Chicago’s Polluted Bubbly Creek
In his 1906 novel, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair described the South Fork of the Chicago River as a “great open sewer.” Meat packers dumped entrails, bones, and fat, into the waterway and created a toxic sludge so solid people could walk on it (see above). Then, the river started to froth and foam from escaping gas, so Chicagoans called it the Bubbly Creek.
On Christmas Day 1865, what became known as the Union Stockyards opened; it was the consolidation of several smaller stockyards in the city. The meat packers gathered their businesses next to the stockyards by the South Fork of the Chicago River. Originally, the area was just wetlands until channels were dredged.
As Chicago became a railroad hub, the processing of meat grew to be a gigantic undertaking; handling 15 million head of livestock a year at its peak.
The Herald News reports that “By the close of the 19th century, the stockyards became a popular tourist attraction by allowing visitors to view the killing floors and ‘disassembly lines’.” (Martha, let's take the kiddies to see the moo cows and lambs getting slaughtered).
The gruelling and unpleasant work was done mostly by immigrants, who were willing to put up with a dangerous and unsanitary workplace in order to get a toehold on the American dream. The smell was overpowering and the conditions of employment were described by Upton Sinclair as “wage slavery.”
The South Fork of the Chicago River ran beside the meat-packing complex. It was dredged and widened and the slaughterhouses found it a convenient place to dump all the bits of animals they couldn’t sell.
The Bubbles Rise
Bones, entrails, offal, blood, and manure from the stockyards were chucked into the river. But, the gunk didn’t all flow away into Lake Michigan as hoped.
Some of the foul stew settled on the riverbed and nature began its decomposing process; the result was gases such as methane and hydrogen sulphide. The river could be heard gurgling and bubbles started rising to the surface.
Some of the stinking effluent did make its way to Lake Michigan, which is where the city of Chicago got its drinking water. Wise heads cautioned that feces and other obnoxious substances in tap water was not a good idea. So, in 1900, a massive engineering project was completed and the flow of the South Fork was reversed to discharge into the Mississippi watershed if its slow-moving and curdling slop ever made it that far.
The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across and vanished temporarily.”
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
But, Bubbly Creek still bubbled.
Here’s a disquieting description from C. A. Jennings, who wrote in the Journal of the American Water Works Association, in 1948 that the bubbling “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.”
Elsewhere along the course of the South Branch, factories tossed in heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and chemicals with unpronounceable names.
Remediation of Bubbly Creek
The stockyards and meat-packing plants were closed in 1971 but the river continues to bubble today. In the 1990s, a single life form could be detected in the putrid mire; the aptly named bloodworm feasted on the rancid remains.
The river is almost stagnant so some of the horrible stuff that was put into has stayed around giving later generations the monumental task of cleaning up the mess.
There has been a program of pumping compressed air into the creek to bring some life to the water but it has only achieved limited success.
It has fallen to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to deal with the issue. A study in 2005 came up with a $15.4 million plan. The Army Corp’s idea was to encapsulate the sludge on the river bottom with sand and rocks and to install native plants to keep the new river bed in place.
But, this program stalled in squabbling over liability issues and bureaucratic red tape. Absent human action, nature has begun a cleanup of its own. Science writer Ada McVean notes that “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.”
A few tenacious plants have put down roots, but Bubbly Creek remains a very long way from being a health body of water.
- At the start of the twentieth century, 82 percent of the meat consumed in America came from the Chicago stockyards.
- At one point, an enterprising man started scooping up the grease and fat that was floating on the river. He then sold the goop as lard. When the meat packers realized they were discarding a product they could sell they took over the man’s business.
- Even today, Bubbly Creek gets new assaults; when heavy rainfall overwhelms Chicago’s storm-sewer system, raw sewage gets carried into Bubbly Creek.
Some have suggested dredging the slime out of Bubbly Creek, but others say that might reveal some even more unpleasant finds, such as cars with bodies in the trunk.
- “Then & Now: Union Stockyards – Chicago.” The Herald-News, January 16, 2018.
- “Bubbly Creek.” Industrialhistory.com, January 15, 2016.
- “Bubbly Creek: An Environmental Quagmire for Federal Agencies and Local Activists.” WTTW, June 10, 2019.
- “The Significance of the Bubbly Creek Experiment.” C. A. Jennings, Journal (American Water Works Association), October 1948.
- “An Environmental Disaster Brought to You by Meat: Chicago’s Bubbly Creek.” Ada McVean, Skeptical Inquirer, March 27, 2020.
- “Plan to Restore Bubbly Creek Stalls Amid Contamination Concerns.” Ted Gregory, Chicago Tribune, June 26, 2015.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor