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Working with the Lake

Chicago Magazine

April 1987

A reprise of sorts of the much longer, and better, report on the problems caused by rising Lake Michigan water levels that I did for the Reader, which appears HERE


If you can't beat the lake, bury it.


That, in short, is the prevailing advice from the leading geological experts who have studied the rising tide. Charles Collinson is principal geologist for the state's Geological Survey. "Any overall plan," he says, "will have to look at landfill to push the lake back."


It would be nothing new. Real-estate development has always had a literal meaning in Chicago. Natural forces have continually swept pieces of bluffs and beaches from areas up north down to the city's shoreline. This example inspired Chicago's human builders from the start. Most of the city's 29-mile shore is manmade, including Lincoln, Grant, Burnham, and Jackson parks and Northerly Island. Grant Park was born in the 1870s when lake water began licking at the foundations of the then mayor's house on Michigan Avenue.


Fending off the lake along most of the city shore would be a fairly simple process. One need only pile on another layer or two of sandbags at the shoreline. Earthen berms would give extra protection to the existing shore, with the berms in turn protected by fortifications of riprap or terraced stone. The effect would not always be elegant. Neither would it be cheap: Early estimates put the cost of minimum repairs to existing revetments along the Chicago Park District's shore alone at $200 million to $230 million, with more permanent improvements costing perhaps a billion dollars.


But for certain other parts of the shore—the two miles along Sheridan Road, and another two miles on the South Side, between 31st and 47th streets—even more elaborate restructuring will be needed. The scope of what might be necessary was contained in an ambitious plan for the South Side announced by park district president Walter Netsch last fall. Among other things, he called for a rerouting of Lake Shore Drive and a quarter-mile breakwater that would be built offshore to protect a restored beachfront.


All of that seems a mere bag of shells compared with the needs of the northern lakefront along Sheridan Road. The conditions there call for nothing less than a massive landfill that would extend north from Lincoln Park to the city line. Such a project would not pose much of a challenge to engineers: The lake is a scam 25 feet deep or less and sits atop a hardpan bottom that could support new terra firma. As for the land to be used foi the fill: Clean, low-cost material is available in considerable—even inconvenient—amounts in and around Chicago. Millions of cubic yards of mostly limestone spoil still litter the banks of the Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Calumet Sag Channel. More rocl is being unearthed by Deep Tunnel excavators from such places as the 28-mile section beneath La Grange.


But while fill for the project may be plentiful, public funds are not. The cost of even a minimally protective landfill along Sheridan Road has been estimated at $500 million. Netsch—for certain tactical reasons, one suspects—didn't put any sort of price tag on his South Side project.


If, indeed, government is ready to come up with the sort of multibillion-dollar bill necessary to do the job, the project must pull some double duty. Says Charles Shabica, a coastal geologist at Northeastern Illinois University, a member of the mayor's Shoreline Protection Commission, and head of the independent Lakefront Task Force, "Lakefront construction must be more than functional." Shabica envisions a project that will leave the lakefront "not only protected, but enhanced."


Those enhancements could be lagoons, and additional parks and marinas—all of which would add significantly to the quality of life in the city and to the value of the once-threatened lakefront property. Chicago planning commissionei Elizabeth Hollander has described the high-water threat as an "opportunity" to rethink some basic questions about the city's use of the lake. Indeed, having seen one lakefront built and then botched by the addition of convention halls and high-rises and expressways, the lake may be generously offering Chicago a second chance to do it right.




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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