Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Book review: Chicago River, Libby Hill

I have a habit, when we take a vacation, of picking up a book with some local history or some interesting information about a site, since I read voraciously I prefer a book as a souvenir to some knicknack that I'll never find a place to keep. (The downside, of course, is that I constantly need more bookshelves.) So on our Chicago trip I picked up this history of the Chicago river, which is chock-full of information and fascinating research on the river. I'm looking forward to our next trip, now, to examine the mouth of the river with my new understanding that it is now engineered to flow outwards from Lake Michigan and, eventually, empty into the Gulf of Mexico. I had no idea.

The author has done a lot of what I like to do, which is to wander out to some random place and say, "Wow, I wonder what this looked like 20 years ago? Or 50, or a hundred?". If the place is on the Chicago River, you will find out in this book. Tons of details, with discussion like, "The tiny creek actually flowed into the river just south of the Mini-Mart on Calcutta Avenue." If I were a native this kind of detail would be terrific, and I would be sure to swing by Calcutta Avenue some time and see if I could actually find the ditch. Since I'm not, I have to wish someone would write a similar book about Spanker's Branch, the tiny creek that runs through the Indiana University campus here in Bloomington. I think I'll be waiting a long time.

The book tails off a bit in the end, with some pieces that almost seem like propaganda concerning various nature preserves that now exist on or near the river banks, and there is a map in the back showing "Golf Courses on the Chicago River", as if I might be interested in spending a summer golfing down the banks. Judging from the number of courses, I probably could.

But the first 80% of the book is terrific reading for local history buffs. There was a series of books many years ago on rivers - maybe a depression-era public works project? Employ those writers! - and that had a Chicago River book as well, which is referenced by this updated version, but this one is obviously a labor of love. The older books spend a lot of time discussing the people who happened to live on the river banks rather than the river itself. I bought one on the Ohio River as a souvenir of a trip to Cincinnati, and I haven't managed to slog through the whole thing yet. But if an update comes out that is as good as the Chicago River book, I'll be in line to buy it.