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Urbs in Horto

Chicagoland’s natural landscapes

See Illinois (unpublished)


Few Illinoisans think of nature when thinking of Chicago. The territory between the Des Plaines river and Lake Michigan is the most urban part of a mostly rural state; Cook and Lake counties encompass only 2.5 percent of Illinois’s land area, but account for 50 percent of its population; here roughly the same percentage of land is citified—about 80 percent—that is farmed in Illinois as a whole.

Yet, historically, few Illinois cities have had so intimate a relation to land and water as had Chicago. William Cronon, in the aptly named book, Nature’s Metropolis, explained that many of the innovations in engineering that made Chicago’s reputation as a can-do city, for instance, were forced upon it by the exigencies of coping with local soils and topography. As so many early travelers recorded, that was partly because the town was usually up to its knees in mud; building engineers had to devise novel ways to anchor large buildings on clay rather than the bedrock that is here buried deep beneath glacial debris.


The very shape of the city owes to its geology. Because the terrain imposed no physical barriers to laying tracks, Chicago became a railroading center, and if Chicago is sprawlier than some big cities, it’s because it has always had plenty of room to sprawl in. In these and a dozen other ways, natural and human history in Chicagoland are so intertwined here as to constitute a single chronicle.

This history is taken from my never-published guide to the history and culture of Illinois. It is quite long, so busy readers might want to set it aside until retirement leaves them with no way to fill long days.

First as a sewer, later as a commercial artery, and most recently as play space, the Chicago River has figured prominently in the history of its namesake city. The Chicago River consists of two branches that supply a main river whose course east into the lake from a spot today known as Wolf Point is measurable in blocks rather than miles. This main stem of the Chicago River was fed by a north and a south branch, each with very modest tributaries of their own—none of which would be dignified with the name creek in most Downstate counties.

The names by which the river branches are officially known today are as dull as the streams themselves. Their unofficial names at least conveyed something of its history. What is today known as the Chicago River’s North Branch used to be known as Gaurie’s River after a settler; the South Branch was known as Portage River, because it was from its western terminus that travelers used to carry cargoes and craft overland between the Des Plaines and Chicago watersheds.


In honor of its significance as the putative center of the city, the spot where the north and south forks join the main stem of the Chicago River was converted to an architectural motif. It appears in a 1915 mural in the Gary School auditorium on West Thirty-first Street, and was the inspiration of the “Y” emblem that used to appear on CTA tokens. The double-headed lighting fixtures that line State Street between Wacker Drive and Congress Parkway—replicas of the ones designed specifically for the street by Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst and White in 1926—are adorned with that same “Y” symbol.

The Chicago River’s original North Branch also consisted of three forks—a middle and a west fork and an east fork that is widely known as the Skokie River. The South Branch originally rose in Mud Lake, and was fed in turn by a West Fork and an abbreviated South Fork. This South Fork originated near the site of the future Union Stockyards—rather the Union Stockyards were built there because the South Fork was there. Its proximity doomed the stream to a future as an open industrial sewer. The Illinois-Michigan Canal was built alongside the South Branch downstream from Bridgeport, replacing it because its flow through that stretch was too fitful to reliably carry barges; what is left of the South Branch now connects the main branch to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, and thus is the avenue by which lake water flows through the canal and refreshes it on its way toward the Mississippi.

City of Big Shovels

Presettlement Chicagoland was drained by separate river systems. The Chicago River and its tributaries drained east into Lake Michigan, as did the Calumet River. West of today’s Harlem Avenue, however, the land fell away—imperceptibly in scenic terms but decisively in hydrological terms—toward the west.


Most of the principal streams on that side of this subcontinental divide are no more prepossessing than the Chicago. The Du Page River for example is capable of carrying no craft larger than a canoe, nor (more significant to the suburban towns that now line it)  is it very good at carrying away rain water and melted snow.


If the Mississippi is the Father of Waters, the Des Plaines River is the Mother of Flood Insurance Claims. The Des Plaines still travels pretty much as nature meant it to from the Wisconsin border until it reaches Lyons. From there a stretch of it was channelized, forming what amounts to a ditch paralleling the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal and the Stevenson Expressway (I-55), but the river returns to its original channel near Romeoville. In the Des Plaines channel near Romeoville stands Isle a la Cache, the only remaining island on the river. Described in many pioneer journals, the Isle today hosts a nature center museum and canoe launch from which today’s explorers can retrace the travels of trappers and voyageurs, although keeping alive a vision of the 17th century as one moves past oil refineries and materials dumps requires an almost poetic vision.


The farther western reaches of Chicagoland are watered by a more substantial stream, the Fox River; the Fox, confined by dams, the Fox waters the Chain O’ Lakes State Park, and its banks are lined with several of the region’s important cities—Elgin, Aurora, and Geneva/St. Charles.

These streams were put to use by the region’s Euro-Americans according to their needs and the streams’ personalities. Chicagoland’s inland waterways have been remodeled so comprehensively that, had Carl Sandburg come to Chicagoland a few years later than he did, he might have called Chicago a city of big shovels. The Chicago and Des Plaines became transportation arteries because they linked Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. The Fox, which unlike the sluggish Chicago ran fast enough to turn water wheels, offered power to early factories. Once crucial to survival, the region’s rivers are today little more than scenic and recreational amenities.

The Chicago River in particular has allowed itself to be bullied by the city. On its original journey toward the lake, it turned sharply southward where the future Michigan Avenue was to cross it, entering the lake at what is now the foot of Madison Street. A more direct path to the lake was blocked by the more or less permanent sandbar that the lake kept putting in its way.

Something like the old CHicago River can be seen today by driving 48 miles to the north, to Illinois Beach State Park. There the Dead River ambles across low-lying beach ridges on its way to the lake, never mustering enough current on most days to keep its own mouth flushed of the sand that lake waves keep piling up in front of it. Only when the blocked river water backs up deeply enough that its pressure is sufficient to break through the sand bar does the Dead River come alive, briefly, after which the process starts anew.

The all-too-alive rivermouth bar at Chicago was a hazard to navigators and an affront to engineers. Army engineers tried to give the river a more conveniently configured mouth by digging through that sandbar. That was first tried in 1833, when the idea was already a generation old; the problem was not permanently fixed until 1875. That fact tells us something about sandbars, and a lot about the federal government's stewardship; the old saw, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform,” could have been said about its namesake river.

Other emendations to the Chicago River followed. Brick-making clay was mined in such amounts from the riverbank on the North Branch between Chicago and North avenues that the beginning of a new channel was created; as this second channel grew, it  sliced through a natural bulge in the riverbank at that spot to create Goose Island. The North Branch was straightened in 1904 to make it more ship-friendly; a bend in the South Branch was rerouted in the 1920s to make it more developer-friendly, by making accessible real estate north of Polk Street. (Prematurely, as it turned out; the area wasn’t built on until the 1990s.) The south Fork of the South Branch in the 1930s was filled in south of Pershing Road, as was the whole of the west fork of the South Branch.

The Chicago River system’s loss of so much of its riverness is unusual in its degree, but hardly any river in Chicagoland has not been altered, in many cases past the point of recognition. The streams—once one, now three—that drain the Calumet marsh on the Illinois-Indiana border changed course more times in the past century and quarter than an alderman on the take. At presettlement, the Calumet River flowed east out of northwest Indiana, skirting the southern Lake Michigan shore before turning on itself between what are now the towns of Blue Island and Riverdale and flowing back eastward to empty into Lake Michigan at the town of Miller. The river mouth there was often blocked by lake-borne sand; a second channel, thought to have been carved by the many Indian canoes that had been pushed and dragged through the lakefront marshes over the years sometimes carried water from Lake Calumet and Wolf Lake away to Lake Michigan, at what became Calumet Harbor in South Chicago, and causing currents to flow backwards from Miller.

That so much unbuilt-on land so close to Lake Michigan should be served by such a rickety river system offended practical-minded Chicago industrialists. They importuned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to turn the sand and mud into a harbor; the Corps concluded that such a project would not return a public benefit worth the cost. Of course, the intent of the project was to supply a private benefit, and Chicago interests pressured the agecncy's Congressional overseers to order the Corps to start digging anyway.

Both Native Americans and French explorers saw a potential water route connecting the Des Plaines River to Lake Michigan through the Calumet marshes. As early as 1823 a U.S. government engineer proposed building a shipping canal from the lake to the Des Plaines via the Calumet River and Sag Valley. (Another route connecting the Des Plaines and the westernmost branch of the Chicago River would have required hacking through solid bedrock.) Such a canal seemed a sure enough bet that land speculators in 1833 began buying up lots in the future South Chicago, which was then a hamlet of farmers and commercial fishermen. Such decisions were made on engineering grounds, not financial grounds; when it came to build a canal connecting Chicago and the Des Plaines (and thus the Illinois and the Mississippi) the men whose fortunes lay downtown made sure it led to the Chicago River docks, not to the south lakefront.

On the bottom

Most of Chicago and its suburbs stand not only next to a lake but in one, on land borrowed for the geologic moment from what geologists know as the Chicago Lake Plain. This is the lake bottom and old beaches left behind when the waters of the massive Lake Chicago, the precursor of today’s rather paltry Lake Michigan, burst through its glacial walls and drained away.

Even an abandoned lake bed has proved to have more water in it than was convenient to Chicago. The soils lie very flat and very low. Marshes, sluggish streams, ponds that after a spring rain swelled into township-size lakes—this was the not-at-all prepossessing site of the future Chicago.

Looking back on his youth on the West Side of Chicago in the 1870s, Mayor Carter Harrison II wrote:

Skating in the winter, of course, was a favorite and universal sport, for which the facilities in my boyhood had been magnificent. There were few sewers where we lived, nor to the west of us. Open ditches were supposed to carry off the surface drainage. What with the autumn rains, the heavy snows and the thaws the countryside was flooded annually at the beginning of the winter, the prairie almost an open lake from Ashland Avenue west to the Desplaines River. Whenever a gang could be gathered together on Saturday . . . we would sweep over the smooth unmarked ice to Riverside, a good ten miles distant.

Where the Skokie River (the east fork of the Chicago River’s North Branch) enters Cook County, it spread out into an extensive wetlands known to the Indians of the area as the Chewab Skokie, or great Skokie Marsh. A few German truck farmers and Dutch radish growers made a go of it on the borders of the marsh, but even after the land was drained it was too wet for general farming and so was used by farmers in the mid-1800s mainly as a source of free ice, hay, and peat. Various half-hearted attempts to drain the marsh to make the land fit for house sites never really worked either, because there is no place near it that is low enough to drain the marsh's water into. The marsh was a delight to local children but a nuisance to everyone else. It was a breeding ground for mosquitoes and a catch basin for much of the North Shore when it rained.

Nature’s capriciousness was complicated by human stupidity. Nearby towns in the late 1800s built roads across the marsh that backed up high water into nearby properties. When it was drained, the marsh was over-drained, and dust and smoke were added to the marsh’s crimes against public order. The latter came from fires in the half-decayed vegetation, the litter of generations, which had accumulated in beds of peat. These beds were ignited by the heat generated by their own rotting, and sometimes burned for years; the resulting acrid smoke stretched from Winnetka to Highland Park.

The Calumet region north of the future 138th Street was an even vaster wetland—more than 35 square miles of shallow lakes and marshes lying between gravelly ridges. Historians today use words such as “grand” and “splendor” to describe them, but early Euro-Americans saw the Calumet as a perfect example of the nonsense that nature would get up to in the absence of human discipline. “The Little Calumet River does have three outlets, but not all the time,” explains Kenneth J. Schoon in Calumet Beginnings: Ancient Shorelines and Settlements at the South End of Lake Michigan.  The area also featured an itinerant shoreline, rivers that turned back on themselves like the old Calumet River did, and lakes that appeared and disappeared with the seasons.

Before 1800, the Calumet was so wet much of the year that it  was practically crossable by small boat. Indeed, the Calumet may have been cheated of a more prominent place in the history of not only Chicagoland but of Illinois and the Midwest. Sharp-eyed readers have long noted that accounts of the river trek by Marquette and Jolliet from the Mississippi River to the Canada in 1673 do not describe with much accuracy the route they are assumed to have used, which was up the Des Plaines, across the watershed divide to the mud swamp where rose the Chicago River, and on that stream to Lake Michigan.

The monument to Marquette and Jolliet’s trek is located on the Chicago Portage near Harlem Avenue just north of the Stevenson Expressway, at the Chicago Portage National Historic Site maintained by the Cook County Forest Preserve—a monument that perhaps ought to be rededicated to French explorer Robert Cavalier, Sieur de LaSalle, who did indisputably navigate the Chicago River portage in 1682.

Those accounts of Marquette and Jolliet’s trek do accurately describe a journey up the Des Plaines to the Great Saganaskee Swamp, thence to Stoney Creek the Grand Calumet River, and (after a short portage) the Little Calumet River and then the big lake. The notion is supported by the otherwise peculiar fact that many old maps show the “Chicago River” portage at the base of Lake Michigan, near the Calumet, miles to the south of that spot’s actual location. Were it to be accepted as accurate, that account would leave the future Chicago out of the story of Chicago’s founding.

Of course the region’s flatness offered benefits to later travelers too. The divide between the Des Plaines and Chicago river drainages is so slight, vertically speaking, that it was easily breached by shovels to create a canal passage from the lake to the Illinois and beyond to the Mississippi River. But terrain that made it easy to build canals made it hard to build everything else. Farmers in the Calumet for instance had to build ditches to drain water from the Cady Marsh into the Little Calumet River in 1862, which left it dry enough to plow, although it took six years.

What wasn’t drained in the area was filled. Joel Greenberg in A Natural History of the Chicago Region reminds us that some of the industries that located there beginning in the latter 1800s dredged local waterways and used the spoil to fill in marshes nearby, improving the streams navigability and their real estate portfolio at the same time. When George Pullman in 1880 started to build his model town of Pullman on the western shore of Lake Calumet, he presumed to engineer nature too; the town was raised as much as four feet—the only way in which life in Pullman could be said to be elevated—above the surrounding marshland by piling up muck sucked from the lake.

Because its sponge-like wetlands have been mostly drained and its soft soils have been paved over, the region’s modern landscape cannot absorb heavy rains and snow melt as it once did. Flooding that once inundated low-lying farm fields and the occasional golf course now creep into suburb mini-mansions and office parks, with expensive results. (“Riverside” is exactly where many houses in that western suburb stand, and sandbagging the banks is the springtime ritual that charity walks are in other suburbs.) As a result, the costs of flooding creep ever-higher even when the water doesn’t. In even an average recent year, flood damage costs local governments and property owners tens of millions; in the late 1980s, two record-setting floods caused an estimated $100 million in damage in Lake and Cook counties.

Floods respect no municipal boundaries, and even usually fractious local government around Chicagoland have become reluctant allies to defend themselves against a common foe. After a bad flood in 1981, for example, the towns of Richton Park, Matteson, Olympia Fields, Chicago Heights, Flossmoor, Homewood, Glenwood, along with Cook County, set up a cooperative Butterfield Creek Steering Committee. Civic jealousy, apparently, is soluble in water.

The Des Plaines River is the principal culprit, which is why it has become an unwilling co-investigator in research into new methods of flood control. Begun in the 1970s, the Des Plaines River Wetlands Demonstration Project was an attempt to learn how restored river bottoms ecosystems might improve water quality, increase flood control, provide recreational use, and expand wildlife habitat. To test that, researchers transformed a 550-acre site of abandoned farm fields and gravel quarry pits Wadsworth owned by the Lake County Forest Preserve District into a rehabilitated riverine ecosystem.

The Third Coast

Visitors are usually surprised to find that Chicago sits not beside a lake in the sense. Lake Michigan is larger in area than many nations, at some 22,000 square miles, and its water average nearly 300 feet in depth and in places more than 900. The lake is by some definitions a fresh water sea. It  provided a deep-water link to markets to the eastern U.S., a fact of decisive importance to the history of the place, indeed, a fact that explains why the place has a history worth recounting at all—thus the City of Chicago’s rather incongruous official seal, which features an image of a naked infant at rest in a shell as a pearl. The image is meant to convey Chicago’s status as the gem of the Great Lakes.

Today, the lake’s importance to the people of the region as a place to swim, sail, race boats, and fish cannot be overstated, although tourism promoters continue to try. The City of Chicago alone maintains 31 lake bathing beaches and nine recreational boat harbors offering berths for more than 5,000 craft. Millions of young salmon and trout—prized game fish—have been stocked in the lake to provide sport for anglers. (Lake Michigan is these days as artificial an ecosystem as a zoo.) Fun on the lake supports a goodish industry in the form of fishing charter firms and outfitters and excursion boats.

But the lake has never been a perfectly passive partner in the great human enterprise that is Chicagoland. Nature is a capable engineer too, and has its own ideas about the proper way to manage its watershed. The site of the old Fort Dearborn is today marked for the education of tourists, but no marker commemorates the much longer war that was waged nearby for decades—the fight between the lake and engineers over possession of the lakefront.

East of the point where Columbus Drive crosses the river today was open water until the pier captured the current-borne sand that used to pile up inconveniently in front the of Chicago river’s mouth. The sand that piled up north of the river mouth had previously replenished the beach downshore, along South Michigan Avenue. Thus starved of sand, the beach there eroded. This was a matter of political as well as geological consequence, as rich Chicagoans had decided to build their houses there, and they put their formidable influence to work to secure their properties at public expense.

People have achieved at best a fragile truce with the lake currents on other parts of the Illinois shore. The bluffs along the North Shore are in fact a moraine left behind by the most recent glaciers which forms a natural seawall. Basically piles of gravel and sand, those bluffs offer only fragile resistance to lake waves. The first settlement on the site of today’s Highland Park, the village of St. Johns, sat atop the bluff near the main south entrance to Fort Sheridan; more than three hundred feet of the bluff upon which St John’s stood has since been carried away. Indians built beacon fires atop a bluff that projected into the lake at Wilmette near the site of today’s BaHa’i House of Worship; that bluff had washed into the lake by the 1880s. At the turn of the 20th century the shoreline was still receding some three feet a year along much of the northern shore.

To preserve the expensive lakefront real estate on which the area’s reputation (and its tax base) depend, a system of groins were installed to catch bluff-protecting sand. Seawalls and other structures also have been added (and re-added, as the lake batters them to pieces) to protect the inequity of North Shore’s well-to-do. Such measures have stayed the lake for the moment, but only at the expense of downshore beaches that have been deprived of the sand from the north that the currents used to deliver.

The lake currents gave as well as took. Build any kind of obstruction athwart the downshore currents and it's northern side  will catch and hold sand carried there by the lake water. Sand was kept out of the Chicago River mouth by the aforementioned 1,500-foot pier built off its north bank in 1834. The kidnapped sand accumulated upshore from the pier until it covered thousands of acres—the only land that the city had not stolen from the Indians.

The new land was unstable and so were many of its residents. Since it was new land not shown on the old maps, its ownership was in doubt. The barren spot was taken over by squatters, who there conducted gambling and prostitution and other early service industries in an unofficial vice district known as the Sands. They were evicted in 1857 by the mayor at the request of rich owners of adjacent properties after what in Chicago in most eras has been known as a “public outcry.” The redoubtable George Wellington Streeter, a steamboat captain who ran his rickety boat aground at the Sands in 1886, took up residence there, insisting that his wreck had been the agent of the land formation. On that grounds “Cap’n” Streeter disdained the authority of the State of Illinois and appointed himself head of government of a “District of Lake Michigan,” which in later years became known semi-officially as Streeterville. Many Chicago mayors have been guilty of the same presumption, with less cause, but Streeter lacked the votes to make his claims plausible, and authorities resorted to lawyers, and finally guns to oust him.

“Blasphemy against nature”

Novelist Robert Herrick, in an oft-quoted phrase, in 1898 described Chicago as a “stupendous piece of blasphemy against nature.” The destruction was savage, heedless, and comprehensive. Much of the land to the north of the Chicago River was wooded. These forests of hardwoods were comprehensively cleared so that the settlers might have barrel staves, rail bed ties, and firewood. The agents of the denuding of the landscape were steam-powered saw mills of the sort built in 1852 in what is now downtown Des Plaines by the railroad developers to convert burr oak and hickory trees taken from along the Des Plaines river into ties. In 1865 an open forest of cottonwoods and oaks covered land on the near south side that would soon become the site of the Chicago stockyards; the last deer to be killed within the city limits died there—a portent.


The Chicago area was rich with all kinds of life, as places tend to be that are wet. This wealth too was plundered. What the Calumet lacked in history, for example, it made up for with wildlife. The first industry in this future industrial center was the shooting of birds for the table. Bird life in the Calumet in those days was still abundant and diverse enough that people used to savor  a trip to Chicago because the snipe, rail, woodcock, and curlew the way they go to Baltimore for the crabs. Market hunters in the 19th and early 20th Century floated out onto the region’s marshes in punts and sprayed the water with cannon loaded with nails, slaughtering hundreds of waterfowl with every shot.

The casualties of these “hunts” were packed them into barrels for shipment to restaurateurs like the proprietors of Schlogl’s, the North Side tavern frequented by the writers of the day, who enjoyed partridges and mallards in season and “owls to order.” Looking back on his youth, the younger Carter Harrison wrote that banqueters in 1880 were offered, in addition to 18 varieties of wild game, wild turkey, quail, partridge, cedarhen, spruce hen, prairie chicken, ruffed grouse, yellow plover, and golden plover represented upland and woodland birds while jacksnipe, sand peeps, rail, reed birds, rice birds, marsh birds, sandhill crane, curlew, and least sandpiper, plus five varieties of wild geese and twenty-one of wild ducks. Not all were shot locally, but many were.

Such exploitation was the equivalent of the Great Fire—the settlement ecosystems were devastated, if not destroyed, and transformed in ways that allowed something very different to take its place. The native forests are long gone, to be replaced by an “urban forest” made of up a park and street trees. A favorite for both setting is the graceful American elm, which were planted in Chicago and suburbs profusely enough as to practically amount to a monoculture. Such concentrated plantings of one species make perfect settings for the rapid spread of disease, and that’s just what happened when Dutch elm disease appeared in Illinois in 1954.

The effect of the Dutch elm disease on Chicago and its suburbs was devastating. Between 1955 and 1966, Elgin, Zion, Joliet, and Aurora lost more than 90 percent of their elms. (Towns with aggressive programs to rid the streets and parks of infected trees—Kenilworth, Lincolnwood, Homewood, Highland Park, and Lombard, among others—did better.) Elm loss peaked in the mid-to-late 1960s. The lost elms have been replaced in most places by fast-growing silver maples and green ashes—lesser trees in every way.

Glenview's Big Tree Lane is the sole reminder of a landmark tree that stood near what is now the intersection of Glenview Road and the Edens Expressway. Watered by springs, a cottonwood there stood 130 feet high and forty-one feet around. Locals called it the “Potawatomi Tree,” or just “the Big Tree.” According to some, it was the largest tree in the U.S. that was not a sequoia. The size of Glenview’s “Potawatomi Tree” excited romantic legends involving its sacredness to Indians that are probably hooey, but by then it had become symbolic, if not quite sacred, to whites. The sole survivor of an 1832 fire, the tree stood until 1903; its stump was displayed at Dyche Stadium in Evanston as a curiosity until the early 1950s.


As with birds and trees, so with landscapes. South of the city, wettish grassy lowlands were interspersed with willows and scattered thickets of buttonbush. When the higher-lying soils—always the first to be farmed—were plowed, topsoil was loosened and was washed into local creeks, filling them and the wetlands that fed them. Some local streamside meadows began disappearing as early as 1901, as cottonwood, silver maple, sycamore, and other tree species adapted to the new conditions crept over them. To the naïve eye the vistas in that part of Chicagoland are still “natural,” but they are no longer original. It is as if an old building is remodeled using new materials and designs; it is still a building but it is no longer that building. Even the climate been altered. The city is a source of enough heat and droplet-forming dust that it affects rainfall, and its lights alter the diurnal cycles of plants and animals.

The lake, the lake


Of all the things about Chicago, the lake would seem to be beyond history. Its own history runs in cycles measured in hundreds and thousands of years, not mere decades. It changes so slowly that to humans it seems to never change. Were Jean Baptiste Du Sable to return to Chicago today, he would be astonished, if not alarmed, by how different everything looked except the lake, which would look the same as it did when he opened his trading post in 1781.

The way it looks, alas, is one of the few ways in which the lake of the 18th century resembles the lake of the 21st. In ecological terms it has been transformed. Dunes were mined for sand. The lake sustained an important commercial fishery until it was decimated by over-fishing, poisoning by sewage and other pollutants, the introduction of non-native species that either ate the natives or ate their food supply—about everything stupid a society could do to a great lake, in fact, short of paving it. The lake's stocks of commercially desirable chub, lake trout, and whitefish began to decline as early as the mid-1800s. The lake sturgeon, which reached hundreds of pounds in size—slowly—was not so much fished for as hunted as vermin, and fishing for them banned in 1929; herring and white fish are also gone. These days, one in seven native fish species in Lake Michigan was either extirpated or had suffered severe population crashes. Happily, the yellow perch—good to eat and easy to catch, remains as a consolation and draws thousands to the lake piers with a rod.

Much of what lives in the lake these days is not native to it. The opening of navigation channels between Lake Michigan and the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence and Welland canals improved shipping at the cost of the lake's native fish populations. Exotic species such as the alewife and the parasitic sea lamprey migrated into lake waters, where they either competed with natives for food or fed on them. These changes had sometimes catastrophic results. Within the 20 years after it entered Lake Michigan in 1936, sea lamprey killed of lake tout which once been taken in millions of pounds. Die-offs of the minnow-y alewife, during which billions of fish piled up on shore three feet deep in the mid-1960s, raised a stink in every sense about the messed-up ecology of the lake. The alewife still looms large on many a Downstater’s list of reasons why she doesn’t want to ever live in Chicago.

The often calamitous disruptions of the Lake Michigan ecosystem, indeed, became a symbol in the 1960s and ‘70s for environmental mismanagement. The decimation of the lake's natural predators by the sea lamprey in the 1950s allowed populations of the introduced alewife to explode, and they in turn decimated native prey fish species such as the emerald shiner. Emerald shiner were so abundant in the late 1950s that they clogged up the intakes at power stations that drew upon the lake for cooling water; the alewife out-competed the shiner for food and ate its larvae, and the emerald shiner had disappeared from the lake proper by the early 1960s. 

These great dramas, in which whole species rise and fall, take place out of sight and mind of the typical Chicagolander. The native species of all kinds that have survived the not quite 200 years of intensive exploitation by Euro-Americans are huddled in refuges remote from the public while the region’s lush streets and gardens are occupied by interlopers. (The analogy between the fates of nature and that of the region’s original Native Americans is inescapable, and local greens make much of it.) The very term “nature” has been demeaned, and now is used to describe anything green and growing.

For the most part, the presettlement past survives only in place names. Deerpath Avenue in Lake Forest was once an actual deer and buffalo path leading to Lake Michigan. However, here and there in Chicagoland a bit of the landscape that greeted Jolliet and Marquette survives in recognizable form. At the Thornton-Lansing Road Nature Preserve in Calumet City, where 446 acres of sand savanna survives. Volo Bog in western Lake County is one of the more intriguing artifacts of the region’s glacial era. When the ice sheet melted back toward Canada, a large chunk of ice broke off here. Glacial debris piled up around it, and when it finally melted it left a hole in the ground that filled with water, making a lake 50 feet deep. A thick mat of plants formed on its shores, gradually growing toward into the lake; as the plants died and decomposed, the remains solidified into peat, creating a quivering. bouncing surface.

A bit of the old lake shore survives at Illinois Beach State Park outside Zion. There is still found a dune and swale topography dotted with scrub trees stunted by fires and parched, sandy soils. More than 650 species of plants have been recorded in the park’s dunes. While ecologically rich it is not scenic or useful, although during the Civil War it was considered fit enough for a prisoner of war camp, and in later war eras it was used by the U.S. Army to practice tank maneuvers. Its sole appeal to the wider public even today is its long swimming beach, which has made the 4,210-acre Illinois Beach is the most visited of all state parks.


State lawmakers reacted to pleas to save it with indifference. Agitation to save the dunes date back to the 1880s, but legislative efforts to set it aside did not start until the 1920s. The State of Illinois did not take title to any land there until 1948 and the last of the parcels that make up the park was not added until 1982. The land was still regarded by state authorities as merely a park; in the 1950s the state built a conference hotel in the middle of what became a nature area.

Even in the city itself, not all the old lake shore terrain was destroyed. Perhaps 500 acres of the Calumet marsh—which once covered an area more than 40 times as large—survives in something like its original state. The presettlement landscape around the future Wilson and Broadway in Chicago’s northwest side was sandy savanna growing atop old Lake Chicago beach ridges; even in the early years of the past century the area was still wild enough that high school biology classes were taken there for field trips.

Northeast and east of Washington Park there is a series of from ten to twelve low ridges of sandy deposits created by lake waves at the shallows of the lake that once covered the area; The longest and most prominent of these ridges passed through the campus of the University of Chicago before it became another casualty of careless grading. Larger features such as the Oak Park spit have survived, but they are obscured by the city that now crowds upon them.

As with landscapes, relics of presettlement ecosystems persist here and there, albeit with diminished populations of the plants and animals that once teemed in them. Industrial activity may render land unfit for humans, but plants and animals often prove more adaptable. For example, Calumet Harbor is a harbor in more than the industrial sense. The marshes there proved more durable than the steel mills that never quite replaced them. Even the shriveled remnants of Lake Calumet provides critical breeding and foraging habitat for numerous birds, including double-crested cormorants, herons, and sandpipers;d rarer birds, such as black-crowned night-herons, least bitterns, pied-billed grebes, and common moorhens, use Big Marsh (300 acres) to nest. More than 200 species of birds migrate through or stay and nest in the Calumet wetlands, including many species of birds, fish and plants whose survival in Illinois is considered threatened or endangered. Indian Ridge Marsh supports the Upper Midwest’s largest rookery for black-crowned night herons.

City life abetted ecological preservation in unexpected ways. Railroad companies set their tracks in rights of way occupied by prairie plants; sparks from coal-fired engines periodically set them afire, mimicking the lightning that used to ignite the grass fires to which such plant communities are adapted. (At disparate spots, from the south side of Chicago to Lake Forest, the same service was performed by mischief-makers on Halloweens.)

As a result, a surprising amount of biological richness remains. The metropolitan area is home to an unusually rich and globally significant concentration of not only rare native plants and animals, including some of the most pristine tallgrass prairies and oak woodlands surviving in the world. Forty-nine different natural community types have been identified in the region, of which 25 are at least rare or uncommon at the global level, and as many as 23 are globally imperiled. Approximately 1,500 native plant species still occur in the region, making the Chicago metropolitan area one of the more botanically rich areas, natural or otherwise, in the United States. 

Condos on Bubbly Creek?

Nearly two centuries of floods and fires and epidemics have taught Chicagoland citizens to take a more conciliatory approach in its dealings with nature. The effort to save themselves, by ridding the environment of the poisons they had so carelessly dumped into it, began in earnest in the 1880s or so and is ongoing. A second, more recent effort seeks to save nature, or at least that part of nature that can survive in the city. Clean-up and “re-greening” the city thus are the newest, and most hopeful chapters in the history of the city’s relation to nature.

One can see glimpses of earlier Chicagos in its preserved buildings and its museums, but that Chicago—the one Lloyd Lewis called an “industrial Hades”—has disappeared. Compared to the crippling burdens once imposed on Chicagoans, the foulest emanations from the Sanitary and Ship Canal are merely offensive, breathing the smoggiest air is, for the healthy at least, merely irritating. Were a Chicagoan of a century ago able to return to the city, she would find it unrecognizable.

What was once Chicago’s shame—the state of its surface waters—now is a source of pride touted to tourists. The Chicago River has begun to renew itself ecologically--more than 50 species of fish now inhabit the river, and wildlife is returning to its shores. For decades one would no more canoe the stretches of the river close to the Loop than one would picnic in a landfill, but recreational boaters today are common sights, as are fishermen—a long way from days when the thing one was most likely to catch from the river was a disease.

The 1909 Plan of Chicago called for boulevards along both banks of the river and its downtown branches. Wacker Drive, along the south bank, suggests the possibilities. The Merchandise Mart was set back from the river to provide for such a boulevard on the north bank, but it was never built. Wacker from Wabash to Franklin was recently rehabbed at a cost of $200 million; the work, which was finished in 2002, was substantially an act of historic restoration in which such original Beaux Arts features as ornate streetlights and limestone balustrade were reinstalled.

The pace and direction of the transformation can be measured in the shift in value of riverfront property now that the river has become an amenity rather than a nuisance. The MWRD had the land along the upper reaches of the North Branch appraised in 1994 and was told it was worth $800 to $1,100 a lineal foot; reappraisal of the same properties in 2003 found that each foot fronting the river is worth about $1,600. Most astonishing of all, Bubbly Creek—the South Fork of the South Branch, the cesspool of cesspools, is being lined with hundreds of upscale houses selling for as much as $1.2 million, the project connected by a footbridge and a mile-long river walk.

Similar transformations are occurring across Chicagoland. The North Shore Channel is used by collegiate sculling teams; jet skiers can be seen frequently on that waterway and on the Chicago River; power boaters brave the barges to ride the Sanitary and Ship Canal. Aurora’s RiverCity exploits its waterfront along the Fox River. Joliet has a river walk and river greenway too. Elgin has built miles of walkways and is reconfiguring its once-industrial riverfront to permit people to get closer to the river. Lake Zurich built a new lakefront promenade as part of its recent downtown revitalization.

Most impressive is Naperville’s. in 1981 Naperville began construction of a river walk along the Du Page River through downtown Naperville that now runs from Hillside Road to the Jefferson Street Bridge and takes in brick paths fountains, covered bridges, the Riverwalk amphitheater, gazebos pavilion; an admiring newspaper reporter in 2003 called a walk here “like sensory Prozac.” The same designer designed the river walks in Elgin, West Dundee, St. Charles, and Batavia—projects that are, in relative terms, the City Beautiful projects of the sort that animated Chicago’s lakefront and river in the first half of the 1900s.

As quality of Chicagoland’s surface waters improve, as birds and fish and people come back, further possibilities reveal themselves. In 1999 the Openlands Project revealed an ambitious plan--the first in the U.S.—to develop a regional system of 480 miles of water trails for non-motorized boats on Lake Michigan and the 10 major waterways in the metropolitan area. Some of these already in place. Paddlers can enjoy a 14.4-mile water trail on the Des Plaines River from Stony Ford Preserve, just north of the Chicago Portage, to Lemont, from where canoeists and kayakers can continue downstream to Isle a la Cache and Lockport; part of the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor, this stretch offers three launching sites along the route.

Industry no longer a thing of belching smokestacks and spewing pipes, and those that are, have left Chicago; today Chicago can have its industry and its clean water too. However, credit must be given too to the agency now known as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. In every era it has equipped the city with water treatment and sewage disposal facilities that were either the first or the biggest or the most innovative. The two-mile-long under-the-lake supply tunnels connecting the city to its water intake cribs in the lake; the Sanitary and Ship Canal that reversed the flow of the Chicago River and was the largest civil engineering project of its day; the Prairie Plan which used sewage sludge to reclaim strip-mined land; the Deep Tunnel project, and, most recently, urban waterfalls.

The District has reason to call attention to its achievements. The Nicholas J. Melas Centennial Fountain at McClurg Court and the Chicago River was built in 1989 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. During the summer months, a jet of water is sent arching across the river for ten minutes at the start of the hour from 10 am to 2 pm and from 5 pm to midnight. The spectacle is achieved by a water cannon, the only way that Chicago River water can move that fast being for it to be shot from a gun.


The complex mandate of the region’s forest preserve districts was in part ecological. The system’s authorizing legislation states that such a district is to “restore, restock, protect, and preserve the natural forests and said lands together with their flora and fauna, as nearly as may be, in their natural state and condition.” That proved tricky to do. “Preservation” in fact upset the natural processes that had created the ecosystems now under their control. The fires that had kept the savannas intact, for example, were stopped, with the result that open woods became less so, and invasive weedy species that had been kept at bay thrived. Former prairies in the absence of fire became woods, and open woods became woods of a different sort than they had been.

As early as the 1920s, when acquisition for the forest preserves got underway in earnest, there already was little original forest left to preserve. Much of the wooded uplands long since been cleared for farms or towns. What was still available was river and stream bottoms that were too wet, too flood-prone, or too muddy for any economic purpose. (That such unbuilt-on areas also were among the region’s richest in terms of species was a happy accident.)

Not many of these tracts were pristine. Not only had potential preserves already been built upon, many more acres were damaged by plowing, grazing, draining, and illegal dumping. However, such land had the considerable virtue, from a taxpayer’s point of view, of being cheap to buy. Hundreds of failed residential subdivisions were picked up at bargain prices from the 1920s through the 1950s. These tracts had been laid out (usually) on former prairies or open oak woods that had been farmed or grazed. (The 1939 Guide described one of them, south of the intersection of Lawrence Avenue and US 45, which had “unused sidewalks trailing off in high weeds, rusty water plugs, ragged tree plantings, and empty apartment houses staring across the plain.”) The foresight of public land managers would have come to nothing without the lack of foresight of so many of the region’s developers.

As these examples suggest, forest preserve districts of necessity from the start interpreted “forest” generously. Consider the Chewab Skokie, or "big wet prairie" that lay in the valley of the Skokie “River” the unprepossessing East Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River west of three north shore suburbs of Wilmette, Winnetka and Glencoe between Willow Road and Dundee Road. Attempts to drain it so it could be farmed largely failed. Birds muskrats, mink, turtles, and fish loved it, but its human neighbors hated it. The marsh flooded adjacent land when water ran high, and stank when it ran low; the vast beds of peat often self-combusted, and smoky fires sometimes burned for months. 

The Skokie Marsh’s recreational potential was plain, but realizing it would require turning the marsh into something else. The Cook County forest preserve district contrived a plan to reshape the wetlands into impoundments that would store flood water and as a byproduct create a recreational water landscape. Two impediments complicated this sensible plan. One was the state law that empowered the district to buy land, which limited such purchases to forested tracts or land that connected them; the Skokie wetlands were neither. A local man in 1923 sued the Forest Preserve on the grounds that the acquisition of non-forested land violated the district’s authorizing legislation. It took several years and General Assembly action to settle the matter. By 1933, the district had purchased approximately 1,100 acres between Lake Avenue and County Line Road.

Buying the Skokie and having the money to turn it into something useful were two very different things. Help, however, lay near at hand—mere blocks away, in fact, in the house of Winnetkan Harold Ickes. Ickes had been named Secretary of the Interior in 1933 by new president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Interior was in charge of the new Civilian Conservation Corps, which helps explain why re-inventing the Skokie was both an early project of the CCC and one of the largest.

Work began in 1933 with 1,000 men, one of  was the largest CCC contingent in the country, and went on without stop until 1942. The project site extended roughly two and one-half miles long and one-half to one mile wide between Willow and Dundee roads. From it, some four million cubic yards of earth, or roughly enough to fill the Sears Tower, were excavated to create seven connected lagoons, with the dredged soil piled up to enclose the flood plain of which they were part. The result may have been the antithesis of preservation—it was as natural as a backyard fish pond—but it is a much-used recreational resource for boating, fishing, biking, and so on. The destruction of the mud flats meant that flocks of migrating shore birds no longer stopped here, but other kinds of birds do; birders have documented more than 210 species of birds at the lagoons, including 70 that breed or use the area during summer.

Making the past grow again

In their knowledge of science, the heirs of Jens Jensen, Dwight Perkins, and the rest of the forest preserves' founders were their heroes’ superiors. Saving a woods, they had learned, is not the same as saving an ecology. Even those remnant presettlement wilds that were placed under protection in its forests preserves were not saved. They were kept from being plowed or paved, but not kept from turning into something other than a savanna. The “forests” of Chicagoland were often old prairie and savannas that had been taken over by weedy trees when the fires that once kept the invaders at bay were stopped. Nature, acting in a context fundamentally altered by humans interference, produced what was, in terms of presettlement Chicagoland, an unnatural density of trees that concealed their original ecological character.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, ecologically sophisticated critics gradually realized that the forest preserves themselves had become historic artifacts, the ecological equivalent of broken-down farm cabin. The differences between a native forest and an ecologically degraded savanna or prairie is not obvious, but local amateur naturalists pointed them, and once alert, found dozens in the region’s parks and forest preserves. Volunteers set about restoring them. What began as a sort of guerilla gardening eventually won official sanction from administrators of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, and in time the other regional districts, and indeed conservation agencies in general, who committed themselves to returning local wilds to their presettlement state and maintaining them that way.

A comprehensive history of struggle to identify, protect and restore Chicagoland’s marshes, prairies, groves in the past thirty years would run to volumes. It is a great unwritten chronicle, a sort of the pioneer homesteading sagas in reverse. In the 1970s, the oak savanna and wetlands complex in Glenview long known as the Grove—the former estate of Kennicott—was slated to join uncounted number of its fellows and become a housing development. Ten local women who came to be known as the "Frog and Fern Ladies" cried "Outrage." The cavalry riding to the rescue was the Glenview Park District, which agreed to a referendum on the bond issue that would be needed to pay for the purchase of the property from developers. It passed, and in 1976 the Grove was acquired by the Glenview Park District. In 1999 The Grove—now a U.S. Department of the Interior National Historic Landmark—began an extensive restoration of 110 acres of wetlands, prairie, and oak woodlands.

The campaign to save the Grove has been repeated in dozens of like cases around Chicagoland in the quarter-century since. Develop a rationale for saving it by amassing the history that most never knew or forgotten. Compile data about species that no one knew or cared that are supported by it. Tell decision-makers from the governor and legislators to local Rotary Clubs and church societies what you found. Make clear how your town will be less interesting if the place is not saved. Pass petitions so that lawmakers at all levels know that more than few cranks care about the place.

Ecologist Bruce Hannon of the University of Illinois liked to tell people that if rich men hadn’t liked to shoot ducks there wouldn’t have been an environmental movement in the U.S. Certainly that was true in Chicagoland. The rich of Chicagoland had their own open space program; when they saw open space they bought it, hundreds of acres at a time, in the then-remote wilderness of Lake and Du Page counties. A substantial part of these former hunting and weekend estates have since been given over to public use. Typical is the Liberty Prairie Reserve, several hundred acres of former Lake County dairy land that had been protected from development through legal maneuvering by its owner, steel executive George Ranney Sr. and his family.

What was a private obsession has, remarkably, become public policy. Restoring such places was the ecological version of a parallel movement, often in same people, in towns and villages across Chicagoland to identify and restore to their pioneer appearance the human artifacts of the old landscape that was rapidly disappearing. The ecological restoration movement, in short, was a form of historic preservation. Both were outgrowths of a national awakening to the charms of local history—including local natural history—to define and augment people sense of place. In 1999, for example, the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC) became the first major metropolitan planning agency in the nation to adopt a Biodiversity Recovery Plan for its region; in 2000 The Cook County Board chose Echinacea, a once-rare prairie plant that thanks to prairie restorationists is now growing again across Chicagoland, as the county's official flower.

A restored Calumet is merely part of an even larger plan announced in 2004 by the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association to preserve unspoiled spots—biological, geological, archeological and pre-industrial historic sites—across a 50-square-mile area in the Calumet region of northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana. The ambition is to boost tourism and kick-start development. Recommendations in the plan include development of 50 miles of hiking, bicycle and water trails and the creation of living history farms, river walks, and greenways along the Grand Calumet River system, and restoration of 500-plus acres of prairies and savannas operated by the Cook County Forest Preserve District within the south suburbs.

Several arguments buttress the policy of saving the natural history of the region where it survives, and restoring where it can. Most Chicagoans were never quite convinced that local nature was beautiful—not that very many of them has the basis of an opinion, since few had never seen any. The rise of environmentalism, however, added ecological authenticity to the virtues for which the local landscape might be admired. Perhaps most important, the landscape—both the terrain and the growing things it sustained—was of the place in ways that the buildings and people of Chicagoland never were. This is perhaps its most appealing trait of all to a public that shares a sense of displacement (in time, if not geography) but to whom an appreciation of science or beauty requires tutelage that few have had. In their classic Midwestern way, Chicagoans have learned to make do with what they have, and what they have is prairie and savanna and scattered bits of glacial pot holes and bogs—not much, but thine own.

The result of the change of heart are striking. Chicago’s suburbs are littered with the decorated boxes that are corporate office parks. But the grounds that surround them often are festooned with native grasses and forbs. The golf green, which was the previous inspiration for the corporate landscaping style, has been replaced with the fen, the slough, the marsh. Typical is the quarters of Tellabs Inc. in Naperville which in 2002 planted nearly half of the 55 acres of its corporate campus to tallgrass prairie and other natural areas. Building owners find such ground cover often is cheaper than maintaining a manicured lawn, passersby find it more interesting to look at, wildlife lovers appreciate the creatures it attracts, and eco-freaks applaud its ability to filter pollution and soak up potential floodwaters.

Municipalities have gone from specifically banning tall grass in lawns and commercial landscapes to tolerating it, albeit modestly—most ordinances now allow it in backyards but require that front yards be trimmed. Schaumburg in 2004 considered a measure that would require commercial developers to use native grasses as ground cover.

The North Shore and the inland suburbs of Lake County are perhaps the epicenters of the back-to-nature movement in Chicagoland, indeed in Illinois. That part of Chicagoland is the least penetrated by expressways, and thus more open land was still left to save (often in the form of horse farms and truck farms) when the urge to save it became general beginning in the 1970s. The forest preserve and open space districts, county and local, are aggressive and well-funded. Private companies still exploit the presence of waterfowl, but these days, instead of killing them for meat, they make livings cleaning suburban yards, parking lots, and corporate lawns of the droppings left by flourishing flocks of Canada geese.

It is also on the North Shore that some of the last surviving bits of unspoiled lakeshore survive. Six and a half miless of beach are protected as Illinois Beach State Park between Waukegan and Zion. More than two miles of lake bluffs survive on the former Fort Sheridan between Highland Park and Lake Forest. The forest bluffs and their ravines support an ecosystem of a type that is increasing rare in the region, one that is home to rare plants such as ground juniper and Canadian buffalo berry and home to endangered songbirds such as the cerulean warbler, Henslow's sparrow, and peregrine falcon. In 2004, legislation was introduced that would transfer the Fort Sheridan bluffs to a land conservancy, and thus preserve the possibility of a park that would allow people to experience the Illinois lake shore as it was hundreds of years ago, when Father Jacques Marquette paddled by in the 17th Century.

Visitors to the western suburbs thrill to the odd sight of bison grazing on the grounds of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, more widely known as Fermilab, on the Du Page/Kane county line north of Aurora. At Fermilab they are breaking apart atoms below ground, and putting prairies back together above it; the prairie that has been nurtured there since the 1970s today yields surplus seed that has gone into dozens of similar projects around the region. A prairie’s plant community is shaped by the interactions of the animals that live in it—thus the presence since 1969 of a small herd of American bison, an animal superbly adapted to the grasslands, and to whose presence grasslands are adapted.

Whereas the original forest preserve system was justified in terms of recreation and public health, it is the psychic and civic health of the region’s people that is today’s goal. A local official who described that Calumet area open space plan to the press said that it would create " a jewel that would complement the dignity of daily living in our area and connect people with a sense of place."

Chicago’s wilderness

Perhaps the most remarkable historic preservationist undertaking in Chicagoland is the attempt to restore Chicago’s presettlement ecosystems. In the 1970s there began what amounts to a second forest preserve movement. The thrust of this renewed preserves movement was not merely to expand the old system but to reclaim it. A new generation of citizen-botanists donned the mantles of Jensen and Perkins. Their program was not to save nature from the neglect of humans but to rescue it from humans’ well-intended but destructive protection.

“Preserving” nature had always meant leaving it alone, which the forest preserves did. But critics by the 1970s began to complain that stewardship by benign neglect had been a failure, at least when applied to the preserves vast holdings of former prairie and savanna. The preserves did nothing to stem the advance of nonnative interlopers in the form of weedy shrubs and trees plants that often turn invasive in ecological settings where they face no natural brakes on expansion.

The Kentucky buckthorn is one of many. This shallow-rooted shrubby tree native to Eurasia and brought to the United States around the 1840s. An aggressive and persistent grower, this buckthorn produces killing shade on forest floors, which leaves the now-barren ground vulnerable to erosion. Such plants out-feed or steal light from natives not adapted to presence, with the result that a diverse forest becomes a monoculture, the woodland equivalent of corn or soybean farm.

Also, the original preserves managers squelched fire from their lands, in spite of the fact that the region’s original prairies and savannas had been burned regularly, by lightning-set fires or fires set by Native Americans. These fires burned off all but a few of the trees that competed with the natives grasses and returned nutrients to the soil. Without fires, trees that former kept at bay crept back, shading plants that had been adapted to sunlight.

In short, many forest preserves had not been preserved, if by that one meant kept in their ecological state as it existed before the interventions of the Euro-Americans. Restoring the lands meant restoring the conditions that pertained before Euro-Americans arrived around 1820 or so. Nonnative species were chopped or dug up or poisoned, grasslands were subjected to cleansing fires, seeds of native plants were collected and sown. Under such a regimen, seeds that had lain dormant for decades, some of which were of species that had become rare in the region, sprouted anew. It was as if a home carpenter had, by removing a modern false ceiling installed in an old mansion, suddenly caught a glimpse of ornate plaster carvings.

The first such restoration of note was done by volunteers on Cook County Forest Preserve District land along the North Branch of the Chicago River, in 1977. What was then the North Branch Prairie Project (now the North Branch Restoration Project) inspired (and informed) others. In the DesPlaines River Valley, Wolf Road Prairie, the largest black silt loam prairie in Illinois. A dolomite prairie at Theodore Stone Woods. In southwestern Cook, Cap Sauers Holdings, whose 1,600 acres make it the largest roadless tract in Cook County, plus Paddock Woods, Spears Woods, and Black Partridge Woods.

For some 20 years, a small army of citizen botanists gathered at dozens of preserve properties across Chicagoland each weekend, using training and tools provided by the Volunteer Stewardship Network. The VSN was begun in 1984 as a cooperative effort between The Nature Conservancy and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and many land-owning public agencies, and provides person-power for one of the most ambitious efforts at large-scale restoration in the country.

And one of the most controversial. Cutting down trees to save a forest struck many observes as mad. To some people, even an ecologically pristine prairie looks from the road like an unkempt farm field. Other critics complained that removing buckthorn may be good for the woods but it is bad for birds that nest in its branches and feed on its berries. Still others (especially homeowners whose properties abutted the preserves) had come to treasure the protections afforded by the old dense thickets.

There were scientific disputes as well. Critics averred that the Packard approach was misguided, and was turning a naturally recovering forest into an artificial prairie. The presettlement savanna that was the grail sought by the restorationists was not a stable community that had been destabilized by the arrival of whites, they complained, merely a phase in the evolution of grassland into forest. Rather than restoring nature's processes, restorationists were interrupting them.

In 1996, county politicians, voting as commissioners of the forest preserve district, voted against own scientific and land management staff and imposed a moratorium on all restoration activities. The moratorium was eventually listed, but it set back work for several years.

In general, however, the goals and the methods that have evolved over the years of work in Chicagoland have been accepted by the public and by scientists. What began as ragtag eco-rebels achieved a revolution, and not only in forest management policies. This participation marks an historic shift in the ways Chicagoland citizen see and relate to their natural world. Today’s restorationists are trying to make the prairie-savanna grow in the hearts of their fellow Chicagoans by making tallgrass ecosystems the shared symbol of the natural in and around Chicago. Doing that will require that ordinary Chicagoans learn to see nature in a new way, to see beauty in a new way, to see cities in a new way, see history in a new way, indeed see their own species in new way.

The restoration of the forest preserves in an ecological sense is but one of a wide array of conservation/preservation/restoration initiatives undertaken in Chicagoland since the 1980s. The restorationists laid out what was, in effect, a ecological Marshall Plan to rebuild the development-ravaged landscapes of Chicagoland, and thus to usher in a new era of peaceful coexistence between nature and people. Thirty-four conservation-conscious public and private organizations in 1995 joined in a coalition formally known as the Chicago Region Biodiversity Council whose aim was to coordinate policies and programs directed toward the study, management, protection, and restoration of Chicagoland’s natural ecosystems.

This “Chicago Wilderness” project today involves more than 170 public and private organizations, Chicago Wilderness’s planning, research, and restoration projects now encompass more than 200,000 acres of protected natural lands from the Chiwaukee Prairie in southeast Wisconsin, to the Indiana Dunes. The disparate parts of this “Chicago Wilderness”—forest preserves, state parks, federal lands, county preserves, and privately owned lands from corporate office parks to posh estates—are to be managed for common ends using consistent means embodied in eight principles of sustainable development that municipalities and others can use to create more livable communities and maintain a healthy local environment without sacrificing development.

What is happening in effect a massive region-wide historic preservation project in which hoes and shovels are used instead of hammers and paint brushes. To disseminate expertise, Chicago Wilderness produces an interdisciplinary online journal for conservation professionals and volunteers, a handsome magazine that informs the wider audience about the work of the member organizations, and an Atlas of Biodiversity. It also manages the Habitat Project, a network of thousands of volunteers and staff —monitors, stewards, advocates—who work with scientists and land managers.

Chicago Wilderness is a brand that certifies a given restoration project as kosher. The field work is done by agencies and departments of mainly local governments, often in collaboration with local volunteers trained by the VSN. Actually, the work is often done by local volunteers with the cooperation of local agencies. Typical is the work of the North Branch Restoration Project, the evolved successor to the old North Branch Prairie Project; the project provides the labor and the expertise needed to manage and restore prairies, savannas, and woodlands at various properties of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County along that stream, and the district supports them with tools and supplies.

Whence this remarkable commitment in a city known for neither the beauty of its natural landscape or delicacy of its attitude toward nature? The Prairie Style architects and landscape designers—Jensen and Perkins, Frank Lloyd Wright and George—had failed to shift the local culture’s aesthetic center of gravity a century earlier. Why did so many Chicagoland residents make it happen the 1990s? The motives are varied—fellowship, fascination with the science, a yearning for authenticity, sense of obligation to the future, a chance to turn well-worn words about saving the world into deeds. higher levels of education are a factor, as is boredom; both reasons explain why restoration’s deepest roots are in Chicagoland’s suburbs.

If the hope of the forest preserve pioneers of the early 20th century was to protect nature from the city, the ambition of their recent successor at Chicago Wilderness is much more complex—to restore nature in the city. the result is, in effect, a single multi-part regional nature reserve of more than 250,000 acres of protected natural lands from southeastern Wisconsin, through northeastern Illinois and into northwestern Indiana linked by green corridors. It envisions natives plant growing again not only in its nature preserves but on its beaches and backyards.

The Chicago Wilderness project is not remarkable only for its ambitious scale. That which people would save they must first love. It was not perhaps a magnificent landscape. It had no stately forests, no mountains, no cavorting streams. Rather, a lot of mud and long views with nothing much to look at. Early accounts describe Chicagoland’s presettlement landscape as unworthy of description, much less preservation. Parks planners had scarcely alighted from their trains from back East before they deplored the “monotonous swampy barrenness” of Chicago’s outlying districts. It is fortunate indeed that Chicago was able to avail itself of the services of designers such as Olmsted, because only an Olmsted could possibly have turned rural Chicago into a Jackson or a Washington park.

The famous Illinois prairies and their kindred ecosystem the savannas were no better loved in Chicagoland than they were Downstate. When architects in this, as in other parts of Illinois, sought motifs for the doodads and the architectural gizmos they used to decorate the Prairie State’s stately buildings, they did not use prairie plants as models. Chicago’s signature skyscrapers are adorned with sheaves of wheat, shocks of corn, enough acanthus leaves to feed a zoo, even lotus blossoms and papyrus (on the upper stories of the Monadnock Building) but nowhere is carved the likeness of the bottle gentian or the big bluestem.


A new Oz

The city’s motto, Urbs in horto, or the city in the garden, is a much misunderstood phrase. phrase as used by the city’s founding generations has been misunderstood. Timothy Spears, in his Chicago Dreaming, cited the recollection of businessman John Glessner, who described the city in 1870 as “truly the Garden City.” However, Glessner went into explain that by that he meant that there wasn’t much city in vast stretches of the corporate city, that the tracts in between the streetcars lines was farm fields and waste land with no apartment houses, few double houses, and only occasional blocks of houses. As Carter Harrison the younger recalled of the same period, “garden city” in his day meant turnips and potatoes, not landscaped parkways.

That Chicago—the Black City that for decades, as William Cronon has written, announced itself to approaching visitors by smudge of brown smoke on the horizon—should call itself a city in a garden occasioned many a sour joke over the years. Washington, D.C., has its cherry blossoms, Portland, Oregon its roses—Chicago’s emblematic plant is the wild onion the Fox called sheka-ko-ha (pronounced like sheka-ko) because it smelled like a skunk. For decades the only green to be found in Chicago outside its parks was the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day, and that was achieved only by dumping dye in it.

But of late the cold hard city is blooming. From one of the grimmest cities on the continent, Chicago has become one of the greenest. If Chicago in its heedless prime made it infamous for its indifference to nature, it is making itself famous again, this time for putting relation to nature on a new and friendlier footing. No city has done more to restore its presettlement landscapes, and few—certainly among the older industrial cities of the Midwest—has done more to make it a haven for green and growing things. Fish are swimming in the Chicago River, and people are paddling canoes. The poisonous air is still on bad days harmful to the old and the babies, but this is progress in a city in which, within living memory, the air was bad enough to lay low a healthy adult. The progress is tempting some commentators to suggest, without a smirk, that Chicago could someday actually live up to its motto.

Chicago in the 1970s set about putting the garden back around the city. The commitment to restore nature where it was, even in the middle of the city, was a rethinking of Perkins, Jensen, and the rest of the late 19th century parks reformers. They assumed that nature could exist only outside the city. The new idea was to bring nature back into the city rather than send people to the suburbs. The idea, to be fair, was not especially new. What was new was the circumstances in which it might be made to work. The shift to a postindustrial economy was crucial, as was growth to maturity of generation of citizens reared on the green gospel.

Including the future mayor, Richard M. Daley. When the younger Mayor Daley is referred to as the "green" mayor these days, people aren’t referring to his Irishness. He enshrined the environment in its own City Hall department in 1992, and more recently committed the city to construction on an old dump site of the Chicago Center for Green Technology (CCGT), the first municipal building in the United States to be awarded LEED Platinum status by the U.S. Green Building Council. His mania for tree planting—400,000 trees planted as of mid-2004—has startled observers around the country. Daley has covered the city with planter boxes filled with flowers, even in middle of streets, and there is a garden planted atop City Hall to keep it cool—one of nearly 80 "green roofs" that had been installed in the city by mid-2004.

Chicago attracts tourists of all kinds. Jackson Park’s Wooded Island, meant as a refuge for fair visitors by Olmsted a century ago, is today a refuge for birds; as many as 250 different species of birds have can be spotted there on their annual peregrinations, and approximately forty-eight species of birds are known to have nested there. A long spit that stretches from Montrose Harbor into the lake at the eastern end of Montrose Beach is a convenient landing spot for migrating birds; at least 307 species of birds from songbirds to shorebirds have been recorded there over the years. These avian tourists have made “the Magic Hedge,” which originally sprouted along the fence that once surrounded a missile site on Montrose Point, the most famous bit of vegetation in Chicago, at least among bird lovers.

In 2000 Daley signed a Treaty for Birds—the nation’s second Urban Conservation Treaty for Migratory Birds—with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the pact led to bird refuges along the lake shore and requests to local building managers to dim lights during migration seasons to reduce the deaths of thousands of song birds who flew into them.

In Chicago, as the mayor goes, so goes the bureaucracy. The Chicago Park District, which historically devoted itself to games and patronage, concocted “Nature Chicago,” which it describes as a comprehensive initiative to protect and enhance Chicago's natural areas. Nature trails and interpretative signs built, and trail guides for self-guided tours published. The Park District is restoring wetlands and degraded other landscapes (Burnham Park, Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, McKinley Park, Portage Park and Washington Park are among the sites) and enhancing wildlife habitat areas. Parks programs now include several activities that don’t require a ball—conservation design, youth education, and what the CPD calls “the opportunity to experience species diversity and practice stewardship in one's own neighborhood.”

Thirty years ago the Calumet was assumed to have been killed, poisoned and smothered to death; the city’s ill-fated airport plan was a clever way to solve the pollution problem but burying the corpse under tons of concrete. But there was much life left in what Joel Greenburg called “the marsh that will not die.”

The green-minded mayor Daley gathered clever heads at City Hall to devise a new future of the Calumet. A land use plan was adopted in 2001 that seeks to preserve what is left of the wetlands and to achieve industrial development of 3,000 acres there with, rather than at the expense of, nature. The City of Chicago’s “Calumet Open Space Reserve” in Chicago, and adjacent suburbs will consist of some 4,800 acres of Calumet wetlands and woodlands to be used for nature preservation and, in some cases, recreation in what was, from about 1900 to the 1950s, one of the most industrialized (and thus most polluted) places in the world. More than a third of the target land is already protected as Cook County forest preserves and a state conservation area, but the city is adding new tracts. One of these is the 140-acre Hegewisch Marsh at 130th Street, which will be used as a wildlife refuge and educational center. There sits the Ford Calumet Environmental Center—the names honors the car maker, which chipped in $5 million toward its cost—near Torrence Avenue between 130th Street and 134th Street.

No pristine nature here; the Calumet is has been too used, and remains too altered, for that. Instead, the center incorporates the area’s industrial history into its exhibit and programs, even into the building itself. Metal mesh meant to dissuade passing birds from flying into plate glass windows was made of used concrete reinforcing bars. The reborn Calumet will be a peculiarly Chicago kind of place where the mid-20th and mid-17th centuries stand side by side;  only in parts of Lake County, where glacial bogs sit next to suburban office parks, does time fold in on itself this way in Chicagoland.

The Chicago River, having been abused for a century and a half, enjoys official protections too. As of 2004, the City of Chicago had plans (often in cooperation with agencies of other governments) to enhance in-river and bank habitats for both people and critters, involve school children in ecological data-gathering, and build canoe launches and new riverside parks. The last must have struck many old-timers as risible, as crazy as putting play pens in an expressway median would have seemed a generation ago.

As noted, the first buds of a greener Chicago sprouted in the minds of civic leaders a decade before the present Mayor Daley took office. For example, various proposals were made during the administration of the late Mayor Harold Washington to build a recreated natural lake shoreline, but never acted on; the present Mayor Daley’s Nature Chicago initiative foresees see parts of Chicago's natural sandy shoreline restored or replicated.

The original lakefront of shifting dunes was long ago vanquished, to be replaced by sheet iron and stone barriers and stone rubble. However, that presettlement ecosystem has also made a start on a recovery, only this time on its own.

A good example is Montrose Beach on the North Side. Ordinarily the park district’s beaches are as diligently cleaned of garbage, which also cleans them of living things. Around 2000, plant-savvy strollers noticed that accumulations of new sand had created a new system of small dunes, in which were growing things that,  in the context of a museum, would be recognized as treasured artifacts of the past. The habitat is now home to plants of a sort not seen for generations, including threatened or endangered species such as sea rockets and marram grass and lakeshore rush; one park district staffer told a reporter, “This is like a germination of history." The dune system (now a protected natural area) is now some ten acres in size.

It is not only plants that are making comebacks in Chicagoland. The 1989 release of 15 birds at Glacial Park in McHenry County reintroduced the wild turkey to the Chicago area; now enough birds dwell in the region that hunting them is again allowed. Sandhill cranes are nesting in the Chain o' Lakes Park in McHenry County on restored prairie created when drain tile installed in the 1830s to dry out farm fields was dug up; the land flooded again, and seeds of marsh grass that had lain dormant in the soil for more than 100 years sprang to life.

Chicagoans pride themselves on their achievements as builders, but until their arrival the region’s champion builder was the beaver. Nature historian Joel Greenberg states flatly, “No animal has been more important to the natural and social history of this re­gion than the beaver.” This is true not only because beaver ponds altered the local landscape. It was the trade in beaver pelts that first brought traders to the area and established the precedent for the traffic in natural resources tat sustained the city’s youthful growth.

By the end of the 19th century, the local beavers had been trapped out. A 1950s project to reintroduce the beavers was initiated by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Since then the animals have staged comebacks in many parts of the Chicago hinterland, including the Des Plaines, Fox, and Du Page rivers and their many tributary creeks. They have even come back to the city; beavers are a common sight around Wilson Avenue in the Chicago river’s North Branch, and beaver that have set up shop in the historic Jackson Park Lagoon have become rather annoying neighbors.

Beavers are not the only large mammals from Chicagoland’s presettlement menagerie to make a comeback. Several once-rare species are now so numerous they have become nuisances, such as coyotes, raccoons, and deer. Especially deer. The white tailed deer, once a staple of the Illinois dinner table, was hunted out of Chicagoland. They retreated at first into natural refuges like the Skokie Marsh, but even there did not survive past 1870. Restocking by hunters began around World War I and got official backing in the 1950s.


By then, the deer found themselves in an environment in which they no longer faced any of their natural predators, and where only the automobile acted as a brake on their population growth. By the mid-to late 1980s, deer had so proliferated on protected land throughout northeastern Illinois that they posed threats to the local food supply (and thus, ultimately, to themselves.) Their numbers in some places reached 45 animals per square kilometer. In such concentrations the animals overgraze nature preserves to the detriment of native species of trees and understory plants, attack suburban gardens, and pose a growing hazard to motorists. Greenberg calls deer overpopulation “The Bambi bomb.” Official attempts to control their numbers by hunting have been hampered by animal-lovers, so suburban governments have resorted to less controversial sterilization and other means to reduce their numbers.

A restored historic house, once restored, stays restored; a restored prairie is a living thing, and begins to un-restore itself almost as soon as it is restored. Humans have to imitate the conditions that once gave it rise—for example, but deliberately setting fires of the sort that once were started by lightening strikes. Invading non-native species dropped into a restored prairie by winds or birds must be burned, dug, or poisoned out. Will the laboriously restored Chicago wilderness succumb again to nonnative species once the boomers who largely responsible for its maintenance die off?

History offers some grounds for skepticism. Chicagoland has taken an enlightened approach to nature before. Its forest preserves at the time of their formation were a model of foresight and enlightened aesthetic, if not ecological thinking, and for a time Jensen and like-minded designers gave Chicago public parks and private estates inspired by the aesthetic (if not the actual plants) of northern Illinois nature. But within a generation these works were neglected, or their original purposes compromised by their conversion into playgrounds of one kind or another. Not just the plans, but the ideas behind the plans seemed to have been forgotten.

Suburbanization blunted the pre-Depression green movement by giving the articulate and active middle class private access to as much nature as they wanted. What put nature back onto public agendas in Chicagoland was the fact that by the 1970s, sprawl and its attendant ills had begun to threaten even nature’s suburban redoubt. Progress, in short, did to the suburbs what it had done to the city long before, only now there was no place green left to flee to.

By any of a dozen measures—miles of hiking trails, participation in riverbank cleanup days, acres of restored prairie, attendance at nature classes—humans have not gotten along so well with nature in Chicagoland since the 1830s. There is a chance that the landscape of prairie grasses and savanna oaks will, like clean water and breathable air, become something that future Chicagoans simply demand as a necessity rather than an amenity. If it does, that will be more a miracle than making a dozen rivers flow backward. ●




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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