Teenage Historians Come Up Winners With Help From Friends

The Chicago River system has a past, a present, and a future.  

At Friends, we explain the history at our McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum located on the Chicago Riverwalk at Michigan Avenue. Our current work includes land restoration and wildlife habitat projects such as erecting bat nurseries and osprey nesting poles as well as helping develop policies on water quality and river edge development. As for the future, our Chicago River Schools Network (CSRN) connects with thousands of teachers and students to help young people become the environmental caretakers of the river.

Meet the future: Matthew Li, Bridget Zhu, Erin Yuan and Govind Prabhakar (pictured) of Stevenson High School in northwest suburban Lincolnshire, about five miles west of the West Fork. 

The four recently were awarded Outstanding Entry medals at the National History Day competition at the University of Maryland, College Park for their effort "Reversing the Flow of History: Triumph and Tragedy of the Chicago River." The four rising seniors tapped as a primary resource Friends Ecology Outreach Manager Mark Hauser, who has taught countless teachers and students about the river system through CRSN.

Explaining the pros and cons of the 1900 reversal of the river, Hauser "provided us with very helpful articles, maps, and fact sheets with succinct summaries of the river's history, the reversal process, and what [Friends of the Chicago River] aims to improve in the future," said Yuan.

"As a city, we need to raise awareness and increase appreciation for the river's incredibly fascinating past. It's only this way that the Chicago River can achieve a more sustainable triumph," said Yuan.

"Few people were aware of the river reversal's widespread and long-lasting effects, including on the environment and the economy, so it was important to us to shine light on them. By examining how history impacts us today, we can better learn from the past," added Zhu.

"The river's reversal altered our perception of it," Hauser told the students, noting that for decades after the river was reversed it was treated as part of the sewer system.

"I wish they had designed a blue/green corridor along the river with parks and access for all. We are slowly changing that," Hauser said.

"Mark helped us refine our claim to balance what we analyzed as 'triumphs' and 'tragedies' to fit the theme of National History Day," added Yuan. "We're very grateful his time and support for our research."

"I learned about the importance of perspective through this story. The adage of history being written by the victors holds a lot of truth, and by researching the reversal we found out about the stories from the 'losers.' It was also really exciting to learn about the continual consequences from the reversals and to search for those stories in a multitude of sources," said Prabhakar.

The students also credited Daniel Larsen, History Fair Club sponsor; Peter Anderson and Dawn Forde, American Studies teachers at Stevenson High School; and Lisa Oppenheim of the Chicago History Museum.