Skip to main content

Chicago River Swim

Sunday, September 22, 2024



Long before the City of Chicago was established in 1837, the Chicago River was a prominent thoroughfare for exploration and trade. By the 1880s, the river soon morphed into an open sewer for a growing city of 700,000 residents. At the time, the polluted river flowed into the city's source of fresh water, Lake Michigan, which led to the spread of cholera and typhoid.

In a remarkable feat of engineering, Chicago's Sanitary District (now the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago) reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1900, which drew water from Lake Michigan and discharged it through a system of canals leading to the Des Plaines and Mississippi Rivers. The new source of water allowed the river to clean itself, and enabled Chicago to eventually grow to its current population of five million residents.

The project, in true Chicago fashion, created plenty of controversy. Several lawsuits were filed from downstream recipients, eventually requiring the Supreme Court to get involved (they sided with the City of Chicago).

To celebrate the improvement of the Chicago River, the Illinois Athletic Association hosted a series of open water swims in the River starting in 1908. The river formed a natural stadium for both on-water and in-water events. The river swims attracted the highest-profile swimmers in the world (John Weissmuller won the event twice) and drew upwards of 100,000 spectators. The river swims were a jewel in the crown of the young city.

By the late 1920s, industrial discharge and street runoff had again polluted the Chicago River. Environmental activism and legislation of the 1960s and 1970s eventually led to the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which b
egan to enforce discharge violations. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District also began the Deep Tunnel project to relieve storm runoff and wastewater overflows. The Chicago River was given a second chance, and once again began to clean itself.

Today, through concentrated efforts, the Chicago River is at its cleanest levels on record. The river is constantly moving toward greater biodiversity, and is now home to countless wildlife including more than 80 species of fish. The newly-constructed Riverwalk attracts thousands of patrons to its waterside cafes and restaurants. The explosion of river cruises and addition of human-powered watercraft prove that Chicago is ready to reconnect with its waterway.

According to the Friends of the Chicago River, "the Chicago River stands at the intersection of urban planning, biodiversity, architectural majesty, recreation, transportation, clean water, and commerce. It is a river whose time has come."


The Chicago River Swim will close the loop on the full, and once-unthinkable, rebirth of the Chicago River. This civic renaissance brings Chicago into a unique peer group of cities that have reclaimed their urban waterways, including Amsterdam, London, Paris and New York City.

Tremendous public and private support stand behind the Chicago River Swim concept, including pent-up demand from hundreds of experienced swimmers and countless local businesses and community advocates.

Join us in September. Let's make history together.


If you continue to use this site, you consent to use all cookies. We use cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. Read how we use cookies and how you can control them by visiting our Privacy Policy.

If you continue to use this site, you consent to use all cookies.