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Chicago Says Goodbye to Its Last Tiny Waterfall

Niagara, it was not

(Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Though Chicago might try to deny it by hiding behind huge skyscrapers like the Willis Tower and John Hancock building, it is, indeed, part of Illinois, which includes some of the flattest, most featureless plains in all of North America. Now, as Evan Garcia at Chicago Tonight reports, Chicago is slated to become even more featureless when the dam at River Park is removed, destroying what is considered to be the last waterfall within city limits.

Niagara, it was not. Rather Justin Breen at DNAInfo reports that the four-foot North Branch Dam was constructed in 1910 as part of one of the strangest construction projects in U.S. history.

According to History.com, in the 19th century, Chicago became one of the fastest growing cities in the world, jumping from a city of 4,000 when it was incorporated in 1837 to boasting a population tipping over 1 million in 1890. Needless to say, this boom left its streets truly disgusting; Sewage was flushed from businesses down pipes that drained directly into the Lake Michigan waterfront, creating a disgusting cesspool that bred diseases like cholera and dysentery that killed off 12 percent of the residents. The solution? The city decided to build a series of canals that would reverse the flow of the Chicago River, which pours into Lake Michigan. Instead of winding up in the lake, the sewage would flow into the river and out of the city, then connect to the Des Plaines River and eventually enter the Mississippi River system where it would be someone else’s problem. The scheme also had a bonus of connecting the Great Lakes with the Mississippi, opening up a hugely profitable shipping route.

The first canal was completed in 1900, the second, the North Shore Channel opened ten years later in 1910 and the final followed in 1922. The project worked, but the sewage produced by the city outstripped what even the river could handle and Chicago was still forced to build a complex sewage treatment system.

The North Branch Dam was constructed as part of that second channel, which lowered the water level in the river by four feet, leading to the construction of the dam, which prevented erosion and property damage upstream, according to Breen of DNAInfo.

In recent years the Chicago River has finally begun to recover some of the biodiversity it lost during the city’s early years. But the dam has prevented restoration of the North Branch. “So the fish are coming, swimming upstream – they hit that concrete wall and they’ve got nowhere to go,” Chicago Park District project manager Lauren Umek tells Garcia of Chicago Tonight. “They can’t go up the North Branch of the Chicago River."

That’s why the Park District and conservationists have been floating the idea of removing the dam for several years, and finally the $14 million project is slated to begin in the next few days. The dam will be removed and replaced with riffle pools, which will be a long stretch of rocks that will form rapids. It will serve the same function of the dam, keeping water levels up, but will also allow fish to move upstream and allow paddlers to go between the river and canal without portaging. The plan also calls for the removal of invasive species along the river banks, which will be replaced with native plants to prevent worsening soil erosion.

In a separate piece for DNAInfo, Patty Wetli reports the removal is part of a much larger project. Called the River Riparian Connectivity & Habitat Improvement plan, it’s a collaboration between the city of Chicago and the Army Corp of Engineers to make Chicago’s rivers and canals cleaner, more inviting and functional.

Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, which has pushed for the project for over a decade, tells Garcia the project is a win-win scenario. “Fish immediately colonize upstream, they find new habitat, it improves water quality,” she says. “It gets more people out on the river because it feels safer and it looks better. And so this is going to be a complete ecosystem restoration that benefits wildlife but also benefits people.”

The one down side is, of course, the fact that Chicago is now waterfall free, even if North Branch was just a few feet tall. But Chicagoans with a need to see falling water are in luck. Tahquamenon Falls, the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi, is a long car ride north to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which passes through Wisconsin’s Marinette County, home to 14 waterfalls, none of which, we believe, were ever used to help shuttle sewage around.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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