Monday, January 13, 2014

Your Phone Is Not Your Life

In 1871, when the photo on the left was taken, the Chicago River was but slightly modified from its original course. It drained the prairies to the north, south and west of the city. It flowed, as much as a midwestern river does, into Lake Michigan. At times it didn't flow much, becoming little more than a stagnant pond filled with raw sewage because it was, in effect, the city's sewer.

Even before the Great Chicago Fire that left all that debris in the river, the course of the waterway had been altered. Back in the 1830s it was determined that the meandering course tended to impede flow, due to the shifting sand bars that sometimes blocked up the river and held all that nasty raw effluent in place, in the middle of town.

The army dug a channel and straightened out the last part of the bend, giving the river a more direct route to the lake.

The banks of the river remained in place, however, and if you went into the water, you could walk out. There was a natural slope.

Straightening the meander did not solve the whole problem, which only increased as the population rose and factories found it convenient to dump waste in the river. Near the Union Stockyards on the south side, one tributary of the Chicago River became a solid mass of grease and animal parts, nicknamed Bubbly Creek for the gurgling methane that rose to the surface and exploded in a blast of stink.

Dumping all that sewage into the city's supply of drinking water, aka Lake Michigan, was creating all sorts of health problems. The solution to all the issues was simple, albeit expensive. By digging canals and turning the Chicago River into a drainage channel, Chicago's sewage was conveniently re-routed away from the lake and down to the system of waterways that leads to the Illinois River and on to the Mississippi.

Modern-day tourists are drawn to the river, to walk along the small parts they can access and take pictures of the ice floating on the cold water. In recent months, a few of them have fallen in and drowned.

The river isn't a river except in name. The banks are not banked, but straight concrete walls. Once you fall in, you cannot climb out. When you fall in cold water, the seemingly easy task of reaching a ladder and climbing out becomes impossible as your body reacts to the frigid temperatures.

Last night, a tourist admiring the view dropped his phone into the river and went in after it.

He is dead. One of his companions who went to help him was pulled out and is now in the hospital. A third companion has not been found but is presumed dead.

For a phone.

By all means, come to Chicago. It is a vibrant city, full of cultural and natural and man-made beauty. As you walk around, keep in mind that ice is slippery and just because there are stairs leading down to the riverwalk doesn't mean it's safe to go there. You don't see Chicagoans heading down there, do you? They know better.

And if you do happen to wander near the river and something falls in, say good-bye. Whatever it is, you can replace it. Something as commonplace as a phone isn't worth losing your life over.

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