In a Nutshell
The Chicago River was once so polluted with blood and guts from the meatpacking industry that the water bubbled with the gases of decomposition.
The Whole Bushel
Toward the end of the Civil War, Chicago became known as one of the foremost meatpacking districts in the entire world. It was a grimy, savage business, perhaps best summarized in Upton Sinclair’s expose The Jungle, which brought public attention to the working conditions at the meat factories, where workers often lost fingers and hacked up tubercular phlegm as they slaughtered hogs.
While nearly all of the animals butchered were used, leftovers like bones, blood, and entrails were often dumped into the nearby Chicago River. There was so much rotten flesh in the water that gases of decomposition such as methane and hydrogen sulfide rose to the top, making the water bubble. Sinclair makes mention of Bubbly Creek in The Jungle, stating: “Bubbly Creek is an arm of the Chicago River, and forms the southern boundary of the Union Stock Yards; all the drainage of the square mile of packing-houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide. One long arm of it is blind, and the filth stays there forever and a day. The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths.”
Bubbly Creek was so fouled with lard and gas that it occasionally burst into flame. Today, Chicago’s meatpacking industry is gone, but the South Fork of the Chicago River is nowhere you’d want to swim. Sewage is directed into this area of the river, where it reeks and continues to bubble.