River Journeys

River Journeys

Have you been on the Chicago Riverwalk?  

One of our favorite places in Chicago, it’s a 1.25-mile path along the south side of the river, passing beneath the city’s famous bridges and looking out over the water. As you stroll along it, you go by restaurants, bars, cafes, small parks, boat and kayak rentals, a Vietnam War memorial, and rows of seats where you can just sit and watch the people go by. 

If you take the wonderful boat tour offered by the Chicago Architecture Center, you’ll learn that the river started as an industrial site, with pollution flowing eastward into Lake Michigan. Over the years, it was gradually de-industrialized, and the city cleaned up the pollution, partly by—incredibly—reversing the river so it flowed westward, away from the lake. 

Chicago isn’t the only city to redesign its riverfront. As heavy industry died out or moved abroad, places like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chattanooga, and Cleveland did similar work, so their downtowns now face the river rather than turning their backs on it. 

Nashville, where I live, has been slower, but now plans are in place to create a thriving, multi-use riverfront anchored by Oracle headquarters on the north and a new Tennessee Titans stadium on the south.

Why were riverfronts so heavily industrialized to begin with? 

You’ll find the fascinating answer in Rinker Buck’s new book, Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure. Buck points out that rivers provided the engine for early America’s expansion and economy. Rivers were our highways, so that’s where industry was located. 

Our national mythology has Americans migrating westward by wagon train, but in fact the great majority—three million during the first half of the 1800s—went on a vast inland waterway along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. And most of them traveled on wooden flatboats, small rectangular vessels made of lumber lashed together in the east, then disassembled and used for cabins in the west. 

Buck, enchanted by the idea of flatboats, decided to have one built in the authentic, old-fashioned way and then use it to travel along those same rivers from Pennsylvania to New Orleans. He describes his trip, setting it side by side with the early settlers’ journey, making for an eminently readable and informative book.


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