Back when I was a kid, anything that came from the Chicago River was considered toxic. Science-fiction-y toxic. Three eyes and three arms toxic. Eat it and you’re guaranteed to develop tumors inside and out within weeks. Days, maybe.
My beloved hometown’s river wasn’t exactly in the same league as, say, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River. You know, the one that started on fire not once, not twice, but more than a dozen goddamned times in the heyday of industrial pollution, before the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, before that famous commercial with the Native American shedding a tear over litter and general muckiness.
Mayor Richard J. Daley, the first Pharaoh of the city and a dedicated fisherman, once pledged to clean up the Chicago River to the extent that the citizenry could one day drop lines in the water and see what got snagged on their hooks. In impeccable Chicagoese, Daley said, “D’ere’s nuthin’ so wholesome as eatin’ a fish.”
Hell, Sports Illustrated even ran a small piece on Da Mare’s angling obsession soon after his death in December 1976, including this gem:
[T]he mayor had a vision. He wanted to see clean, edible fish in the river, and he wanted to see them right away. “People from the Loop could catch fish in the Chicago River and barbecue them on grills we’ll put in Lower Wacker Drive.” he told the House Public Works Subcommittee on Water Resources. “They can eat fish and have a bottle of beer.”
The reaction to the above Illinois House Subcommittee testimony was universal derision. As Rick Telander’s SI piece described the river at the time:
An inner-city sludgepot of indeterminate composition and color, the Chicago River had probably housed more cement-encased humans than fish during the last half century. Overflow from the the city’s sewers runs directly into the river during heavy rains, and huge ships churn its waste-filled bottom into noxious ooze. The only time the river has a healthy color is on St. Patrick’s Day, when the Democrats dye it green with food coloring.
Lo and behold, thanks in large part to the establishment of the aforementioned EPA as well as the national environmental awareness inspired by that iconic teary Native American, the Chicago River over the last 45 or so years indeed has been cleaned up. So much so that many people now climb into rowboats and fish for American eel, black bullhead, bluegill, channel catfish, common carp, green sunfish, largemouth bass, northern pike, and pumpkinseed.
There’ve been no recent reports of fisherpeople dropping dead after eating a Chicago River eel. Nor has there been a spate of local anglers developing extraneous limbs or eyes after downing a bluegill.
Nevertheless, a recent viral Instagram video showing the existence of an elderly gal nicknamed “Chonkosaurus” is jarring. Chonkosaurus is a huge snapping turtle who apparently calls the Chicago River home. A couple of kayakers videoed her sitting on a mound of rusty chains at the point, just northwest of the Loop, where the river splits into North and South branches.
I suppose any mammoth, superannuated snapping turtle would appear to be something out of a Ray Harryhausen 1950s monster movie. Harryhausen’s, along with Bert I. Gordon‘s and others, were my favorite movies in the days when I was fairly certain I could see the same types of creatures crawling out of the Chicago River itself. “Them!” “Beginning of the End,” “War of the Colossal Beast,” and “It Came from Beneath the Sea,” were after-school staples for me in the mid- and late-60s, during that pre-teen prime time when I could flip between those scifi classics, the Cubs game, and the Three Stooges.
The truth of the matter, though, is Chonkosaurus looks like a run-of-the-mill Chelydra serpentina. A Cook County Forest Preserve naturalist has identified Chonkosaurus as a female and suggests she’s probably loaded with eggs. Meaning, I suppose, there’ll be tons more like her popping up here and there along the river over the next few years. Chicago, it should be noted, was the cinematic locale of an attack by a swarm of giant grasshoppers in “Beginning of the End” back in 1957. Now, in 2023, some enterprising auteur ought to lens something called, say, “The Tortuga Terror,” with scenes of titanic reptiles climbing the Willis Tower.
The emergence of Chonkosaurus, of course, isn’t the first time the Chicago River has made national news (other than every St. Patrick’s Day when the river’s dyed green). In August 2004, the tour bus for the Dave Matthews Band stopped while crossing the Chicago River on the Kinzie Street Bridge. The bus driver had decided to empty the bus’s toilet tank through the bridge’s iron grate deck. Unfortunately, just at that moment a tour boat, Chicago’s Little Lady, was passing directly underneath the bridge. Carrying some 120 passengers, the tour boat caught the brunt of the 800-pounds of human shit, piss, and otherwise fouled water pouring down through the grate. About 80 tourists got slimed.
An official report read thusly:
The liquid waste was brownish yellow in color, and had a foul, offensive odor. The liquid human waste went into passengers’ eyes, mouths, hair, and onto clothing and personal belongings, many of which were soaked. Some of the passengers suffered nausea and vomiting as a result….
The bus driver eventually was found guilty of dumping into a waterway and sentenced to 150 hours of community service, 18 months’ probation, and fined $10,000. The tour boat’s passengers, it should be noted, all received refunds when Chicago’s Little Lady returned to its dock.
I don’t suppose many of them enjoyed a hearty meal for the next few weeks after the incident.
Perhaps a new generation of Chicagoans can think wholesome, clean thoughts when the Chicago River is mentioned. Me? I dunno, the river carries a little too much baggage.