Archive for May 2003

The Chicago River: An Illustrated History and Guide to the River and its Waterways by David M. Solzman

29 May 2003
Categories: From the armchair

coverDavid M. Solzman has written a terrific book on the Chicago River. It’s chock full of all sorts of details and historic background. Though I tend to be fastidious in the care of my library, this is one book I can see getting dog-eared and ratty from frequent use. I suspect that sooner or later it will even wind up in a zippered plastic bag travelling very close to the surface of said river, because the book has genuinely whetted my appetite for a whole series of canoe trips throughout its branches.

For anyone interested in history, Chicago, or rivers in general, this book is a satisfying read. Unfortunately, due to the high frequency of typos and grammatical errors, it must also be placed on the Shut List. In addition, I must share two items, one a minor quibble, the other a major qualm.

The quibble has to do with the number of times the author mentions, not in passing but as if telling us for the first time, the fact that the river has had its direction of flow reversed. In a quick re-scan I counted eight times. Yes, the Sanitary and Ship Canal that reversed the Main and South Branches of the river in 1900 remains one of the greatest feats of civil engineering this country has ever seen. Yes, more earth was moved in the creation of this canal than in the more famous one down in Panama a decade later. Yes, the reversal of the Chicago River was easily the most momentous hydrological change in this region since the Ice Age. I’m just not sure how many times the point has to be hammered home: our drinking water comes from Lake Michigan, our effluent (to put it nicely) goes to St. Louis.

Solzman has done a nice job of organizing the book in terms of a riverboat tour, and for this reason it would make a handy companion on any canoe or tourboat trip. First he starts at the northernmost reaches of the North Branch and follows it south to the Forks at Wolf Point, downtown near the Merchandise Mart. Next he backtracks a little to describe the North Shore channel. Then he takes us on what he calls the “Great Circle Tour,” a circumnavigation of the Loop and the southern portion of the city that starts at the Michigan Avenue Bridge, exits the river via the Chicago Locks to Lake Michigan, heads south along the shoreline to enter at Calumet Harbor, passes through the Little Calumet River and Cal-Sag Channel (like the Chicago River, these flow from the lake toward the west), through the O’Brien Locks, and finally up the Sanitary Canal and the South Branch of the Chicago River back toward downtown.

It is when we reach the Sanitary Canal that the biggest problem with Solzman’s book reveals itself. The problem is one of river terminology. Repeatedly he points out sites along the way in terms of being on the “left bank” or “right bank,” using them relative to the hypothetical boat in which we are riding. However, the banks of a river are properly named relative to the direction of flow of the river. In other words, the “left bank” is to the left when facing downstream. After all, Paris’ “Rive Gauche” does not become the “Rive Droite” the moment le bateau turns around. Solzman could have used “to the left” or “on the north (or west) bank” to describe something on that side of the Canal and South Branch as we move upstream, and frequently does, but he just as often misuses the terms “left bank” and “right bank.” Obviously, this is only an issue on this stretch of the tour, since at all other times we are moving downstream with the flow. But for someone with as much knowledge of river systems as the author appears to have, I am very surprised to see him make this mistake not once, but frequently and casually.

Thus, between the typos and the inaccurate terminology, my copy is now beginning to fill with pencil notations and corrections, and The Chicago River has been sluiced into the Shut List. But I do this only with regret. I have met the author and he is a scholar and a nice guy, and his book will long be an important reference work in my collection.