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The Chicago River

The Chicago River

A Natural and Unnatural History

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Libby Hill


E-book (Other formats: Paperback)
86 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. This revised edition features discussions of disinfection, Asian carp, green strategies, the evolution of the Chicago Riverwalk, and the river’s rejuvenation. It also explores how earlier solutions to problems challenge 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 researched and expertly presented study, "The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History" is an extraordinary and unreservedly recommended addition to both community and academic library collections."—Helen Dumont, Midwest Book Review

“Who wrote the book on the Chicago River? That was Libby Hill when The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History was first published. Now—like the river—that book has been updated and rejuvenated, and is more important than ever.”—Richard Cahan, coauthor of The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond

“Hill infuses the rigorous research of an academic with the lively storytelling of a writer who clearly has a deep affection for her subject. Hill’s work has long been the definitive resource for anyone interested in the history of the Chicago River. But as Hill writes, ‘Rivers are a continuum over space and time.’ This revised edition brings the story up to date. The once-unloved Chicago River is lucky to have a voice in Libby Hill.”—Geoffrey Baer, WTTW (PBS), Chicago
“What a spectacular story! From bridges to boating, from portages to canals, from tribal lands to river walks, from marshes to channels, Libby Hill provides us with a lively and provocative history of the Chicago River. By focusing on the river, Hill interweaves the environmental, economic, and political history of the region.”—Ann Durkin Keating, North Central College
“Hill’s revised edition of The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History weaves a practical account of the river’s workhorse history with the details of the decades-long effort to undo the damage done. Highlighting the complications the river faced and still faces, this fascinating account will open readers’ eyes.”—Margaret Frisbie, executive director, Friends of the Chicago River

“To read the story of the Chicago River—from thriving ecosystem to open sewer and back again—is to grapple with the meandering, complex values of our changing society. In this essential revised edition, Libby Hill masterfully narrates the river’s history in a comprehensive account as clear-eyed as it is hopeful.”—Debra Shore, former editor of Chicago Wilderness Magazine, commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

 “An odyssey of personal discovery, Hill’s revised edition is alive and fresh. More than an update of the first edition, it contains new topics reflecting the dynamic river. By casting aside unessential details and infusing new topics, Libby’s words will ignite your interest and grab your hand to go along with her on an urban river adventure.”—Richard Lanyon, author of Building the Canal to Save Chicago