When I was very small I remember the Chicago River (all branches) was used a lot for barge traffic. You see all those old buildings today along the river that are condos? They used to be printing houses, chocolate factories, manufacturing centers for all types of widgets. Finkl & Son, which had some fairly impressive open die forgings, was at Southport and Clybourn. Practically all bulk raw materials came in by barge, the rest by railroad. I remember seeing ore ships on Lake Michigan heading towards Port of Chicago down around 95th Street which is still in use.
There is barge traffic along the South Branch but unless you hang out there, you’re probably not going to see it.
There really is no reason for a barge to be tugged up the main and north branches. All the manufacturing is gone. Fifty years ago, Chicago was a much different city. Maybe some olde timers can chime in.
For recreational boaters, there are some docks along the South Branch. I know there’s one on Canal, just to the east of Lawrence Fisheries, as one of my acquaintances would winter his boat there and bring it up to Belmont Harbor in the spring. I’ve made the journey with him once, and there was a whole flotilla of folks making their way up. It was actually a pretty cool trip. I can’t remember how many bridges we went under, but it was well over a dozen–perhaps even close to two dozen, and it was fascinating seeing all the different ways they were raised. I had no idea, as living in Chicago for more than three decades, I’ve only been stopped by a raised bridge once or twice. (But, yes, I’ve also seen barge traffic along that waterway.)
I used to live in the west Corn Cob tower along Dearborn facing the river, up on the 22nd floor. In the spring, starting on a Saturday, the flotillas would work their way up the main branch of the river, moving towards the locks to get to the lake. What racket! Clang Clang Clang of the bridge bell as the bridge would go up, the boats would pass by, the bridge would come down. Clang Clang Clang all the while. Then the bride keeper would move a block down to the next bridge and it would start all over. From Kinzie St. to Michigan Ave. Then the next flotilla would start coming up the main branch. This would go on for a week and be repeated in the fall as the boats were coming in to be stored for the winter.
There’s very little commercial traffic on the downtown parts of the river nowadays; the Cermak and Kinzie bridges have both been rebuilt at a level where the towboats pushing the gravel barges no longer need to wait for a lift. The lifts nowadays are almost entirely for pleasure sailboats, which for their own convenience are usually organized into flotillas during one of the semiweekly scheduled lifts where bridge crews leapfrog each other to raise each bridge in turn. A lot of the boaters who used to winter at Crowley’s on the South Branch now instead use a boatyard on the Little Calumet, so they no longer have to come through the Chicago River locks.
But the downtown rivers are still navigable waterways requiring clearances set by the Coast Guard. The city became obligated to build and operate moveable bridges when it decided to span the waterway at such a low level.