What the Freight?

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By Reid Bogert

The Chicago River, with the help of the 100+ year-old addition of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, helped build a regional economy that really does warrant the city’s catchy nickname “The Third Coast.” Waterborne freight played a significant role in this growth, especially in the early days of development. Not the economic driver it once was, waterborne freight on the Chicago River has steadily declined over the years. But the industry does still exist, and occasionally you’ll see a barge that practically spans the width of the river slowly plying its tremendous wake. A situation that poses possibilities and concerns for river inhabitants and local city folk alike.


Freight in general has waned over the long haul since much higher tonnages in the 1990s. Water freight on the Chicago River is no different, decreasing 21% from 1994-2009, according to a study from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency of Planning (CMAP). Aging infrastructure (some boat locks in the Chicago region, which are used to transfer barges between water bodies, are too small to handle most modern freights), as well as inadequate funding for infrastructure updates and the steady transition to road, rail and air for most shipping needs, are other reasons for this decline in water freight in Chicago.


What’s still floated up- and down-stream on those big barges (have you ever seen one of these things? They’re huge!) may not come as a surprise. It’s mostly cheap, low value commodities that aren’t on a tight timeline for delivery. Salt, gravel and coal come to mind. Apparently cereal makes its way from Chicago down to New Orleans, too. Not glamorous, but still important for our economy and those of connecting cities.


As they say, however, when one door closes, another one opens. The CMAP’s GO To 2040 plan, along with other groups like the Great Rivers Chicago coalition, Friends of the Chicago River and Urban Rivers are taking up the charge for revised transportation networks and restored, multi-use river routes. There’s lots of work to be done on this, though, and it’s important for community members to voice their thoughts and concerns. Join the conversation on how you envision a more vibrant and healthy future for the Chicago River. Share your thoughts with us by commenting below, and check us out on Twitter @UrbanRiv.

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