This article was first published in The Skeptical Inquirer.
Originating near West 38th Street and flowing northward until it joins with the main river just above West 31st Street, the southern fork of the south bend of the Chicago river is much better known by the name Bubbly Creek.
Only 2,000 meters long, this creek has been bubbling like a hot tub for over 150 years. However, unlike the bubbles in a hot tub, which are evidence of complex machinery, years of mechanical developments, and a desire to get your butt massaged by jets of air, these bubbles are evidence of Chicago’s industrial past. Specifically, the historic Union Stock Yards.
In 1864, a union of nine railroad companies purchased 320 acres of land south of Chicago to build a yard to store livestock prior to butchering and processing them. At its peak, the Union Stock Yards covered more than 640 acres and had space to keep upward of 75,000 pigs, 21,000 cows, and 22,000 sheep at a time. Impressive as this operation was (it provided 82 percent of the domestic meat consumed in the United States at the start of the twentieth century), it was nothing short of a disaster for the local ecology, especially that of the adjacent creek.
Slaughterhouses within the Union Stock Yards dumped tremendous amounts of animal waste, blood, and offal into the creek, using it as an open sewer. So much refuse was poured into the river that hydrogen sulfide and methane, the results of decomposing carrion, began to bubble to the surface.
There are many colorful descriptions of Bubbly creek’s complexion from the media of the day, including in Upton Sinclair’s notable book The Jungle (which led to the enactment of the Meat Inspection Act). However, my favorite account is from this 1948 research paper:
To those who knew Bubbly Creek, the purification of its water seemed impossible. In the warmer months the surface of the water in this stream was a mass of bubbles caused by decomposition below. This would become so violent at times as to cause geysers or eruptions lasting several minutes and measuring several feet across. The material brought to the surface was as black as ink. A considerable amount of gas was given off, which was so evil smelling—especially on damp days, when the atmosphere was heavy—that it could be detected even above the prevailing odor from the stockyard pens. Chickens had been seen to venture out on the scum formed on the surface after these eruptions—and this is not exaggeration.
Indeed, in 1911, the Chicago Daily News published photographs of a chicken and a man standing on the solidified scum. Sinclair wrote in The Jungle about how “many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across and vanished temporarily.” He also wrote how the surface of the river would occasionally catch fire, requiring the intervention of the local fire department!
Today, while Bubbly Creek bubbles much less frequently and looks mostly like any other urban river, it is nonetheless still incredibly polluted. The dumping of animal waste and by-products into the creek certainly did the bulk of the damage to this ecosystem, but there are some other factors to it becoming so disgusting.
Besides the animal industry, the city of Chicago also dumped human-made sewage into the creek, and a 2017 oil spill of unknown origin further polluted the waters. There were also many various industrial plants adjacent to the creek throughout history that likely contributed to its pollution in kind. A 2004 study found that there was a three-foot layer of “fibrous material” on the riverbed. Even today, when Chicago is hit by heavy rains and sewers are filled to capacity, the overflow pipes flow into the river and bring wastes of all kinds to this waterway.
Combine the extensive amounts of particulate present in the water with stagnancy caused by the 1900 reversal of the Chicago River (a feat of engineering designed to stop sewage and waste from flowing into Lake Michigan, where Chicago’s drinking water was sourced), and you’ve got a murky, toxic, oxygen-free environment that harbors little if any life.
Programs to restore the creek have largely been halted by bureaucratic red tape. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has a 5.3-million-dollar plan to restore the waterway that would create a new riverbed populated with diverse aquatic plant and animal species. However, progress has stalled due to liability risks. If the USACE take control of the area and then find previously unknown contaminants, they will be responsible for the environmental ramifications of them. Thus, they are seeking an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency that would allow them to restore the river without being liable for the toxins potentially present within it.
Even without these extensive remediation efforts, however, flora and fauna are slowly returning to Bubbly Creek on their own. Since the creek was opened for recreational activities, visitors have reported seeing ducks, turtles, geese, woodpeckers, and fish while canoeing. The fish, unsurprisingly, are not fit for human consumption, and likewise swimming in the creek should be avoided. But the return of even some urban wildlife to the shores of the river signal that conditions within it are improving and that this creek might yet be bubble-free one day.