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The Chicago River

The Chicago River

A Natural and Unnatural History

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Libby Hill


Paperback (Other formats: E-book)
322 pages, 6 x 9, 78 illustrations


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About the Book

In this social and ecological account of the Chicago River, Libby Hill tells the story of how a sluggish waterway emptying into Lake Michigan became central to the creation of Chicago as a major metropolis and transportation hub. 

This widely acclaimed volume weaves the perspectives of science, engineering, commerce, politics, economics, and the natural world into a chronicle of the river from its earliest geologic history through its repeated adaptations to the city that grew up around it. While explaining the river’s role in massive public works, such as drainage and straightening, designed to address the infrastructure needs of a growing population, Hill focuses on the synergy between the river and the people of greater Chicago, whether they be the tribal cultures that occupied the land after glacial retreat, the first European inhabitants, or more recent residents.

In the first edition, Hill brought together years of original research and the contributions of dozens of experts to tell the Chicago River’s story up until 2000. In this revised edition, she updates the book with new information on stormwater management, invasive species, disinfection, green infrastructure, the creation of the Chicago Riverwalk and the river’s rejuvenation. She explores how solutions to earlier problems have challenged today’s engineers, architects, environmentalists, and public policy agencies as they address contemporary issues. 

Revealing the river to be a microcosm of the uneasy relationship between nature and civilization, The Chicago River offers the tools and knowledge for the city’s residents to be champions on the river’s behalf.


Libby Hill is an environmentalist and educator who has worked as a librarian and a college instructor. She can be found in the woods or on the beach volunteering for ecological restoration projects, writing for her local newspaper, or working with others on regional environmental issues. 


“An impressively thorough, unexpectedly engaging account of the lazy stream that is Chicago’s raison d’être.”
—Deanna Isaacs, Chicago Reader

“A fascinating book . . . a remarkable document . . . a great enjoyment. . . . There are a million things in this book that surprised me.”—Rick Kogan, WGN Radio

From geology to the human dramas and epic engineering that brought us today’s river system, it is all here. Hill is a river enthusiast and a meticulous detective. The book has an abundance of maps and intriguing photographs, and when documents were contradictory or nonexistent, Hill and her husband went into the field to track down evidence.”—River Reporter

“A great guide to the geologic origins of modern Chicago [and] a fine guide to the making of Chicago.”
—Dolores and Roger Flaherty, Chicago Sun-Times

“Libby Hill’s The Chicago River is the result of years of painstaking research and presents an outstanding historical survey of the Chicago River from its creation by pre-glacial forces, to the days of the French explorers using it to access the Mississippi, to its contemporary presence in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the Midwest. The Chicago River is a highly recommended, rewarding read for those with an interest in Chicago, natural history, environmental issues, and Midwestern history.”—Midwest Book Review

“Anyone who reads this book will never again take our hometown stream for granted. It’s a must read for all Chicago buffs.”—Bill Hinchliff, veteran docent for the Chicago Architecture Foundation