For a generation, engineers attempted something fantastical: reversing the flow of a river.

The first Europeans — a French Canadian explorer and a Jesuit — to record a visit to the Chicago River arrived in 1673, just 57 years after the death of William Shakespeare. One hundred years later, farmers and traders had begun settling the area, and finally in 1803 the United States government built Fort Dearborn on what would much later become the Loop.

When these various settlers arrived in this area — which had been inhabited for ages by Native Americans — they all saw a river that flowed naturally into Lake Michigan.


But beginning in the late 1800s — and following decades of canal building in the region — engineers started trying to switch that, so the river flowed away from the lake and into the vast Mississippi water system.

In 1871, the same year as the Great Chicago Fire, engineers deepened a canal and managed to reverse the river’s flow for a season.

Twenty-nine years later, in 1900 the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal finally opened and permanently reversed the river’s flow. The canal had the benefit of shortening shipping routes, and of preventing raw sewage from flowing out into Lake Michigan, which supplied Chicago’s drinking water.

Today the ongoing benefits of this incredible feat are contested and questioned. However, regardless of how things ultimately turn out, the history offers some context to a place that in recent years has become a remarkable, people-oriented space in downtown Chicago.


As a child of the West, I didn’t know much about the river. I remembered seeing it in movies — notably The Fugitive, in which I recall it being fairly grim — but I had never heard anyone talk about it affectionately they way they do about the rivers that run through European cities. Which is weird, because European city rivers are almost always a pleasure, and very few American cities have anything comparable.

But Chicago does. During my recent visit earlier this fall, I was surprised to see people strolling the pedestrian walkways along the river. There were a few bustling cafes, and a steady stream of recreation boats.

What stands out the most, though, was a boat filled with college-aged kids. A frat boy had the wheel, and a few dudes were sitting in the back. On the front of the boat, a girl in a bikini was standing with a beer in her hand, singing to Miley Cyrus, which was blasting on the boat’s speakers.

“I came in like a wrecking ball,” she sang over and over.

— Jim Dalrymple II


Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Urbanism and travel writer. Also a journalist covering the news.


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