Then & Now: Bubbly Creek – Chicago

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The opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canal stimulated agricultural development in the region and helped to generate the growth of new business enterprises tied to agriculture.

As towns formed along the canal route, farmers settled in the area and helped spur the economic growth of the Illinois Valley. The efficiency of Chicago’s grain elevators, such as the Rock Island Elevator, allowed the city to compete successfully with St. Louis where grain was loaded in sacks by hand.

Settlement patterns also increased the demand for lumber in the region. The I&M Canal allowed for lumber from Michigan and Wisconsin to be easily processed and shipped on water to markets south, east and west of Chicago.

The eastern end of the I&M Canal was located in the Chicago community of Bridgeport. While little remains of the canal in the location, small remnants can still be found in the area.

The old turning basin, located near the 2800 block of South Ashland Avenue where the South Branch of the Chicago River joins the Sanitary and Ship Canal, is still visible.

To the right of the turning basin is the southern fork of the South Branch known as Bubbly Creek. The South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River is a 6,600-foot channel that begins near 38th Street at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago’s Racine Avenue Pump Station and flows north to the South Branch of the Chicago River.

Before modern waste management practices, sanitary sewage, industrial waste, and animal waste from the adjacent Union Stockyards were disposed in the creek for conveyance downstream.

Bridgeport was home to the Chicago Union Stock Yards and the big “disassembly” factories of Swift, Armour and Morris. The organic material from the stockyards remaining at the bottom of the creek still generates bubbles that have earned the south fork the nickname of “Bubbly Creek.”

While much of the contamination was from the Union Stockyards, there were other plants along the South Branch and Bubbly Creek that had manufactured gas for streetlights and other uses throughout Chicago. Those industrial plants left behind organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons metals, and other inorganic material that also contaminated the area.

Plans for a multi-million dollar restoration plan have recently stalled while the Environmental Protection Agency determines the extent of water and sediment contamination in the area. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had proposed restoring about 44 acres of water surrounding land in part by covering the creek bottom with 6 inches of sand and 6 inches of rocks.