The Chicago River and the architecture of the majestic Michigan Avenue bridge houses have helped to define the city’s landscape and history.
"The Chicago River is arguably the reason why Chicago is here,’ said Ozana Balan King from Friends of the Chicago River. ’It really sparked the growth of the city.’
Most Chicagoans think of the river as something that is dyed green for St. Patrick's Day, but the river has a special relationship with the city.
"The city started growing because of the river, and the river also accommodated the growth of the city. That relationship with the river has never stopped," King said.
The river has been a large part of life in Chicago. Long before The Dave Matthews Band dumped waste into it, the iconic stockyards were doing their part to pollute the river.
The stockyards used the river as a drainage system in the 19th century. The river played a pivotal role in Chicago’s development as the epicenter of the meatpacking and lumber industries, an economic and population boon for the city.
The Michigan Avenue Bridge stands above the Chicago River and may be the granddaddy of the Chicago bridges. It is home to four bridge houses, each of which carries a distinctive sculpture depicting important events in early Chicago history, such as the Fort Dearborn Massacre.
The two northern bridge houses were donated to the city by chewing gum king William Wrigley Jr. and the southwest bridge house is home to the McCormick Bridge House museum. Visitors can learn about the history of the river and also see the gears that open this landmark bridge.
"The museum itself makes a surprising impact on our visitors because when you are on Michigan Ave., you really see the bridge houses top-two floors,’ King said. ’The assumption of many people and my own assumption a long time ago is that these bridge houses are very small, when in fact, they are five-stories tall. The entrance is the riverwalk level. They are far more spacious then you would imagine."
Bridge tenders would operate the opening and closing of the bridge from these narrow towers.
"If you read some of the accounts, there was a fair amount of lifting going on obviously,’ said Jim Phillips, from ChicagoLoopBridges.com. ’There were also a number of rescues of people wanting to commit suicide off the bridges and that sort of stuff. It was quite an interesting job for the bridge tender."