Chicago River Celebrated at Grand Re-Opening of Bridgehouse Museum
The revitalization of the Chicago River system took center stage Friday, August 21 as Friends of the Chicago River and dignitaries celebrate the dramatic turnaround in the health of the river system at the grand re-opening ceremony of the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum.
Kari K. Steele, president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi, and Angela Tovar chief sustainability officer of the City of Chicago, joined Friends’ Executive Director Margaret Frisbie to cut a special ceremonial twine laced with colorful origami paper fish to open the doors to the Bridgehouse Museum, the only museum of its kind in the country.
Major Refresh of Exhibits – Action & Advocacy Brings About Change; River Teems with Wildlife
The re-opening features a major refresh of the museum’s exhibits and showcases a river teeming with wildlife due in large part to hard fought water-quality victories and significant restoration efforts. The new exhibits reflect the action and advocacy of Friends of the Chicago River and its partners to improve the health of the river through the implementation of water quality standards, disinfection to protect recreational users, more open space, and wildlife restoration. The new exhibits also explore the improved connectivity of the river for people and wildlife, the effects of the climate crisis on the river system, the creation of a blue-green corridor of interconnected green spaces, the Clean Water Act, and nature-based green infrastructure.
“When the Bridgehouse Museum first opened its doors, fishing and paddling on the Chicago River system was novel and swimming unthinkable,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Fiends of the Chicago River. “The river was fenced off, fragmented, and polluted. But today, the river is healthier than it has been in 100 years and despite continued impacts of sewage and stormwater pollution and the climate crisis, it is alive with wildlife and people who now consider it a truly valuable natural resource and who want to work with us to protect it.”
Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends.
The Bridgehouse Museum opened in 2006 as one of the first attractions to pioneer the development of the renowned Chicago Riverwalk.
“While the river has a way to go until swimming is as common as kayaking or a snack along the Chicago Riverwalk, we are proud of the impact we and our partners, members, and supporters have had already and will continue to work to improve and protect the Chicago River system for people, plants and animals," Frisbie added.
One Wildlife Example – Fish Success Story, Species on the Rise
A recent report by the MWRD and the Shedd Aquarium shows that fish populations and species have gradually increased over the past 30 years, while invasive species have declined. Since 1974, the number of fish species increased from 10 to 77, with 60 species counted since 2000.
“The Bridgehouse Museum was opened the same year we completed our first phase of the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan,” said MWRD President Kari K. Steele. “From that time on we witnessed remarkable improvements to the Chicago Area Waterway System. The 109-mile system of tunnels drastically reduced the amount of pollution in our waterways. Since then, we have constructed two reservoirs that account for more than 11 billion gallons of storage to mitigate flooding and further improve water quality. The river has claimed its spot as an economic, recreational and cultural asset for our city and region.”
Kari K. Steele, president of the MWRD.
Recognizing the Bridgehouse Museum’s cultural importance to the Chicago Riverwalk, 42 Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly said: “I am thrilled to celebrate the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum public reopening with new exhibits and COVID-safe protocols this September. The Bridgehouse Museum has long been a cultural anchor on the Chicago Riverwalk, and shares the unique tale of Chicago, through the history of people's usage of the Chicago River. I want to thank Friends of the Chicago River for their stewardship of this important piece of Chicago's history, and I am looking forward to visiting the new exhibits in September!”
Friends of the Chicago River was also praised for its leadership. "For decades, Friends of the Chicago River have pushed and prodded us toward the renewal of the river that we are enjoying today," CDOT Commissioner Gia Biagi said. "Whether it was organizing riverbank cleanups; educating the public about the critical importance of cleaning our waters and protecting wildlife; or advocating for investments to allow residents to get up close to the water, Friends of the Chicago River has been the driving force behind the turnaround."
Gia Biagi, commissioner of CDOT.
Major Milestones in the Improved Health of the Chicago River System
1993 – Collaboration with National Park Service ID’s Key Chicago River Enhancement Projects
- Friends and the National Park Service launched the Chicago Rivers Demonstration Project. This innovative project was collaboration with the MWRD, Urban Resource Partnership, U.S Army Corps of Engineers, USDA Forest Service, and U.S Fish & Wildlife Service to enhance Chicago area rivers through community-based activities while serving as a national model for improving degraded waterways. The collaboration identified river enhancement projects, many of which have been completed.
2000 – Push for Water Quality Standards Analysis Results in IL EPA Review in 2002
- Friends and the Civic Federation and Openlands released Waterways for Our Future which helped trigger a five-year Use Attainability Analysis by Illinois EPA starting in 2002 to review whether or not the water quality standards governing the river system protected current or attainable recreational and aquatic life uses.
- 2011 – Friends and our Water Quality Task Force partners secure an upgrade to the recreational use standard that included sewage treatment plant disinfection and protection for swimming in most reaches. Disinfection has been implemented but enforcing the new swimming standards has been largely ignored at all levels of government.
Significant Water Quality Standards Underway
- 2015 – After eight years of negotiations and hearings before the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB), Friends and our Water Quality Task Force partners at Environment Law & Policy Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, Openlands, Prairie Rivers Network, and the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter collaborated with MWRD and secured new standards that were higher than even Illinois EPA recommended. Those new standards water quality standards that are still in the implementation phase but include targets to increase dissolved oxygen (O2) and less chlorides and other pollutants which will benefit fish and other aquatic life. Dissolved oxygen is the amount of oxygen that is present in water that all fish and other aquatic species need to breathe.
2002 – Dam Removal Campaign Launched
- Friends and Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) launched our dam removal campaign which led to a statewide dam removal initiative by Governor Pat Quinn and the removal of the Winnetka Road and North Branch dams to date. A dam removal success story chronicles a 30-mile trek of one largemouth bass.
2005 – Chicago River Fish Hotel
- Friends pioneered the Chicago River Fish Hotel, a complete floating wetland structure attached to the seawall outside our McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum and then downstream at Clark Street from 2009-2011. The Fish Hotel, which excitingly had trouble with muskrats and hatched its own Monarch butterflies, led to the development of the Jetty on the Chicago Riverwalk designed by Sasaki for the City of Chicago and paid for in part by Friends through a Chi-Cal Rivers Fund grant in 2014.
- – Catfish Nesting Cavities
- To show that it is possible to create fish habitat where it is lacking in an urbanized environment, Friends and IDNR were awarded one of the first Chi-Cal River Fund grants to invent and install 400 channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) nesting cavities into the North Shore Channel, North Branch, and the Little Calumet River. Male channel catfish use cavities to guard their eggs. To jump start the system and reproductive process we released 277,000 juvenile channel catfish in the North Shore, downtown, and into the Little Calumet.
- – Planting Thousands of Native Water Willow Plants
- Friends and IDNR partnered to replicate the success of IDNR's instream planting efforts on the Fox River in the North Shore Channel where water conditions are similar. Utilizing the enthusiastic assistance of volunteers, 4,000 emergent native water willow (Justicia Americana) and lizard's tail (Saururus cernuus) were planted, an effort that continued into 2018 and 2019 in partnership with the Shedd Aquarium with whom we installed a total of 2,768 more plants.The Bridgehouse Museum is located in the southwest bridgehouse of the historic 100-year-old Michigan Avenue Bridge and tells the story of how the Chicago River system changed as people’s use of it changed. The museum has five stories of exhibits and allows guests to see the massive inner workings of the bridge from inside.
Angela Tovar, Chicago's Chief Sustainability Officer.
The Bridgehouse Museum is located in the southwest bridgehouse of the historic 100-year-old Michigan Avenue Bridge and tells the story of how the Chicago River system changed as people’s use of it changed. The museum has five stories of exhibits and allows guests to see the massive inner workings of the bridge from inside.
In 2010, the bridge was officially renamed DuSable Bridge in honor of Chicago’s first permanent resident, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable. The bridge, along with its bridgehouses, was designated a landmark by the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois in 1991.
Museum Hours and Safety Protocols
The Bridgehouse Museum will host a series of private events August 22 through September 2 and be officially open to the public Thursday, September 3. The museum will close for the season on October 31, 2020.
Hours of Operation
Safety is paramount. COVID safety procedures include:
- Masks are required to be worn at all times, inside and outside the museum space
- Temperature check pre-admission required.
- Social Distancing is required. Maintain 6’ distance from other guests inside the museum.
- Limited guest capacity.
- Sanitizer stations.
- Handrails and other touch points will be disinfected once per hour.
- Patrons will need to give their personal info for contract tracing.
Friends of the Chicago River opened the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum in 2006 to provide new access and understanding of the dynamic relationship between Chicago and its river. Today, the Bridgehouse Museum stands as the cultural anchor of the new Chicago Riverwalk and welcomes tens of thousands of visitors every summer. Exhibits celebrate the river system and the city’s world-famous movable bridges.
Friends of the Chicago River is an award-winning nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve and protect the Chicago River system for people, plants and animals. With over 17,000 members, volunteers, and online advocates, Friends works to make the river greener and more accessible, while building awareness of the benefits that a clean, healthy river can bring to the surrounding community. Friends of the Chicago River is working to make the Chicago River a natural, blue-green corridor of accessible public open space that benefits people and wildlife.