly specified the rate at which water must be emptied into the canal. ” But where the river is narrow that will make a dangerous current,” said Chicago. “Then the river must be widened,” answered Uncle Sam. ” It is not deep enough for such a flow, either,” urged Chicago. ” Then it must be deepened,” retorted Uncle Sam. The canal gave him just the leverage he desired. He had done much without it, but he could do much more with it. “Either shut off the flow entirely or make it what the law requires,” was the rule he laid down.
As previously explained, all this has had its effect, both moral and physical. It is no longer safe to treat the Chicago River with contumely; it now has a guardian who demands respect and fair treatment for it, and its improvement under his care has made it an object of interest and pride to others. They are beginning to see what it may become; they are aroused to its importance and its possibilities.
Formerly the Chicago River was merely dirty; now it is becoming picturesque in the magnitude of its industries and the strange and startling contrasts that it presents. Time was when the wise man avoided it as he would a pestilence (which it closely resembled in some ways), but it has become a panoramic spectacle well worth seeing.
Beginning with the lighthouse and the life-saving station at its mouth, there is not an inch of space wasted until one gets well beyond the navigable point for lake vessels, and it has a life peculiarly its own. In the business part of the city the buildings crowd so close to it that there is frequently less than three feet of dock between them and the water; but this narrow passage is a street for the river-men—not a safe one at night, but one that sees much travel during the day.
Near the entrance from the lake, men have built out toward the Michigan shore to secure additional dock-room, and the lumber-yards and big grain-elevators are reached by slips in which half a dozen or more boats may lie without being disturbed by the rush and hurry of the river traffic.
Even the space under some of the bridge approaches has been preempted by modest boat-builders and others who cater in a minor way to the needs of the river-men.
Where the stream passes through the business district the cost of the land precludes the possibility of slips, but there are still elevators on ground of almost fabulous value, and, in addition to the business blocks that back up to the river, there are manufacturing establishments and wholesale houses that have use for the lake boats. The railroads also find it convenient to have ready access to the water-frontage. Farther out along the South Branch one comes to the lumber-yards and the coal-yards and the factories that require more room than they could get, or could afford, nearer the heart of the city.
In this lies one of the great advantages of Chicago’s river-harbor. Goods can be shipped with less handling than would be required in other circumstances, for the boats can go where they are wanted—almost to the stock-yards, in fact. There is an extent of dockage on the stream that is invaluable.
Nor is it all to be seen on one trip. The South Branch will take one to the drainage canal drainage canal, and in the smaller boats one may continue on that to the interior Illinois towns and even to St. Louis and New Orleans. But of course that is not a part of the Chicago harbor. The North Branch, however, is a most important part, and to see that one must return almost to the mouth of the river and take a fresh start.
The North Branch is far less attractive than the South Branch, but it is decidedly important commercially. The drainage canal, reversing the ordinary current of the river, draws water from the lake into the South Branch, while the North Branch has no such advantage. The latter boasts of many industries, but perhaps its most unique distinction lies in the fact that its growth has been almost in direct proportion to the local demand for brick. The brick-manufacturers have been dredging it, not to secure additional shipping facilities, but to get clay for the bricks they make. Their efforts have lengthened it, widened it, and deepened it, until, where it formerly was naught but a brook, it now is a considerable stream— a growing stream, it might be said.
The North Branch, too, is the only one that ever burns nowadays, and it is abandoning the practice, much to the relief of the people of Chicago.
So Chicago’s Cinderella is coming into her own again. Those who have taken from her are being compelled to restore all that they have taken; those who have treated her shabbily dare do so no longer; those who have scorned her are beginning to appreciate that there is much of beauty as well as of utility in her: with the aid of Uncle Sam she has compelled recognition. True, in the matter of raiment there is still much to be desired, but she is more attractively attired than ever before, and there is promise of a really satisfactory wardrobe in the future.
When rehabilitated by her new guardian, Uncle Sam, with the aid of the awakened pride of her people, Chicago will be worth going miles to see.