69 Chicago, IL to the Mississippi River

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The Chicago Harbor Lock gates opened, and we headed for the turning basin just beyond to anchor out and explore Chicago. Slight problem– the turning basin was gone, a cofferdam partially closed it off. As we headed closer, the police boat indicated the turning basin was closed. For $72 we could stay the night at Marina City, a marina literally under a skyscraper. Next we found a floating dock where for $43 we could tie up for 3 hours but couldn’t stay overnight. Instead of heading back to the outer harbor to anchor, we elected to push on but worried about where we’d find a place to stop for the night.

Tall buildings let just a narrow line of blue sky peek in to see the river. The narrow line of sky disappeared frequently as we passed under one of the 24 bridges in 4 miles of river. The Chicago River, barely 200 feet wide as it threads its way through the heart of Chicago, is a concrete trench. Noise from traffic, people, tour boats, planes and elevated trains echoed off buildings and the river’s concrete walls. Splashes of color from flowers, people and tour boats stand out boldly against the grays, browns and blacks of the buildings. Tour boats scurry up and down the river grabbing our attention and making it difficult to see the sights. The noise, narrowness, and activity made our first trip through very memorable.

Industry took over the river edge and never seemed to let go as we headed out of downtown Chicago. Scrap yards filled waiting barges, chemical plants sucked in stuff from barges along side, cement plants scooped up sand, cement and gravel from barges. The variety and quantity of industry was incredible. The Chicago River changes to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and seemed to shrink even narrower because of all the barges tied off against shore. We cringed when we encountered our first tow. Half the river width disappeared as a 105-foot wide tow approached. We moved over hugging the ‘Right Bank Descending’ shore as it’s known in the language of the river. Down we went past a tow 3 barges wide and 5 barges long being pushed by a towboat. The tow of 15 barges and one towboat was about 1,100 feet long. Passing them in subsequent days was rarely a routine event.

Thirty-seven miles down from the Lake Michigan entrance, we asked the Lockport lockmaster for permission to tie off behind the lock for the night. Tired from our long day, we were in bed early. Morning brought a surprise. Fog had closed in stopping all river traffic. Off to our port a tow (15 barges and a towboat) was pushed up against shore. A second tow shared the exit pier with us. We scrambled onto the pier, walked down and talked with the tow crew and captain as we all waited for the fog to lift. Made for a unique morning as two tows followed by Tranquility pushed off into the misty remains of the morning fog.

Like the lock, dockage at Joliet was free. We took advantage, enjoying the town and the friendly, helpful folks who came to chat with us. For me Joliet’s Union Station was a thrill. The station stands at the intersection of two rail lines crossing at right angles. For all my years of enjoying trains, I’d never seen a real rail crossing. For less than $20 round trip we both could take the train to Chicago so we went. We had wanted to see “Cows on Parade” one of those quirky art things unique to Chicago. Artists had decorated full size fiberglass cows, and they were placed at odd places all over downtown. As we came down the river, we’d spotted one on a tour boat. We stopped at the Shedd Aquarium to see the new facility and special exhibit of sea horses. Then we set out to find the cows. It was amusing to see a brightly decorated cow standing on a busy street corner of Chicago. We had a grand time finding 20-30 of the many scattered about.

Somewhere above Joliet the Sanitary Canal became the De Plaines River. Now below Joliet the De Plaines River, character changed. Wilderness crept in broken at odd intervals by power plants, cement plants or grain elevators. Private residences along the entire length of the river were rare. Because of flooding, riverbanks are high dirt levees, many overgrown with trees. Somewhere the river changed names again and became the Illinois and kept that name to the Mississippi. We traveled along knowing that civilization was just over the levee, but invisible from water level.

We waited patiently at the Marseilles Lock as half a tow locked through. The lockmaster used a cable and winch to pull 9 barges out of the lock. A 20-foot gap between the last barge and the lock wall let us get in and lock down. Then it was another squeeze to get past the last 6 barges and towboat waiting to lock up and pick up the front of their tow.

At Joliet we’d met Dick on the trawler Casablanca. At Starved Rock Marina we met his wife Pat and spent the evening swapping notes and becoming good friends. Having done the trip in 95′ they were a great source of information and took us to some of the “finer” places along the Illinois River like Henry. There we tied up against an old lock wall. We scrambled to lengthen dock lines, tying one to a tree root, the other got wrapped around a tree 20-feet away. If power was required, a cord was run to a board over by the trees and reached up 5 feet to the outlet. Town had a sleepy, dusty tired feel. The big business in town was the Case tractor and farm implement dealer.

We had made reservations at the local boat club in Peoria. We thought we’d treat ourselves to a dock and go watch football in the club lounge. About 50 yards from the entrance we hit bottom. Thinking it was just a short sand bar, we pressed ahead, accomplishing very little distance. Finally we agreed we were out of the channel. Unfortunately, we were stuck solid so Don (known to some as Captain Marvel) lowered the dink and played tug captain. He was able to move the bow around and then pushed us back into deeper water.

It turned out to be serendipitous as we tied up to the downtown dock for free. It was supposed to be a day dock, but no one was around. It was just a short walk to a microbrewery so we got to watch football afterall.

Casablanca and Tranquility on a barge at Beardstown

Tying up for the evening and going ashore to sample the character of the area became one of the fun events along the river. The friendly voice on the VHF indicated we could tie off the crane barge “down a few barges from the stairs to the office.” As Logsdon Tug Service at Beardstown, IL came into sight all we saw was a huge barge fleeting area. Hundreds of barges were tied off along shore. We found the crane barge and rafted off Casablanca. The walk to the office was unique. We scrambled aboard the crane barge and then walked along the decks of fully loaded barges. The huge size of barges became even more evident as we walked along the narrow decks. Each barge will hold the contents of 60 trucks. Deck cleats as thick as your arm were measured in feet. A rickety gangplank and stairs lead up from the barges to the top of the levee that shielded any view of Beardstown from the water. The last 10 feet of levee was a thick concrete wall. Entering the way we did gave us the feeling that we were entering an ancient walled city.

We paid in the office and were directed to the “best restaurant in town” according to the office manager. We walked down a block, went into the bowling ally, walked to the back by the pinsetters and then up spiral stairs to the Riverview Restaurant. From our window seat, we had a great view of that levee wall and about half the river. The food was great and inexpensive. By the time we were done eating, it looked like half the town was in for dinner.

Our last stop on the Illinois River was Hardin, IL. The Riverdock Restaurant provided a dock at no charge if you ate at the restaurant. We did and again had good home cooking served by a friendly little old lady who moved faster than most teens. We wandered town, enjoying the uniqueness of not seeing one franchised business. Back by the waterfront we passed the grain elevator, and a apple press. Not a tourist cider mill, but a press. A line of stake and pickup trucks loaded down with apples were the only indication the press was there. No one was around, evidently to get emptied the first thing in the morning, you left your truck in line overnight.

Morning brought thick fog. The Riverdock Restaurant made out well. We went back up for breakfast as we watched the morning sun burn off the fog. Then it was back aboard and off for the Mississippi. 21 miles downstream at Grafton, IL the Illinois at joined the Mississippi.

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