CHICAGO — Catherine O'Leary's much-maligned cow may be innocent.
For many years, the cow was blamed for starting the Great Chicago Fire on Oct. 8, 1871, by kicking over a lantern.
The fire killed 300, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed 17,500 buildings, caused $200 million in damages and destroyed nearly four square miles of the heart of wood-built Chicago.
In 1893, a reporter for the Chicago Republic, Michael Ahern, admitted that he made up the story of Mrs. O'Leary's cow and its role.
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The railroad and commercial hub at the southern end of Lake Michigan was quickly rebuilt after the fire — with architects from across the United States getting involved.
The world's first skyscraper was built in 1885 in Chicago: the long-gone 10-story Home Insurance Building. It was reportedly the first skyscraper that relied on a steel skeleton to support external walls.
Today Chicago's architecture is one of the city's biggest tourist attractions, along with its world-class museums, restaurants and shopping.
And one of the best ways to see that architecture is to take a boat ride up the Chicago River for 60 to 90 minutes, depending on which company you go with.
What is offered is very impressive — even if you know next to nothing about architecture or famous architects.
The cruises mix local history and views of 60 of the city's biggest buildings with stories of some of the architects and styles.
You get a bottom-up view of the Chicago skyline — with streets, sidewalks and pedestrians all above the cruise boats on the low-lying Chicago River. That's because the city elevated its downtown area in the 1850s so that sewers could be more easily installed.
You are surrounded by impressive, cloud-scraping skyscrapers, plus condominiums, apartments, shops and restaurants. You are at the very bottom of an urban canyon. It's a great trip for gawkers.
Some of the office buildings look stark, spare, Spartan and utilitarian. Others are majestic works of art. Some are gleaming and sleek, dominated by glass. Others are of dramatic stone.
Some have names. Some are known only by their addresses.
The cruises from spring through fall have become a major Chicago attraction on the aqua-green river that now flows from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River.
The river's flow was reversed in 1900 because its pollution resulted in people getting sick from polluted drinking water taken from the lake. Chicago now sends its waste down canals and the two rivers toward St. Louis.
There is even a new museum dedicated to the still-polluted Chicago River at the southwest corner of the Michigan Avenue Bridge.
We boarded the two-decked cruise boat near Navy Pier and headed west on the main branch of the Chicago River.
That took us past the twin Marina City towers that resemble corncobs and were featured in the Steve McQueen movie "The Hunter"; the sprawling Merchandise Mart with its 4 million square feet of space (built in 1930, once the biggest building in the world and once owner of its own ZIP code: 60654); and the stately Civic Opera House on North Wacker Drive (it was constructed in the Art Deco armchair style).
There is the stately Wrigley Building and the Tribune Building, two older structures that really say Chicago.
We saw the NBC Tower with its distinctive Art Deco features and the 36-story Boeing world headquarters.
We floated past the gleaming Trump International Hotel and Tower Chicago, the city's second-tallest building at 1,389 feet. It is 92 stories of condos and hotel rooms, completed in 2009.
We saw buildings that are the work of architects who love triangles and boats. One building features waves.
You float under 20 bridges. That includes Michigan Avenue, one of the city's best shopping venues. Some carry traffic, some carry trains. The Lake Street Bridge is the only Chicago bridge that carries every mode of downtown Chicago transportation.
We floated past Wolf Point at the western end of the main channel where Chicago was first settled in the 1770s by black French pioneer Jean Baptiste Point DuSable. The city's name came from an Indian word that translates as "place of the stinking swamp grass."
We then headed up the north branch of the Chicago River to the West Kinzie Street Bridge.
We turned around and then headed down the river's south branch. That took us past such buildings as the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) and the nearby 311 S. Wacker skyscraper.
The Willis Tower, a black steel-and-glass structure, stands 1,454 feet high or 110 stories. It opened in 1974 and is still the tallest building in Chicago.
The 65-story 311 South Wacker offers 1.4 million square feet of space. The pink-granite building was completed in 1990.
One of my favorite buildings on the cruise is the 36-story 333 W. Wacker Building that sits by the river where the three channels meet.
The distinctive green glass panels are the color of the river and the building is curved to match the shoreline on the river's edge. Its glass panels reflect the shapes of nearby buildings.
The twin-towered Chicago Mercantile Exchange Center with 1.1 million square feet of space features distinctive angular, serrated corners that create more corner offices for staffers.
One of the best stories from the cruise involved the Aon Center, the city's third-tallest building at 1,136 feet or 83 stories. It was built for $120 million in the early 1970s and was sheathed in Italian marble, the same stone used by Michelangelo.
The 43,000 panels and Illinois weather did not get along. They began to buckle with the temperature variations.
They were replaced by the owners with North Carolina granite — at an added cost of $80 million. In all, 6,000 tons of marble was removed and recycled.
We saw the site near Navy Pier that will become Chicago's tallest skyscraper, the 150-story Chicago Spire. The building by Spaniard Santiago Calatrava will be shaped like a twisted birthday candle. It will be the tallest building in North America when completed.
We saw another building topped by a Middle Eastern dome and tall structure to which zeppelins like the German airship Hindenburg were to anchor. That never happened.
We even got a brief glimpse of Vincent P. Falk, a Chicago mainstay. The 60-year-old Falk hangs out on the State Street Bridge in neon-colored suits. He waves at passing boats, dances and twirls his coat over his head.
Falk, who spent eight years in an orphanage and was declared legally blind from glaucoma, was the star of a 2010 documentary, "Vincent: A Life in Color," by filmmaker Jennifer Burns.
He was wearing an eye-popping bright yellow suit as our boat, the Evening Star, operated by Shoreline Sightseeing, passed under the bridge where he was stationed on a sidewalk on its lower level.
You can also walk along the Chicago River on the city's Riverwalk that runs along the north and south shores.
Cruise tickets range from $12 to $28 for the 60-minute boat tours.
For cruise information, contact Shoreline Sightseeing at 474 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60611; 312-222-9328; http://www.shorelinesightseeing.com.
The company also offers Lake Michigan cruises and water taxis that operate like buses on the Chicago River.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers an array of boat, bus and on-foot architectural tours. It estimates that it gets 200,000 customers a year and offered its first tour in 1983. For information, contact the foundation at 224 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60604; 312-922-3432; http://www.architecture.org.
The third outfitter for cruises and water taxis is Wendella Boats, 400 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611; 312-337-1446; http://www.wendellaboats.com.
A good guide is A View From the River by Jennifer Marjorie Bosch (Chicago Architecture Foundation, $15.95). The 96-page book is filled with photos and facts about what you will see on a Chicago River cruise.
You can also rent a kayak and paddle the Chicago River — with outfitter Kayak Chicago. It's a three-hour tour for $50.
For details, contact the company at 630-336-7245, davekayakchicago.com or http://www.kayakchicago.com.
For Chicago tourist information, contact the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau at 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago 60611; 312-567-8500; http://www.choosechicago. com.