STORY 3 Bubbly Creek

The South Branch of the South Fork of the Chicago River, or Bubbly Creek

Though it suffered horrible environmental abuse for over a century, Bubbly Creek endures as a sign of nature’s resilience; evident by the beavers, snapping turtles, state endangered black crowned night herons, kingfishers, and a host of other wildlife species, including migratory waterfowl and songbirds who live there and pass through.

Officially called the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River, Bubbly Creek is a 1.25-mile channel that begins near 38th Street at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago’s Racine Avenue Pumping Station and flows north, alongside the Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport, to the South Branch. In her in-depth book, The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History, Chicago author Libby Hill describes Bubbly Creek as “the last vestige of the basin of marshes and sloughs that were once tributary to the South Branch of the Chicago River.” Ultimately, the South Branch would connect to the future 28-mile long Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal which links the Chicago River and the Des Plaines River.


The South Branch meandered to the east of Polk Street and continuing south through the site now known at the 78. The South Branch Meander  “was an early target of straightening for the benefit of commerce” according to Hill. The natural source of the South Fork was south of Pershing Road and west of Ashland Avenue “in a sort of bayou in the prairies behind the low sand dunes along Lake Michigan’s shore.” The West Fork of the South Branch was the eastern end of the Chicago Portage National Historic Site featured in Episode 1of the Inside, Out & About podcast, and would have been an important resource to Native Americans, prior to colonization,  for transit by connecting the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico; eventually giving rise to Chicago.  

Why Bubbly?

The moniker, Bubbly Creek, has an inauspicious origin. Methane bubbles, caused by decaying animal parts that were disposed into the South Fork from the packinghouses of the historic Union Stockyards, would rise to the surface of the water, sometimes emitting a foul odor. The Union Stockyards, made famous in the 1905 novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, surrounded the southernmost portion of the South Fork and opened on Christmas Day in 1865. A channel known as the Stockyards Slip was cut eastward from the South Fork toward the stockyards. Author David M. Solzman in his book The Chicago River: An Illustrated history and Guide to the River and Its Waterways wrote that “Offal, carcasses, and manure filled the south fork, which occasionally crusted over. At such times chickens walked across it….From time to time the surface of creek even caught fire and burned.”  The east arm channel was so polluted that in 1926 city officials determined the only solution was to fill it in. By 1938 the west arm was also filled in. Eventually, after 105 years, the Union Stockyards closed in 1971. 

A Bright Future

In 2004, Friends of the Chicago River, the City of Chicago, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and other partners launched the Bubbly Creek Recovery Initiative to lay the foundation for restoration giving rise to the USACE Bubbly Creek ecosystem restoration plan. The effort incorporates restoration of 40 acres including 30.7 acres of substrate restoration consisting of “capping” the stream bed with rounded river rock, quarried stone and sand. Other features of the plan include 9.3 acres of riparian plant restoration, one acre of emergent plant restoration, and 3.3 acres of submergent plant restoration and woody debris restoration at approximately 10 locations – anchoring trees, rootwads, trunks and large branches to enhance habitat diversity and provide sheltering areas for aquatic species. $11.6 million authorized by Congress to carry out the work of this plan is pending due to negotiations involving environmental liability protections, which preclude final funding “appropriations” for the work.

This project is an important next step to restoring healthy aquatic and riparian habitats that will assist urban wildlife and migratory species under threat from habitat loss and the increasing effects of climate change while improving the area for people too.

Episode 3 of Friends’ podcast, Inside, Out & About, features Bubbly Creek and the South Branch of the Chicago River.  The podcast is available on Spotify and Amazon Music. Hosted by Friends’ Executive Director Margaret Frisbie, the Bubbly Creek episode includes special guests:

  • Geoffrey Baer, award-winning public television writer, producer, and program host
  • Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future
  • James Burns, president of the South Branch Park Advisory Council