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Nature's Chicago River

The Chicago River Waterway extends throughout the city of Chicago and functions as a defining feature of the Chicago landscape. The river has been changed in many ways to accommodate the needs of Chicagoans and Chicago’s shipping industry. Improvements in the Chicago River enabled the city to grow, develop and provide healthy, safe water for its citizens.

Sightseeing on the Chicago River
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Originally, the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan, its source. The slow-moving river extends north and south for 156 miles. It’s fed by tributaries in the Great Lakes Basin, and flowed naturally into Lake Michigan. Goose Island is its only island. It has three main parts, the North Branch, the South Branch and its main stem.

The North Branch of the Chicago River collects water from the Skokie River and runoff from numerous tributaries in the Great Lakes Basin. It was originally named the Guarie River or Gary’s River for a man named Guillory who settled and opened a trading post near Wolf Point.

Wolf Point, site of the Merchandise Mart, marks the main stem of the Chicago River. It’s the point where the branches of the river met originally and began flowing eastward into Lake Michigan. The river also continued flowing southward creating the South Branch. As the river poured into the lake, huge deposits of sand and silt caused problems for navigation on the lake.

Woodrangers from New France and French Canadian explorers were the first European Americans to travel the Chicago River in the 1600s. The Fox Native American Wars raged during the 1700s, effectively closing all Great Lakes exploration. Guillory, Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable and Antoine Ouilmette settled on the river in the late 1700s. The Treaty in 1795 granted the U.S. rights to land at the mouth and the first Fort Dearborn was built in 1803.

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