If Chicago were a human heart, the Chicago River would be the aorta. There would be no Chicago without river, and the river wouldn’t be the same without Chicago. The section of the city along the river provides some of the most beautiful urban scenery in the entire country. It’s definitely a place that cannot be missed when visiting Chicago.
The Chicago River is an engineering wonder in itself. In 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago reversed the flow of the river in order for sewage not to contaminate Lake Michigan, the city’s drinking water source. Before this, raw sewage and industrial waste would flow into the lake and cause serious outbreaks of typhoid fever and other health problems.
In the stretch of the river covered in this entry, the Main Stem, there are 10 bridges that cross it before it forks at Wolf Point to the North and South branches. There are 38 bridges in all. These bridges are movable and open twice a week to allow for boats to pass through. Several types of bridge construction techniques were used and the style of the bridges adds to the scenery along the river.
The Michigan Avenue Bridge (DuSable Bridge), built in 1920, is one of the most famous bridges over the river. It was the first double decker trunnion bascule bridge in the world and allows for traffic to pass on upper and lower levels. There are four bridgehouses, one on each corner, and each features a relief sculpture pertaining to different important moments in Chicago history.
The southwest bridgehouse contains the McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum. Admission is US$5 and the museum is open from May to October from 10am to 5pm daily except Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
The museum allows visitors to see the mechanical room and the gears that raise the bridge. Every floor of the bridgehouse has exhibits about the history of the river, how the flow was reversed, and its importance to Chicago. From the top floor there are fantastic views in each direction.
A few plaques along the bridge commemorate historic events, such as this one about French explorer Robert de La Salle passing through the area in December 1681.
The Chicago Riverwalk is a pedestrian path along the south bank of the Chicago River that offers places to sit, restaurants, boat launches, and other recreational activities, along with incredible views of the buildings towering above. It’s one of the things that for me makes Chicago a special place in the summer, especially on perfect sunny days. The River Esplanade on the north bank from Michigan Avenue to near Lake Shore Drive provides another pleasant experience.
For some of the features along the river, I’ll move from east to west. First is the Nicholas J. Melas Centennial Fountain, which shoots an arc of water over the river hourly for 10 minutes. It sits to the east of Columbus Drive.
Back along the Riverwalk on the south bank is Heald Square. The Heald Square Monument depicts George Washington with the two principal financiers of the American Revolution, Robert Morris and Haym Salomon. It was dedicated in 1941 and designed by Lorado Taft.
Down the stairs from Heald Square is the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, which was dedicated in 2005 in Wabash Plaza.
A great way to experience the river and learn more about the architecture along it is to take an architecture cruise with one of Chicago’s cruise companies. Chicago’s First Lady docks along the Riverwalk at the Michigan Avenue Bridge, Wendella is at the Wrigley Building, and Seadog is at Navy Pier. Cruises last about 90 minutes and cost between US$30-40 per person. Cruises typically run from April to November. Some cruises pass through the locks, and some companies offer different types of cruise programs. Check the websites for more information. Several years ago I did the Wendella tour with my family and enjoyed it very much. It’s also possible to the tour by kayak. Urban Kayaks, Wateriders, and Kayak Chicago offer them. Read my other post to learn more about the architecture along the Chicago River.
Wacker Drive, which runs along the south bank of the river and along the south branch, is another engineering marvel. It’s a double-decker road with an upper level meant for local traffic and a lower level meant for through-traffic and delivery trucks. You can see a part of it with both levels exposed just above a section of the Riverwalk.
Finally, the Chicago River flows in tribute to those of Irish heritage every March. The river is traditionally dyed green in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, but Chicagoans often joke that it’s always green and there’s no need to dye it. I agree.
Last update: June 2, 2016