This past December the Honorable Richard J. Daley, for 22 years the mayor of Chicago, passed away. In the months just before his death it came to light that the 74-year-old Daley was, among other things, an avid fisherman. "Hizzoner, duh mare," as loyal Chicago folks still sometimes refer to Daley, had been seen leaving local Lake Michigan docks early in the morning and returning to shore with good-sized Chinook salmon.
There was a photograph in the newspapers of a shining 23-pounder Daley caught in October while fishing near McCormick Place with Arthur Wirtz, Chicago sports mogul. At one point Daley told the press that fishing was his favorite sport by far, saying, "It's the one place where you're closest to God."
Of course, no one in Chicago begrudged Mayor Daley his fishing—after all, the man who ran "the city that works" deserved his playtime. It was where he went fishing that caused comment. Lake Michigan, for 20 miles Chicago's eastern boundary, is not generally considered a sportsman's dream. The lake has been receiving abuse for years, from industrial runoff to invading lampreys to PCBs, and the common feeling was that the fish population had been hard hit.
But with the recent introduction of "man-made" Chinook and coho, which were dumped near several Chicago harbors last spring, sport fishing was supposedly looking up. You could ask Hizzoner. "In another year we'll have the most salmon of anywhere," he said in the glow of an autumn catch.
March 28, 1977
Nevertheless, skepticism remained. Tenth Ward Alderman Ed Vrdolyak jokingly said at a city council meeting that an underwater confederate might be attaching fish to Mayor Daley's line. In their column, Bagtime, Chicago Sun-Times writers Bob Greene and Paul Galloway suggested that the mayor's trophies were actually precinct captains dressed in fish costumes.
What truly raised eyebrows, however, was the mayor's contention that not only was Lake Michigan a fishing heaven but that the Chicago River would soon be one, too. 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 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.
Still, the 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."
Official reaction to Daley's plan has ranged from hard-line waffling to outright hysterics. "Put salmon in the Chicago River?" asks Nick Bridge of the Illinois conservation department, after several moments of laughter. "Oh, my God!"
To say there are problems is to understate grandly. To begin with, the river flows the wrong way. At the turn of the century Chicagoans decided it would be easier to reverse the river than to clean it up, so it now flows out of Lake Michigan instead of in. Salmon returning to spawn would be looking for a non-existent current. Secondly, there are locks at the mouth—or tail—of the river that prevent easy passage. The river is also warmer than it used to be. And, of course, there is the filth.
"There are years of pollutants on the bottom," says Harry Wight, an Illinois state fish biologist. "The whole system is sick. And salmon are even less environmentally tolerant than trout."
As part of his reclamation project Mayor Daley asked Congress to allow the diversion of more Lake Michigan water down the river—up from 3,200 cubic feet per second to 10,000. This measure—which has been compared to the violent flushing of a toilet—has prompted alarmed speculation. Scaremongers say it might lower the water level of Lake Michigan and perhaps all the Great Lakes to some degree (although, according to some biologists, if there were a drop it would be three inches at most, which they say is hardly significant). But the sediment washed down the Chicago River would work its way into the Illinois waterway and from there into the Mississippi, increasing its pollutants. "Eventually, water from Chicago ends up in New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico," says General Francis P. Kane, a city coordinator for the many agencies involved in the project.
But even if the water is somehow made pure enough, how will salmon find the river? "Well, it's possible you could use the 'drip system,' where the fish are imprinted with an odor and then return to that smell later," says Ken Dumong, president of Chicago's Salmon Unlimited club. "It's been done in Milwaukee."
Rumor had it, in fact, that Salmon Unlimited was so excited about Mayor Daley's scheme that the club had plans to plant salmon fingerlings in the river last spring as a bicentennial present. That, claims Dumong, was a fish story. "It's a biological impossibility," he states. "A writer just put words in our mouths."
Still, things are looking up for the Chicago River. Construction was recently started on a tunnel and reservoir system to handle Chicago's sewage. This in itself may purify the river immensely, although whether it will make it habitable for fish is another matter. "I don't know," says Dumong uncertainly. "I don't want to say anything too critical, but I don't think we'll see salmon in the river in my lifetime or yours."
Mayor Daley, a man who built skyscrapers, freeways, shopping centers, an airport and one of the few modern urban political juggernauts, insisted it would happen. And soon. "How do you put a value on young people in the inner city being able to fish in the river?" he asked.
Perhaps you don't. But if salmon ever do run up—or down—the Chicago River, Chicagoans will have something marvelous to tell their grandchildren. Not only did the late great Irish boss know how to build machines and wield clout—but he worked miracles, too.