Bubbly Creek, Chicago

For the Midwestern metropolis of Chicago, the city’s face is the shore of Lake Michigan, an inland sea lined with freshwater beaches within walking distance of downtown skyscrapers. Chicago’s namesake river used to flow into Lake Michigan but by 1900 was carved into a canal and had its flow reversed, taking water out of the lake, flowing southwest in a series of canals that fed into the Mississippi watershed.

One reason for this massive engineering project was the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River, better known as Bubbly Creek. Subject to pollution coming from the country’s largest stockyard, this hidden waterway is Chicago’s version of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. The above photo shows the rail bridge carrying the Heritage Corridor commuter line across the creek.

Where it Flows

The Chicago Area Waterway System including the South Branch of the Chicago River and the Southeast Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River (Bubbly Creek), Chicago, Illinois, and vicinity. (USGS, U.S. Geological Survey)

The creek is located on the south side of the city, separating the neighborhoods of Bridgeport and McKinley Park. Like Gowanus Canal, its natural course has been deepened and straightened to resemble a canal. Lacking natural sources of water, both of these streams have stagnant water that exacerbates conditions for pollution. 

North of its confluence with the South Branch of Chicago River are a set of inlets that were part of a much larger inland port from a century ago. Prior to 1900, the water flowed north into Lake Michigan, but now the water from Bubbly Creek turns west on its way to the Mississippi. 

The stream was much longer in its natural state but as the city grew, its banks were developed and its headwaters were covered. Today the head of the creek is at the Racine Avenue Pump Station, which lets out treated water into this creek. 

The Racine Avenue Pumping Station began operating in 1939, discharging excess sewage into the creek during heavy rain storms when the larger Stickney Water Reclamation Plant is unable to handle the volume. This facility received a green roof in 2015.

Prior to its construction, Bubbly Creek extended further inland in two branches: a western branch originating near Western Boulevard in a wetland that was later filled and developed as the Ashland Avenue railyard. An eastern branch was carved out of the wetland with its head at Halsted Street at W. 38th Street, serving as a slip for the 320-acre Union Stock Yard.

Stock Yard Slip

39FF2222-44BE-4BA9-B165-F8CDA745B230

Carved out in 1869, Stock Yard Slip was supposed to be a navigable waterway but ended up as an open sewer for the meatpacking complex. The body parts of dead animals ended up here, contributing to illnesses in neighborhoods along the stream. The massive volume of waste produced methane and hydrogen sulfide gas. The sludge was thick enough to walk on, and sometimes result in drowning. The sludgy surface was flammable. Some unsavory entrepreneurs harvested it as peat and lard. 

Then in 1906 author Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, an expose novel about the dangerous working conditions of Chicago’s meatpacking plants. This was the first significant publication to give the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River its lasting nickname

“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 acid 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.”

The book did not inspire the socialist revolution that Sinclair desired, but it led to the passage of the Meat inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. Having read his book in middle school, its characters resonated with me: the Lithuanian immigrant protagonists. I was born in neighboring Latvia, so the names were familiar. By 1919, the Stock Yard Slip was filled, but the nasty layer of animal waste remained in the ground and continued to seep into the groundwater and creek. The Union Stock Yard operated until 1971, and was then transformed into an industrial park.

Western Branch

1886 rand mcnally

On this 1886 Rand McNally atlas of Chicago, we see Stock Yard Slip and the mislabeled western branch following Egan Avenue, which is today’s Pershing Road. This branch was a natural waterway that would later be filled in favor of a rail yard. No city had more train tracks running through it than Chicago: freight, passenger, and the famous elevated transit system. On top of the map is the natural winding course of the South Branch of Chicago River and the diagonal straight line that is the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal that replaced the river. Note the dozen canals near the confluence of the two river branches. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The western branch was also very filthy and kept flooding the surrounding neighborhoods, so it was covered. In the 1930s, it was cut back to Ashland Avenue, and in the following decade to Pershing Road. By 1962, it was cut further back to Iron Street and the warehouse no longer faced the creek. Its former course became a parking lot for the city’s Department of Streets & Sanitation. To see the dramatic change of scenery that resulted from the elimination of this portion of the creek, consider the former Kelmer Terminal Warehouse at 1337 W. 37th Street. In an undated photo prior to its burial, we see the warehouse on the bank of the creek. Today the unused building still has the Kelmer name painted on it, facing the parking lot where the creek once flowed.

Chicago Maritime Museum

35th street

The bridge taking 35th Street across Bubbly Creek is a fixed span. With the closing of Union Stock Yard and other nearby meat plants, large vessels no longer plied the creek and the drawbridge here was replaced by the present span in 1969. The Chicago History Museum has an extensive digital collection of photos from the past that show the long-demolished drawbridges at Bubbly Creek.

cmm map

The Chicago Maritime Museum occupies a former warehouse on 35th Street facing the creek. In one room, a window facing the creek has historical maps on display showing how its course was altered in the past 150 years, along with the city’s role as the country’s inland seaport straddling the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds. Earlier this year the creek overflowed and flooded the museum’s basement. Irony! The museum’s host is the Bridgeport Art Center, which also hosts artist studios, an event space, and gallery. The setup is similar to Gowanus, where artist also moved into vacant industrial spaces along the canal.

At the turn of the millennium, the floating fatbergs we long gone but bubbles could still be seen at certain times on the creek. Some developers did not want to wait longer to transform the properties along its banks. Developer Thomas Snitzer correctly guessed that if he built homes, people would come.

The 400-unit Bridgeport Village has a new-urbanist look with its verdant streets and homes set back from the curb. Along the water’s edge is a public walkway with benches and trees. The water is not good enough for a swim, but it’s an attractive water feature to match this new neighborhood.

Archer Avenue Bridge

archer

There are only two streets remaining that cross Bubbly Creek today: 35th Street, and Archer Avenue. The latter is an old road dating to the early years of Chicago when the Illinois and Michigan Canal broke through the sub-continental divide and enabled boats from the Great Lakes to travel down the Mississippi.

Named after local landowner Col. William B. Archer, it paralleled the old canal on its south bank. Similar to the story of Northern Boulevard’s bridges in Queens, Archer Avenue Bridge went through five versions: an 1836 wooden drawbridge, the 1870 swing bridge, a lift bridge in 1906, the first fixed span in 1961, and a new deck in 2005. The detailed history site Chicagology offers the history of these bridges.

bubbly-1

There are four more bridges behind Archer Avenue: The twin spans of Stevenson Expressway, the elevated Orange Line, and the historically designated Chicago & Alton Railroad Bridge, which is the only remaining drawbridge on the stream. It hasn’t been lifted in decades.

As lift bridges are concerned, it is the last active bridge of its kind. The last time it went up was before 1959, when the South Fork of the South Branch was re-classified as a non-navigable waterway and the bridges crossing the stream were allowed to be fixed in place.

stationheader_or_ashland

The Ashland station on the Orange Line is a youngster among the city’s elevated transit stop, having opened on Halloween in 1993. What it has in common with the Smith-9th Street station in Brooklyn is that it is partially situated above a waterway. But Ashland does not have any public art to connect the station with the historic waterway flowing beneath it. The CTA has an extensive public art collection on its lines, but not here. At least not yet.

Parks at the Confluence

 

At its confluence with the South Branch of the Chicago River, the creek widens into a turning basin carved out for boats in the mid-19th century. On its right bank is Park No. 571, which opened in 2016 on the site of a manufactured gas plant. Its defining feature is the boathouse. The park’s name signifies its status as the 571st park for the Chicago Park District, which is the city’s parks department. The park has the fourth post-millennial public boathouse in Chicago, in recognition of the recreational potential of the city’s inland waterways. After a century of focusing exclusively on the lakefront, the city’s parkland expansion now follows its creeks and canals.

Canal Origins Natural Area

On the left bank of the confluence is the two-acre Canal Origins Park which offers vistas of the boathouse, Chicago River and the city center. The park’s name commemorates the Illinois & Michigan Canal whose construction began here. Prior to the canal, this confluence was a notable trading post for the Native people of the area. Designed by architect Michael Singer, the park offers an interpretative landscape that tells its history through its terrain and signage.

In 2016, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a parks expansion plan for the city titled “Our Great Rivers,” which included a new pedestrian bridge at the mouth of Bubbly Creek to connect its two post-millennial parks. With this bridge, one can imagine a decades-long acquisition of properties along the Chicago River to create a chain of waterfront parks akin to Manhattan’s Harlem River Greenway and the Chicago Riverwalk in the city center. Where voyageurs and canal boats once traveled and railroads later followed, bikes, pedestrians, and canoe tours, would use the same route between Chicago and points west.

“The rivers became our industrial highway, and now we’re going to reclaim it…as our recreational frontier for generations to come.” -Mayor Rahm Emanuel, 2016

The creek still emits bubbles under certain conditions, emerging from its highly polluted bottom. At the same time, the creek is no longer the habitat of discarded animal carcasses. Fish, birds and turtles can now be found in Bubbly Creek. 

Learn More:

Chicago isn’t the only Great Lakes city that has hidden waterways. See my earlier essays on Conner Creek in Detroit, Mill Creek in Erie, and Garrison Creek in Toronto.

As there is Forgotten-NY where I am contributing writer, Chicago has its own unrelated Forgotten history site, and the detailed site Chicagology to further explore the city’s visible past.

Could I Live Here?

If I could relocate to a city with comparable work opportunities, culture, history, and community resembling New York, this city has plenty of natural sights and potential for parks projects that I could do. I have distant relatives here, and my matchmaker lives here. I’ve never met him, but he’s responsible for the family that I’ve raised since we first got in touch. I gotta thank him in person. Perhaps with a tour of parks on the river.

2 thoughts on “Bubbly Creek, Chicago

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s