An Inland Harbor
THE sharp reiterant clangor of an electric gong rises above the continuous blend of indefinable sounds that is the voice of the city; slowly the great double-decked leaves of the bridge lift upward, like the blades of an opened knife. The keen wind from the lake catches the falling dust from the slanting roadbed and whirls it to leeward.
North and south the flood of traffic ceases. Motors in triple row pause in their courses. The acrid reek of a thousand exhausts taints the clear penetrating air. Deep-throated, the whistle of a great steamer sounds its summons to the waiting bridges. Slowly it glides down the narrow channel of the river, which floods in like a liquid street between grim walls of brick and occasional skyscrapers. The sharp black bow moves past , followed by a league of deck; slowly the smoking funnel slides by, and the leaves of the bridge sink smoothly and silently into a level way.
From the bridge ramparts t he walkers watch the vessel pass. Men of business and women on shopping bent are forced to pause. And from the decks of the steamer, lake sailors, in the slattern garb of their trade, turn curious eyes to these casuals of an interrupted city-street.
East, beyond the maze of tracks and warehouses and grain-elevators, the lake gleams a splendid blue beneath a paler sky. Strong from it comes the silent breeze, fresh with the purity of a vast expanse of open water. There are smoke-smears on the horizon, and where the long finger of the Municipal Pier creeps out from the city, there are wisps of smoke and steam from other vessels.
Between the pier and the life-saving station the river enters the city. Far beyond, in the blue of the water, are the sweeping curves of protecting breakwaters. There is the open sea of Michigan.
But within, the river narrows to the breadth of a city street. It enters, disappears, and is lost in the maze of brick and steel and stone that for thirty miles borders the lake front.
A hundred years ago a gleaming sandbar stretched southward from the river mouth, and from the inland prairie the slow current of the river meandered crystal clear, past the stockade of Fort Dearborn, into the vast stillness of the lake. Where now rises the tremendous excrescence of the city, there were then groves of scrub oak among the sand dunes. And the current of the river, which to-day, by man’s direction, swirls west through devious courses to the Mississippi, to disembogue finally into the Gulf of Mexico, then pursued its quiet course east to Lake Michigan, to mingle its waters with the flood of the St. Lawrence.
There is a mystery in this inland seaport. Great harbors suggest the open roadstead where vessels swing to the tide. There shipping may be seen and the units of commerce counted. There vessels tie to docks along the waterfront; the sea is in evidence; commerce greets the eye.
But in this lake port of Chicago, there is no such indication of waterborne commerce. Hour after hour the deep throats of the whistles sound their summons to the reluctant bridges; one by one the huge steel carriers slide past interrupted streets, and are gone, lost in the wilderness of the city, forgotten by the waiting crowds who pause impatient on the bridgeheads.
East of the broad avenue which skirts the lake front, a mile of buildings and switchyards crowd outward to the shore. Between the towers of grainelevators and the brick piles of warehouses are slips, where the ships may discharge or take on board their cargoes. Filled land is this, where once was the pleasant sand-bar. Choking with smoke and steam, the switch engines shunt their interminable strings of freight cars. From the bellies of steel freighters the grab buckets lift the coal which will feed a million furnaces, and pile it in mountainous ridges on the docks. Strings of stevedores, like ants, stream continuously from the opened ports of other vessels, trucking shoreward the fruits of Michigan, and bales and boxes and barrels, that people may be fed and clothed. Squat lighters swim like water beetles beneath the bridges, and tugs puff busily up and down the narrow channel, with stacks that dip backward to clear the bridge spans.
Here, too, in the quiet backwaters between docks piled high with coal or gravel, or crowded between salt warehouses or railroad freight-sheds, are the huts of fishermen. By day, in the shadow of the vast industries of the city, they mend their nets; in the early dawn their sputtering engines drive their small boats down the narrow lane of the river to the open lake.
Throughout the heart of the city the river winds; like a cañon, bridge-spanned at every block, it cuts westward, where, a couple of miles from its mouth, it divides into two branches. One of these swings north, the other bends toward the south to form a junction with the Illinois River, whence they flow together to the Mississippi.
From the lake the water comes clear, except when a northeast gale piles the waves on the breakwaters and clouds the lake with tawny swirls of sand. Between steep walls of concrete or piling, it glides into the city, the dust of the coal docks and the oil of the waterfront fouling its swirling surface. Beneath the latticed spans of the bridges, it flows steadily.
High on either hand rise the walls of buildings, behind a narrow shelf of dock. Mellowed by years, the red-brick walls look down through dusty windows. Here and there a new structure of clean brick, or gleaming terra-cotta, rises immaculate; but for the most part the walls that line the river are sombre and mellowed by years. With clocklike regularity occur the bridges. Street cars crowd the roadways and battle with motor-trucks for passage; men and women throng the footpaths, but they cross the river as they would cross an intersecting street. It is ‘the river’ — that is all.
To the north the stream branches. Rats scurry along the dock-piling on its shores. The surface of the water is brown with oil. A viscous smell rises from it. In a quiet pocket are tied a tug, two chasers, and a German submarine. The gray war-paint is flaked and weathered. A crust of oil smears their water lines. They are far from the salt reek of the sea.
High above the bank rises the monolith of an elevator, a cluster of mighty concrete columns pregnant with the harvest of the grainflelds of the Dakotas. other elevators rear corrugated sides, dusted with the dull yellow powder of the grain. From their flanks long tubes incline to the ships which wait in their shadow — tubes through which the golden flood of the harvest pours into cavernous holds, that the mills of the East may grind, that men may live. From these repositories fed by clanking freight-trains, depart the silent steamers, which glide beneath opened bridges and, in the first starlight, arrest the impatient street-traffic homeward bound.
South, also, the river bends. Here the current flows more swiftly, tawny and cluttered with the mire of the city streets. Blackened piles embrace it; red walls of brick rise above it; street after street the bridges span its course. On the west bank a train of orange cars winds in and out past clicking switchpoints. It is a coast train for Seattle, where perchance its passengers will marvel at a world port and forget, if indeed they ever realized, the commerce of the Chicago River.
The old swing-bridge at Madison Street is vibrating with the tread of feet, the rumble of street cars, and t He roll of rubber-tired wheels. Like a smear of rouge, the red-lead-painted steel work of the new bascule-bridge lifts above the old rusting span.
High over the water men are driving home the rivets, with a reverberating rattle of their riveters. A few months, and the leaves of the new structure will fall into place. A few hours, perhaps, the traffic will be delayed. But to the passing ships there will be a wider channel.
The river narrows and the current quickens, dimpling and slinking in smooth oily streaks that bend about the confining abutments of the bridges. A black freighter, reaching almost from bridge to bridge, is hoarsely calling to a delaying bridge-keeper. Frightened automobiles scurry across; pedestrians are running; on the upper deck of the bridge an elevated train roars over the span of blackened steel. Slowly the bridge heaves; upward the centre bends; it divides and lifts its giant halves skyward. Into the gap the steamer glides, the dirty water churning brown from the propellers, the helm hard over to meet the river’s urge.
Twin towers, like London bridges, swing aloft a span of railroad track. Beneath it the yellow river floods. On either side the tracks of steel encroach upon it, crossing and recrossing, bridge after bridge; challenging its dominance. Martian structures, the gas tanks, crowd the bank. There is a reek about them, a nastiness in their presence, a majesty in their girth and attitude.
The river widens. On the right, long slips of still brown water pierce the land. The shore is piled high with lumber; wide acres of fragrant spruce and fir and pine; telegraph poles in piles, gaunt corpses of majestic trees; huge heaps of ties and toppling stacks of clean-cut boards. Mile after mile they reach; and here and here and here the slips, where lumber freighters come to bring the forests to the needs of men.
Coal, grain, lumber, fruit, and all the miscellaneous wares that a great city needs, are the burden which the river bears. There are no vessels flying foreign flags from distant ports. There are no rare cargoes from exotic lands. Nor are there any of those craft which grace a seaboard port. The square-rigged ship, the liner, and the tramp are not seen here. It is a river of utility. It is a port of inland commerce; but among the nation’s ports it stands—high in volume of its tonnage.
When winter comes, the ice sweeps in in broken cakes of dingy white, and the brown river flows undisturbed. The swirling snow eddies out from the deepcut streets and a piercing wind blows in from the lake. Against the night sky the low bridges trace the yellow west w it h sharp-etched lines of black, and the gulls wheel— the only sign of life along the stream.
But on summer evenings, when the air is soft and redolent with the breath of the city, and the stars step dimly out from the soft blue of the night, a mystery steals over the turgid stream. Against the burning of the sunset the masts of ships mingle with the lattice tracery of the bridges. Blunt walls of dingy brick soften in the half light. The river catches the twilight glow. From lofty windows the white of electric lamps tells of late workers past the closing hour of the day. Across the bridges, the headlights of automobiles stream.
Then, from the river’s distance, comes the deep-bass whistle of the grain ship. Slowly the bridges rise against the sky. Red and green, the running lights seem to touch either bank. A giant palpitating mass of steel slides surely up the stream toward the lake. The bridges close; the traffic carries on — the streets are joined.