Last summer, I took a kayak trip up the Cuyahoga River, through Cleveland. When we reached the spot where a famous fire started in 1969, my guide pointed out the charred timbers on the railroad bridge. A spark had fallen from there, igniting a flammable stew of oil, paint, acid and animal blood.
I dipped my finger into the river, and licked the water. Yes, the Cuyahoga River is now that clean. And the Chicago River can be, too. The $10 million that Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel committed for sewage treatment is a great start to rescuing an urban waterway.
When the great cities of the Great Lakes were founded, the waterfronts and waterways were reserved for industry. Steel mills, slaughterhouse and oil refineries got the best lakefront and riverfront property, and were allowed to excrete their effluent into bodies of water that functioned as sewer drains. Now, the mills are gone. Water is more valuable as a lifestyle amenity than an industrial resource.
Thanks to the foresight of Daniel Burnham, Chicago is the model for maintaining an open lakefront. But the river is another story. It was reversed to divert sewage from the lake, thus preventing epidemics of disease, and to raise the water level for barge traffic on the Illinois and Michigan Canal, helping Chicago defeat St. Louis as the trade hub of the Heartland. These functions helped Chicago become a great city, but they’re no longer necessary. We’re stuck with a river flowing away from its natural outlet, even though it has no sanitary or commercial reason to run backwards.
The best example of an urban river’s recovery is the Cuyahoga, in Cleveland. The city was shocked into cleaning up the river after it caught fire in 1969. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, on the 40th anniversary of the fire:
the Cuyahoga has become a river teeming with fish and other aquatic species. And how more and more people in Northeast Ohio are using the Cuyahoga as a playground as it runs its 100-mile, U-shaped course from rural Geauga County down through Akron and back north to Cleveland.
The Cuyahoga has come a long way from the waterway that a Cleveland mayor in the 1880s (Rensselaer R. Herrick) described as “a sewer that runs through the heart of the city.”
Chicago is 40 years behind Cleveland in cleaning up its river, because we never had an event as dramatic as the fire to motivate us. But we can have an even freer, even cleaner river than the Cuyahoga.
At one point during my trip down the river, I was forced to duck my kayak behind a metal retaining wall, to avoid a passing freighter. The Chicago River isn’t troubled with freighter traffic. We have the Calumet River for shipping. Once we get it cleaned up, we’ll have the best urban river in the Midwest.
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