Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The National Basement

Dragonfly threaded the canyons of Chicago fast as a morning commuter tossing off a shot of espresso, and before you could say "Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal," we were heading southwest out of downtown, away from the gleaming glass towers, under the Dan Ryan Expressway, and into the industrial hinterlands. We passed the Chicago Public Works yard, with mounds of road salt and sand, ready for the winter.
A little farther on, asphalt plants vented the smell of hot tar into the humid air.  We noticed a petroleum refinery, placed (with unintentional irony) directly across the river from a facility where stacks of flattened automobile carcasses were being bundled.  Meanwhile, signs along the river bank read: "This water not safe to swim in. This water not safe to jet ski in. This water not safe for any contact with human skin."  

Towboats from faraway ports--New Orleans and Missouri--tossed up big bow waves as they churned past us, angling into the banks to hook up to rusty barges that were lined up two abreast and three deep, forming "tows" as long as football fields.  

We noticed some barges loaded with chunks of granite the size of refrigerators. Others were mounded with gravel; still others with coal; and some with silica sand, which is mined locally and used for glass-making.

We passed junkyards where mounds of scrap metal were ready for recycling.  Now that we have visited Manitowoc and know it's the home of a construction crane manufacturer, we were amused to spot a bright red Manitowoc construction crane, excavating the river bank.   The canal ran straight as an arrow through all these industrious sites, beneath a canopy of transmission wires, past power plant after power plant, with mountains of crushed coal heaped by the water's edge.  

In sum, we passed every kind of industry that supports those Chicago glass and steel towers, and the people who work in them.

Our guidebook calls this industrialized segment of the canal the "Twelve Miles of Hell."  Having passed through Gary, Indiana, at night, when the smokestacks were belching fire, I found the scene on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to be almost pastoral.  The water was murky but it didn't smell bad. In the sunlight the industrial plants seemed like modern sculptures; they reminded me of exposed pipes in a children's technology museum, deliberately painted cheerful colors.  We saw wildlife; around each bend in the canal, a different  great blue heron had claimed his territory.  A red-tailed hawk circled overhead.

We even spotted an elderly couple who were setting up for a day's fishing.  They had come down a dirt road to a grassy segment of the canal  bank, shaded by sumac and box elder. He was fixing lures to the fishing lines while she set up a lawn chair fitted with an umbrella, next to a roll-around cooler.

I couldn't help reflecting that traveling along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was like touring the basement of one of those glass towers downtown, to see the HVAC system.  It was like your fourth-grade field trip to tour the town's water treatment plant.  It was like watching the proverbial sausage being made.  

It ain't pretty . . .  but it's the foundation of the pleasant, convenient, energy-intensive lifestyle we enjoy, and if you are going to be an intelligent citizen, you had better know about the infrastructure that makes all the conveniences of modern life possible.

1 comment:

  1. You can catch glimpses of this as you drive down the Stevenson (something I try to avoid as often as possible), but it's really interesting to see if from your camera as you sailed down the CS&S. Thanks for the pics.