About The River

Photo  © 2013 James S. Phillips, chicagoloopbridges.com   

Photo ©2013 James S. Phillips, chicagoloopbridges.com  

The Chicago River has played a central role in the development of the Chicago region and continues to do so today as a natural, economic and recreational resource.

The Chicago River watershed, which includes the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Cal-Sag Channel, provides a vital link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system. The 156-mile Chicago River includes three branches that spread through the northern suburbs, the North Shore Channel, North Branch, Main Stem, South Branch, Bubbly Creek and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Once a meandering prairie stream, the Chicago River was straightened, dredged, channelized and re-engineered to meet the needs of the growing metropolitan region. The Main Stem was deepened to support a robust shipping industry and bridges were built to accommodate the bustling city.

In 1900, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal opened at the southern tip of the Chicago River. Thus the river was forced to flow into the Des Plaines. From this time forward, the Chicago River, rather than flowing out into Lake Michigan near the water intakes at the Main Stem, flowed south into the Des Plaines River and eventually to the Illinois.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Clean Water Act, infrastructure improvements and the formation of Friends of the Chicago River contributed to the river’s comeback. 

An increasingly popular recreational resource, the river also supports a diversity of wildlife and economic uses. It is home to great blue herons, beavers, nearly 70 fish species, barges, kayaks and tour boats alike.

No longer a community detriment, the Chicago River is becoming a symbol of ingenuity and progress and a treasured resource to be passed onto future generations.

Full of character and beauty, today the Chicago River is a backbone to forest preserves, parks, industry, skyscrapers, historic bridges and homes from it northernmost headwaters to Lockport, Illinois.