View Looking North on the South Branch of the Chicago River

This dreamlike view by Jules Guerin shows the Plan of Chicago’s vision of the South Branch of the Chicago as it approaches its junction with the North Branch at Wolf Point. The vision of Jules Guerin was in stark contrast with the reality of the time. Burnham and Bennett write that “The Chicago River, which gave to the city its location and fostered its commerce, has become a dumping spot and a cesspool; bridges of every possible style and condition span it at irregular intervals and at all angles; and year by year riparian owners have been permitted to encroach upon its channel until there are to be found as many as four lines of docks, each newer one having been built further into the stream. Tunnel-backs have restricted its depth for purposes of navigation.”

Much of the traffic described by Burnham and Bennett was centered on the historic South Water Street Market, on the south bank of the main branch of the Chicago River, a warehouse and wholesaling district dealing primarily in produce. But other mercantile activities lined both sides of the river at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Plan proposed construction of a new downtown harbor on the lakefront itself, as well as an expanded Calumet Harbor, was expected to remove the need for most docks on the river in the downtown area. Burnham and Bennett hoped to hasten this process by building modern raised roadways on either side of the river that would obliterate much of the market activity, and put the rest of it below the street. This design would effectively segregate the commercial activity of the river from the light vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Although the removal of the historic docks and markets effectively ended the river’s career as a harbor, the similarities between the Guerin’s drawing and the double-decked Wacker Drive (as it was built in 1926) are otherwise remarkable.

“Chicago. View Looking North on the South Branch of the Chicago River,” from Plan of Chicago (Chicago: The Commercial Club, 1909), pl. CVII. Chicago History Museum, ICHi-40379