Writer Gary Marx and photographer Daniel Overturf traveled the Illinois Waterway, capturing images and stories along its 330-mile course.

From Chicago and the Great Lakes to Grafton and the Mississippi River, the faces and voices of a culture rose to meet them.

Combined, those narratives form a tapestry that tells a larger story of a river and a people.


The book, A River Through Illinois, is one face of this project. Another is an exhibition of Overturf’s  photographs and companion blocks of text -- excerpts from the book and new writing — from Marx. The exhibition is now mounted in the International Terminal of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.    

The Authors

  1. Gary Marx is a freelance writer and editor, a  journalist recently with the Kansas City Star. He has worked as a reporter and editor at several newspapers in the Midwest including The Southern Illinoisan and the Wabash (Indiana) Plain Dealer.  His columns and stories have won numerous awards from The Illinois Press Association, Southern Illinois Editorial Association and The Associated Press. Contact:

  2. Daniel Overturf is a  professor and former chair of the Department of Cinema and Photography at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and has worked as a photographer and teacher in New Mexico, Kansas, Nevada, and Alberta, Canada. He is the president of  the Photo Imaging Education Association. His website:



The story of this river cannot be told by a single voice. It takes a chorus.

Along its length — 330 miles from Chicago to Grafton — individual voices can be heard telling distinct and full stories, each is but a piece of the whole. This is a river of stories, told in a mosaic of sights and sounds.

Some of the voices are loud. There is a riotous clang, a cacophony of shouts — the first mate barks, bells ring and metal bangs. Under a bridge, a machinist curses a bilge pump and it finally kicks in.

There are moments of repose, too. Lovers whisper in boats. And the elders muse, recalling a time when there were endless tomorrows giving promise to their todays.

The story of the river is told, too, by a voice that belongs to no one. You can hear it in the invisible slip-slap of water, in a wisp of wind and in the startled flutter of wings. You can hear it in the duck blind, in that swollen moment just before dawn when even the dog holds its breath. It is a voice that is sometimes seen and felt, but not heard.

We have a bond to our rivers. We refer to them with familiarity, dropping the formality imposed by the word “River.”  They are simply the Ohio, the Wabash, the Missouri. We give them nicknames: Big Muddy, Old Man, the Miss.  This vernacular speaks to the affinity we have for these waters, which both bless us with their bounty and forsake us in those heartless days of flood and rage.

These waters will take you to the city, through the shadows of skyscrapers in the belly of Chicago. They will carry you to the industrial region above Joliet and to the manufacturing heartland that is Peoria. They will take you below the bluffs, through the prairies and forests that hint of Native Americans, Marquette and Jolliet, dugouts and canoes.

This is more than a journey in geography. All the way to Hardin and Grafton, the Illinois will take you past the times of flatboats and steamboats, to the days before locks and dams and levees. This is a journey in time, too.

This project, a partnership of words and images, is an attempt to tell the story of the waterway — the Illinois River and the arms that reach Lake Michigan. It is in many respects incomplete, for there are so many facets to the tale. This is, rather, only one of its stories.  It is a composite, a mosaic, a time-exposure, and it is our hope that those who look through the lens of this book will see this “river through Illinois” in new light, and that they will gain a fresh appreciation for it and the people whose combined voices tell this story.

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Aerial view of the river at Emiquon, north of the Spoon River and Havana. September 2003

Collected written works  |  Gary Marx