Urbs in Horto
Chicagoland’s natural landscapes
See Illinois (unpublished)
Few Illinoisans (least of all Chicagoans) 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. (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 beneath glacial debris.) William Cronon, in the aptly named book, Nature’s Metropolis, explained how 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. Its riches owed to its ability to exploit two ecosystems—the prairies of the Midwest, cornucopia of grain and meat, and the pine forests of the upper Midwest—using the lakes and rivers of the middle continent.
Consider for example the effects of Chicagoland’s flat postglacial landscape. Because the terrain imposed no physical barriers to building, Chicago became a railroading center. It was such an easy place to lay tracks, 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 be one chronicle.
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 measurable in blocks rather than miles that ran east into the lake from a spot today known as Wolf Point. 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.
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 now flows through and refreshes it on its way toward the Mississippi.
The names by which the river branches are known today are as dull as the streams themselves. Once-common names for them at least conveyed something of its history. 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.
City of Big Shovels
Presettlement Chicagoland was drained by two 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 not more prepossessing than the Chicago. The Du Page River for example is capable of carrying no craft larger than a canoe, nor 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. As the original Chicago River flowed toward the lake, it turned sharply southward where the future Michigan Avenue was to cross it, and entered the lake at what is now the foot of Madison Street. A direct path to the lake was blocked by the more or less permanent sandbar that the lake kept putting in its way.
Something like that vanished lakefront can be seen today by driving 00 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 in ordinary flow 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 federal government; 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, a channel that, later expanded, sliced off the 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; the west fork of the South Branch was simply filled in.
The Chicago River’s loss 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 that was 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 returned a public benefit worth the cost. Of course, the intent of the project was to supply a private benefit, and the Corps was ordered by its Congressional overseers to start digging.
Nor was it only Native Americans and French explorers who saw the advantages of a water route from the Des Plaines across the Calumet to the lake. As early as 1823 a U.S. government engineer proposed building a shipping canal across the marshes from Lake Michigan to the Des Plaines via the Calumet River and Sag Valley, that route being easier to build than hacking through the solid bedrock that separated the Des Plaines and the westernmost branch of the Chicago River. 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, whoever, and when it came to build a canal, the men whose fortunes lay downtown made sure it led to the Chicago River docks.
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 the lake. Chicagoland occupies what geologists know as the Chicago Lake Plain, 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.
Lake Michigan’s benefits came at a cost. 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 it was drained it was too wet for general farming; it 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 water into. The marsh was a delight to 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 originated in the half-decayed vegetation, the litter of generations, which had accumulated in beds of peat; these were ignited by the heat generated by their own rotting, and the resulting acrid smoke sometimes stretching from Winnetka to Highland Park from fires that sometimes burned for years.
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. For instance, the area featured rivers that turned back on themselves, an itinerant shoreline, and lakes that appeared and disappeared with the seasons. “The Little Calumet River does have three outlets,” explains Kenneth J. Schoon in Calumet Beginnings: Ancient Shorelines and Settlements at the South End of Lake Michigan, in a sentence typical of such works, “but not all the time.“ [emphasis in the original.]
A natural system whose rivers have such a luxury of choices enjoys a wealth of water. So wet was it much of the year that the Calumet before 1800 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 Ave. 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, adding to their real estate. When George Pullman in 1880 started to build his model town of Pullman on the western shore of Lake Calumet, where he attempted to engineer not only rail cars but railcar workers and their families, 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 humanized 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 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. The Des Plaines River Wetlands Demonstration Project. Begun in the 1970s, the 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
Chicago is a lacustrine city. Visitors are surprised to find that it sits not beside a lake in the sense that most people think of lakes, but a fresh water sea. Of course, Lake Michigan’s presence 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 battle 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 the rich 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 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 will catch and hold sand carried there by downshore currents. 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 a vice district known as the Sands. They were evicted by the mayor at the request of rich owners of adjacent properties—what in Chicago in most eras has been known as a “public outcry”—in 1857. 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.” It was not only that Chicago made itself rich by abetting in the rape of the northern white pine forest, or the plains, or the turning prairie into wheat and beef. What the whites did was equivalent of the Great Fire—the settlement ecosystems were devastated, if not destroyed, transformed in ways that allowed something very different to take its place.
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 native forests are long gone, and were 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 tempting 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.
The place 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. 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; 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.
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.
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 overfishing, 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, go on out of sight and mind of the typical Chicagoland citizen. The native species of all kinds that have survived the not quite 200 years of intensive exploitation by Euro-Americans are huddled in refuges while the region’s lush streets and gardens 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. 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.
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. Glenview no longer has the big tree but it has a Big Tree Lane, 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.
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, and state lawmakers reacted to it with the same indifference shown by generations of landscape architects, painters, and developers. 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. During the Civil War it was considered fit only for a prisoner of war camp; in later war eras it was used by the U.S. Army to practice tank maneuvers, and in the 1950 the State built a conference hotel in the middle of what became a nature area. Its sole appeal to the public is its long swimming beach, which has made the 4,210-acre Illinois Beach is the most visited of all state parks.
Even in the city, not all was destroyed. An alert and informed eye could still spot reminders of the old landscape until well into the 20th century. 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 have survived, but they are obscured by the city that now crowds upon them; ask a local geologist about the Oak Park spit, or Stony Island’s part in creating the basin that, filled, was to be called Lake Calumet.
As with the landscape, 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 and 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 that periodically set them afire mimicked the lightning-ignited 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—including some of the most pristine tallgrass prairies and oak woodlands surviving in the world—and animals. 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.
During roughly the years when Chicago’s activists were winning for the city a reputation as an innovator in social reform, its engineers were winning kudos for their success in an even bolder undertaking—the reform of nature.
Because there is no “downhill” to speak of in Chicagoland, water could not naturally flow away from the city. So crucial is this fundamental geologic fact of life that the story of the region, which usually is told in terms of money or politics or the violent clash of social classes, could be told in terms of water. Engineers of several generations gave its namesake river a new mouth, shifted its course, even reversed its flow; pollution altered its biology, too, if less permanently. How to make water safe to drink, how to accumulate enough of it to float ships and barges, how to keep it from drowning the young city, how to exploit it to keep the city clean—water inspired some of the region's most Chicago-ish feats of civic derring-do. There being no natural high ground from which waste might be made to drain, the city had to make its own high ground; it raised the entire street grade in the 1850s six to 10 feet so that its new sewer pipes could be tilted enough that waste would drain through them into nearby streams. Lincoln Park’s lagoons, favorites of lovers and postcard photographers, were created when the "ten mile ditch" was dug to drain the lowlands near the lake.
But while putting sewage into the river moved the problem from the streets and yards of Chicago, it did not eliminate it. For one thing, dilution was not the pollution solution when, as was true of the South Fork of the South Branch, most of what flowed through the stream was not water. Worse, nature inconsiderately arranged that the Chicago River drain into Chicago’s drinking water supply. Fetching clean water from the lake required that it be taken ever farther from the city. Water was sucked through a two-mile tunnel 30 feet below the lake bottom that had to be built in the 1860s. At the time, Chicago’s water supply tunnel was the longest of its type, but even two miles was not far enough when great tides of stormwater pushed the filth all the way out to even these remote cribs.
Its boosters seldom brought it up, but Chicago was the No. 1 city of Illinois in the practice of bad municipal sanitation. Deaths from waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera and dysentery were common in any city where privies were built next to drinking water wells, and which flushed its sewers into its public drinking water supply. A chart of the crude death rates by year shows a half-dozen peaks in the half-century after 1850; each one coincides with an outbreak of cholera, smallpox, or typhoid fever. In 1854, a cholera epidemic took the lives of more than five percent of Chicago’s population, causing death rates that year to nearly triple. The death rates in most years in the mid- and late-1800s were no worse than other cities, although even modest death rates in a large population means a lot of dead. In 1891, a rate of 178 per 100,000 population produced nearly 2,000 corpses, nearly seven times the toll from the Great Fire. The craze for bottled water thus is nothing new in Chicago; it was common practice in the 1880s, when drinking tap water was not only unfashionable but dangerous.
The city first tried pumping fouled water from the South Branch of the Chicago River into the Illinois and Michigan Canal, through which it could drain into the Des Plaines River, but the canal was too small, the gradient too shallow, the pumps too weak to reliably flush the river clean. (The pumps occasionally caused the current in the Chicago River to reverse as they drew fresher water into it from the lake, the first instance of a phenomenon that later would become permanent.) The canal was deepened so that gravity could augment the pumps in moving water, but this worked only during normal flows, as even the deepened I&M lay higher than the lower parts of the Chicago River.
Flooding of the Des Plaines River such as happened in 1879 overwhelmed the old Chicago Portage and pushed the Chicago River’s water out into the lake. For thirty days that year, Chicago's sewage poured into the city drinking water source. In the 1870s and ‘80s, the issue of sewage disposal, like the river, festered. Members of the Chicago Citizens Council, an association of civic-oriented businessmen, demanded a permanent solution to the city's struggle with sewage by digging a canal deep and wide enough to permanently and emphatically reverse the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan.
The magnitude of the mess that Chicago made of its surface water system demanded innovation and daring on an equal scale. “Hercules the canal-digger of Elis,” sang Sara Jane Clarke Lippincott, “Grave Greenwood,” who wrote the 1873 travel book New Life in New Lands, “will be outdone by one Chesebrough.” Bostonian Ellis Chesbrough, Chicago’s chief engineer, was the man who conceived the solutions to the city’s chronic public sanitation crises of the latter 1800s. (Chesbrough should have an expressway named for him, or at least a park or two.)
As early as 1858 engineer Ellis Chesbrough had recommended digging a larger canal that would carry enough water from the lake to dilute the city’s wastes as well as float cargo craft, but nothing had been done because of the costs. Thirty years of repeated outbreaks of sewage-borne diseases made Chesborough look a very wise man. In 1889 the Sanitary District of Chicago was authorized by the General Assembly and given the power to pay for, build, and operate such a sewage and ship canal and—just as important—to levy taxes to pay for it. Chicagoans, who usually resort to good government only during crisis, quickly approved establishment of this pioneering regional government. (In 1955 the Sanitary District of Chicago changed its name to the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago, and in 1989 it became the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.)
The Sanitary District built a new canal much larger than the I&M. In fact it amounted to an artificial river that was dubbed at first as the Chicago Drainage Canal. The Chicago Drainage Canal took not quite eight years to build and opened in 1900. The new 28-mile ditch ran parallel to the old Illinois and Michigan Canal from Damen Avenue on the South Branch nearly 30 miles through Stickney, Forest View, Lyons, Summit, Bedford Park, Justice, Willow Springs, Lemont, and Romeoville to Lockport, where it joins the Des Plaines River. Its channel was fourteen feet deep, which would put it enough below the lake that water would practically jump from the lake into the canal, so enthusiastically that it would sweep along with it even Chicago’s world-class wastes.
Such a big ditch demanded big machines to dig it—massive horse-drawn grading machines, steam shovels with booms as long as 50 feet, and earth-moving machines invented for the job. Among the last was the Heidenreich Incline, the Mason and Hoover conveyor, and the Bates conveyor—early versions of the behemoths that were unleashed a few years later to dig the Panama Canal. (General George Goethals, who oversaw construction of the Chicago project, later moved to Panama to supervise the completion of the great canal there.)
Every account of the digging of the Chicago Drainage Canal reeks with superlatives. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the name by which the Sanitary District is today known, brags that the canal is “one of the seven engineering wonders of the world.” The project was the nation’s largest municipal project at the time it was built, and its construction required the removal of more rock, soil, and clay than would be removed to make the Panama Canal. Those estimated 43 million cubic yards of earth would, if dumped into forty feet of water, have made an island a mile square that would stand 12 feet above the water. Much of that material was dumped into the lake lagoon just off South Michigan Avenue, helping to create Grant Park; thus did the canal engineers build two Chicago landmarks at once.
Having flushed one river clean, the Sanitary District set about to flush others. Goose Island became the site of distilleries, steel mills, tanneries and other operations that did to the waters of the North Branch what the stockyards did to the South Branch. By reversing the flow of the main stem of the Chicago River, the engineers refreshed the South Branch but the change kept the North Branch from flowing into the lake, turning it stagnant. In 1907 the North Shore Channel was built to flush the North Branch with lake water.
By well and truly reversing the Chicago River’s flow, the new sanitary canal cleaned up Lake Michigan off the Chicago shore, and made a start on bringing back the Chicago River from ecological death. But the projects delighted lawyers nearly as much as sanitary engineers. The Chicago Drainage Canal sparked lawsuits from Illinois and Mississippi River towns irate about the downstream effects of the export of waste on such a scale.
Writer Stuart Dybek in Townships notes that when he was a boy growing up in Pilsen, what was then known as the Sanitary & Ship Canal was called Shit Creek, but every town has its Shit Creek; the Sanitary & Ship Canal gave Chicago the equivalent of a Shit River. Such were the loads flushed through it and out into the Des Plaines that the Illinois River was poisoned as far downstream as Peoria. This ecological mugging hardly endeared Chicago to Downstaters, and contributed much to the historic enmity between the regions; the bad feelings, like the damaged river, began to heal only after Chicago’s sewage began to receive advanced treatment by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (as it is now known).
In the 1920s, the Calumet Sanitary Channel was dug to flush out the local rivers with Lake Michigan water. (It was this canal that, widened in the 1940s, became the shipping route known as the Calumet-Sag Channel.) Storm waters could still overwhelm the canal’s feeble flow and push foul water into the lake, so in 1965 the O'Brien Lock and Dam was built to force the Little Calumet and Grand Calumet rivers to flow permanently away from Lake Michigan and into the Calumet-Sag Channel; thus was Calumet River water—which in those days was somewhere between witches’ brew and battery acid on the water quality scale—prevented from entering the city’s water supply in Lake Michigan.
The Sanitary District also was hauled into court by Great Lakes states irate about the city’s expropriation of massive amounts of lake water to carry away its wastes. The diversion dispute occupied courts for some 30 years, leading to a series of Supreme Court Decrees that have regulated the diversion since 1925. A 1967 Decree, modified in 1980, sets the maximum diversion at 3200 cubic feet per second (cfs). Illinois routinely exceeded that allocation, however, which naughtiness led in 1996 to a Memorandum of Understanding signed by eight Great Lakes states and the federal government that affirmed the 3200 cfs limit and required it to further reduce its annual diversion over the next 14 years to make up for the r excess water it had withdrawn since 1980.
The decision had implications. Chicago could no longer deal with sewage by merely diluting it, but was obliged to treat it before it was dumped into the region’s rivers. Not long after the judges finished their work the engineers began theirs, as construction began on the first of the region’s massive sewage treatment plants.
Heavy rains gushing from storm sewers into sewage treatment plants can overload the latter, forcing the release of still-untreated water into local rivers and canals. To solve the problems caused by stormwater overflows, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District undertook its Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP). Better known as the Deep Tunnel project, TARP is a network of 109 miles of stormwater-storing reservoirs and tunnels bored in bedrock beneath Chicagoland as deep as 350 deep. The system was designed to capture stormwater during heavy rains and snowmelts, from which the stored water could be pumped back into the system as sewage treatment plants were able to handle it. The $4 billion system was conceived in the 1960s and begin in the 1970s; workers did not finish its first phase until 2003. The tunnels will hold about 1.8 billion gallons of stormwater; surface reservoirs also being built as part of the project, due to be finished in 2015, will have a further capacity of about 18 billion gallons.
The TARP was the occasion of vast spending and equally vast controversy. Critics has claimed it is too big, too expensive, a mistakenly “hard” fix when what is needed is a cheaper and more flexible “soft” fix such as restoring water-catching wetlands. It may not have been the most efficient or the cheapest solution, but Chicago seems to have licked its sewage problem, after only 150 years. Even critics concede that TARP has materially reduced stormwater overflows; Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, and Atlanta are among the cities developing similar plans.
Chicago’s water engineers have enjoyed praise from far a-field from the start. The builders of the Panama Canal learned from experience of the Sanitary and Ship Canal, and the engineers of the “Chunnel,” the celebrated passageway beneath the English Channel, picked up tips from Deep Tunnel work. Some of the city’s sewage treatment plants are monumental in more than a metaphorical way. The Stickney Water Reclamation Plant—a sewage treatment plant by any other name smells as foul—which was opened in 1930 is the largest wastewater treatment facility in the world, designed to process up to 1,200 million gallons per day.
Chicago’s century- long struggle to save itself from itself merits a popular history it doesn’t have yet. Pubic health administrators, physicians, scientists, neighborhood activists, engineers—only a real war would have drawn upon the energy and skills of so many and so many kinds of citizens as did Chicagoland’s battles on behalf of public health and pollution abatement. The result is a transformation. Chicago has its modern scourges in the form of AIDS and resurgent tuberculosis and violent death from crime and drugs, but the fog of coal smoke is gone, although ozone remains an issue on summer days. Drinking water is clean, fish are living in the Chicago River and its branches, and canoeists are floating atop it.
Putting on a new face
Repeated appeals to the federal government for a protective seawall to protect old Chicago’s exposed lakeward face were rejected. The city in 1851 turned to private enterprise. The Illinois Central Railroad had long coveted access to the docks along the river mouth, access it could achieve only by building a trestle to carry its trains across the beach from the existing IC depot to the south, around 12th Street. The city gave that firm a 300-foot strip of land 400 feet east of Michigan Avenue for that right of way; the trestle, when built, functioned as a breakwater that protected Michigan Avenue (more importantly its mansions) from lake storms. The IC filled in the lake about 1000 feet east along Randolph for a passenger terminal and train sheds. (That fill is today the site of the Prudential and Aon buildings across Randolph from today’s Millennium Park.)
The decision to cede the lakefront to the railroad had lasting consequences. For one thing, the future Grant Park was encumbered by rail yards that were a visual and environmental blight for decades. For another, the quiet-water lagoon thus formed between the trestle and Michigan Avenue was inaccessible to ships but it was a convenient dump, and it was there that rubble was disposed from the fire of 1871 and dredgings from later river and canal construction; thus was the future Grant Park begun, as the shallow water was gradually converted into dry “land.”
Indeed, Grant Park may qualify as the city’s most protracted construction project—still a-building after a century and a quarter. In 1976 the Chicago Park District replaced a huge surface parking lot in Grant Park with the Richard J. Daley Bicentennial Plaza. This facility incorporates underground parking with a major indoor and outdoor recreational complex; decking over the IC tracks in the northwest corner of the park to create Millennium Park accounts of big chunk of that project’s nearly half-billion dollar price tag.
Grant Park is only the best known of the city’s new-found land. Much of the area east and southeast of Chicago’s Loop was created by landfill; the peninsula on which the water filtration plant sits. In the 1960s Northwestern University expanded its property by constructing a seventy-four-acre landfill; on the South Side, the North Chicago Rolling Mill dumped so much slag from its furnaces into the shallow water near its plant at the mouth of the Calumet River that the area around it grew at four acres a year; the lake currents added sand to that until fill eventually spread over three hundred acres.
Indeed almost all of today’s lakeside is artificial. The original beaches, dunes, sand bars, river mouth—all long gone. In their place are breakwaters, beaches, seawalls, revetments, and piers that adorn the beaches and shallow waters, and at the present river mouth extensive locks control the flow of water between river and lake. The natural shore was, from a recreational point of view, under-designed. The sweep of currents had rendered it smooth with none of those promontories that lend please the eye and provide shelter for bathers and boats. As a recreational resource it badly needed improving, which the city has done with a series of artificial harbors such as Belmont Harbor, which more resembles hotels and airports than anything in nature.
Daniel Burnham made the lakefront one of the foci of his proposed municipal remodeling in the Plan of 1909. Burnham proposed construction of a string of landfill islands and peninsulas along the eight miles between the former world’s fair site at Jackson Park and Grant Park downtown. The city loves big plans, but making them real costs money that the city didn’t always have. Only one artificial peninsula, Northerly Island, was built; its proved a convenient site of the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933 and 1934 and in 1948 of the late Meigs Field. The southern lakeshore was eventually extended as per Burnham but the islands and peninsula along that part of the city were never built.
Not all alterations to the lake shore may be credited to Uncle Dan, although many are anyway. As noted, Grant Park had already been substantially filled by the time Burnham’s plan was announced, but it is often credited to the 1909 scheme. The Montrose Peninsula was manufactured from fill by city engineers in 1872 to provide parkland and a recreational boat harbor.
The new land, improbably, provided a base from the U.S. Army in the anxious postwar years. A Nike Hercules missile sat ready at a launch site on Montrose Beach (now the Lincoln Park Yacht Club). The popular birding spot at Montrose Point known as “The Magic Hedge” originally sprouted along the fence that once surrounded the missile site there. On the South Side a radar tower was located at Jackson Park’s Promontory Point, with a missile launcher near the 63rd St. Beach; during a cleanup, a park worker retrieved a part of a Nike missile—not the usual sort of litter one finds in even a big-city park. Blacks and whites may have been at each other’s throats in those years and its middle class in full flight, but Chicagoans had nothing to fear if the Soviet Union attempted a sneak attack from Muskegon.
Further northward extensions of Lincoln Park—made mainly to provide land for expressways, it being cheaper to make land than to buy it on the North Side—were made in the 1950s. As a result, many lakeshore properties ceased to be on the lake shore. The Edgewater Beach Hotel on Sheridan near Foster opened in 1916 and by 1922 offered a thousand-room resort-style hotel just minutes from the Loop, complete with a 1,000-foot beach promenade and a seaplane landing. But when the City of Chicago extended Lake Shore Drive north to Hollywood Avenue, the new landfill cut off the hotel from the water and, it turned out, any hope of a commercial future; it closed in 1967 and was torn down in 1970. Private structures were similarly marooned; when it was built in 1915, the house in Rogers Park designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Emil Bach was a beach house, but lake fill pushed the shoreline, and the beach, some yards to the east.
The achievements in reordering the lake shore have been substantial enough that some Chicagoans came to believe that they could make virtually any change to the lake with impunity. Mayor Daley senior want to create an island in the lake off the South Shore and put an airport on it, that being the only place to locate so large a facility within convenient taxing distance. The notion was widely and, in the end, fatally resisted by people agreeing with Carl Condit that such an island would “ruin . . . the scenic and recreational potential of one of the greatest water resources in the world.” Daley’s son has backed a more popular plan to extend Lincoln Park yet again, this time in new landfill that would carry Lake Shore Drive all the way north to the city limits at Evanston. It might happen.
The impulse to improve on nature’s hydraulic engineering found expression all across Chicagoland. Beginning in the 1860s and for the next 25 years or so the Corps undertook to turn the Calumet into an industrial harbor. The Calumet River’s natural outlet at Miller was blocked; the occasional outlet to South Chicago was deepened and widened and connected to the Calumet River; this drew the waters of the river north, and in effect severed the river into two—a flowing Little Calumet, and the newly christened Grand Calumet, the original eastward flow of the latter being reversed in the process. In the 1920s, the Calumet River had become so polluted that it made Bubbly Creek look like a mountain brook; the Chicago Sanitary District dug the Cal-Sag Channel to flush it with lake water, and in the process the Calumet, along with its tributaries the Grand and Little Calumet rivers, ceased to flow into Lake Michigan at all, heading instead south then west into the Des Plaines, thence to the Illinois.
North of the city, Nature had made the Skokie marsh an inconsiderate neighbor during spring floods, so the Cook County Forest Preserve District decided to improve its manners. Plans were drawn to remodel a two-and-a-half mile reach of river valley between Willow and Dundee Roads, turning it via dike into a large water impoundment within which were built interconnected lagoons that could be used for recreation during most seasons; after heavy rains the surrounding floodplain catch and store water that would otherwise spill into neighboring land.
The idea was an old one but, stymied by court challenges over land acquisition, it was not acted on until the 1920s, and it was not until the 1930s that work began in earnest. Converting the Skokie was an early project of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a commitment that owed less to its importance to the nation than it did to the fact that Harold L. Ickes, FDR’s Secretary of the Interior and thus the man in charge of the CCC, lived in Winnetka, on the marsh’s eastern edge. Work on the Skokie Lagoons project began in 1933, with one thousand men, and continued until World War II began, when major work stopped.
But the marsh-turned-stormwater-impoundment never worked. Mixed with the water it captured was much sewage and not a little sediment; if pollution didn’t kill the fish, they died when the shallow water froze during hard winters. A series of expensive fixes had to be undertaken in the 1970s and ‘80s that redirected wastewater around the lagoons. Thus cleaned up, what are now known as the Skokie lagoons are a much valued amenity. A final 385 acres of marsh, to the north of the lagoons, was deeded to the Chicago Horticultural Society, which saw in it a sylvan setting for its planned Chicago Botanic Garden, which opened in 1972 after seven years of building; today the garden’s 23 gardens and three native habitat areas draw some 900,000 visits a year.
Disease and flood were hardly the only ways that nature chastised Chicago for the haste and carelessness with which it built itself. Fires were a regular occurrence in old Chicago, as they were in every American city. But while every city had fires, only Chicago had the Great Fire of 1871, the event by which Chicago is known to millions. The event has inspired popular movies and books from the sensational to the scholarly. If it proved not quite the decisive event in the city’s history that it seemed at the time, “pre-Fire” and “post-Fire” have proved handy ways to mark history in Chicago ever since.
Chicago in the fall of that year was ready to burn. The weather had been hot and dry, and the city, much of whose poorer districts had been thrown up like a camp, was mostly wood; indeed, even the streets and sidewalks were mostly "paved" with wood. When a fire broke out in October 8, 1871, it raged for two days. The central city engulfed in a fire storm as winds generated by the fire itself spurred more burning; witnesses said it didn’t spread, it raced even jumped from building to building. It wiped out the downtown area and most North Side homes. It killed at least 300 people and left 90,000 homeless. Traumatic as it was, the fire did not shock Chicagoans out of their accustomed boastfulness; they were delighted to repeat to visitors that the property loss in dollars was the largest ever sustained by any city anywhere, ever.
The Great Fire put Chicago on the map by nearly taking most of the city off it. While the scale of the destruction would be exaggerated by some, no one could overstate its ferocity. Photos of the aftermath reveal scenes that would not be seen again until the conflagrations that consumed cities such a Dresden and Hiroshima in World War II.
The fire made history, but at the cost of much history too. Early records of the city were lost. The Chicago Historical Society had begun collecting Lincoln material while he was still alive; the original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of Lincoln's walking sticks, and Leonard Volk's marble bust of Lincoln were among the relics on display in the Society's building at Dearborn and Ontario streets when it burned.
The city’s ability to survive and recuperate of course became part of its lore, and inevitably in America, tragedy was re-imagined and rendered harmless as entertainment. The World Columbian Exposition in 1893 offered the Fighting the Flames outdoor fire show in which several fire-fighting wagons, fourteen horses, and 250 actors enacted the burning down of a hotel. Visitors who were still in town in the autumn of that year were able to see the real thing, when many buildings of the closed fair burned to the ground.
The most pious of its citizens saw the fire as a great cleansing, just retribution for the city’s wicked ways. Retribution it was, not for sins against god, but against prudence. Fires break out in cities all the time; this one nearly leveled Chicago not because of nature’s power but because of people’s stupidity. The press, among others, had been warning for years about the dangerous state of the city in which even the sidewalks had been built of wood. Wood was cheap and easy to build with. But it was hardly a wise choice in an era in which every building (in some seasons nearly every room) hosted an open fire in the form of coal stoves, fireplaces, and gas lamps.
The fire, or rather Chicago’s near-miraculous recovery from it, occasioned much hoohah about the “spirit of Chicago” manifested after the fire, when people of all classes pulled together to rebuild. In fact the city’s social fabric was left nearly as tattered as its infrastructure. The fire’s immediate aftermath saw so much looting that federal troops had to be sent into the city to keep order; the business class went on looting sprees too, in the form of much profiteering. Tension between social classes and ethnic groups over the dispensing of relief and reconstruction monies poisoned politics for years.
The moral and social renewal promised by the city’s resurrection never happened, but the city at least was reformed as far as building practices were concerned. The Fire shaped the physical city almost as much after it was put out as it did during the event. Fire-proof materials were among the measures demanded after the fire, at least in commercial structures; the priority was the protection of commercial property, as was probably inevitable in a city council still dominated by the business class. The city council hurried to slam shut the barn door, banning balloon frame structures within “fire zones” in the central city. The new fire-proofing rules forced architects to find new ways of building, using new materials; the result was engineering innovations such as iron girders within a hollow tile fireproofing envelope.
Because the new-house market would have collapsed under the cost of fireproof structures, most new post-fire working- and middle-class houses were built outside these fire zones. The fire thus proved to be a powerful force for dispersal, and excited the first of the many exoduses from the city center toward an ever-receding urban periphery. Much of what is now the Northwest Side lay beyond the city limits, and after 1871 it boomed with the construction of cheap wood cottages of the sort that had been ubiquitous in the pre-Fire city. Samuel E. Gross, house developer extraordinaire—he was to Chicago’s residential neighborhoods of the age what Daniel Burnham would be to its lakefront—built most of his thousands of houses outside the “fire limits.” Because Lincoln Park was excluded from the strict new Fire Ordinance of 1872 that laid out these limits, for example, many working men built frame houses between Fullerton and North Avenues, west of Lincoln Avenue. "Chicago cottages" soon covered the western half of Lincoln Park.
There is a natural tendency of boosters to exaggerate the damage wreaked by the Great Fire, because that makes the city’s recovery seem all the more miraculous. In fact the city was not destroyed; less than a quarter of the built-up area was leveled, although, to be fair, that included most of its important parts, including great swaths of the central business district, its government buildings, and its docks and bridges. The loss of life was surprisingly modest; epidemics routinely killed many more people. Nor was it much of a miracle that the city was rebuilt so quickly; the commercial advantages the city offered to men of capital were in no way reduced by the fire.
In fact, one can argue that the fire was a good thing for Chicago. It cleared the city of sheds and shacks that a more responsible municipality would have burned long before; like burning off the underbrush in a forest, it made the next fire less explosive. It usually takes a disaster to reform anything about Chicago government, and the Great Fire inspired the aforementioned improvements in the city’s building codes. Mainly, the rebuilding was priceless publicity for a young city trying to impress the world, and Chicago went about impressing the world with something like bravado.
Were an arsonist to touch off the piles of books and reports on the Great Fire and its aftermath it would make a grand bonfire in itself, and they are still being written. The city historic event, so it is sobering realize that how comprehensively, and how quickly history was distorted. The story of Mrs. O’Leary cow was blamed for starting it by kicking over a lantern. Historians have long since debunked that urban fable; her Irishness, in a city that was just beginning to feel unease at the political and social threat from its foreigners, made her a convenient target. When the Chicago Fire Academy, the training facility of the city’s fire Department, was built in 1960, officials abetted a calumny by placing it at 558 West De Koven Street, the site of the O’Leary house. (As if to exorcise a demon, the architects Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett sheathed the building in bright red glazed brick and decorated the site with a flame-shaped sculpture.) Thus to the unlettered public that canard remains a fact; Mrs. O’Leary’s cow is perhaps the best known bovine the U.S. apart from Elsie, the trademark of the Borden dairy company.
Of course, fires are always a risk in crowded cities, and Chicago has had many. There was a bad one downtown in 1839 for example; a fire leveled several blocks of the then-South Side in 1874. A fire in 1934 raged through the Stockyards, leveling an exhibition hall, wrecking many acres of fences and freight cars, and killing hundreds of head of cattle; as noted, the buildings of the World Columbian Exposition (meant to be temporary) went up in flames shortly after the fair closed. Some fires did indeed seem providential, if one assumes God is a fan of good architecture. In January of 1967 a fire destroyed the original McCormick Place, a convention hall that was universally despised save for convention planners; the reconstructed version was a very much better building.
The Great Fire of 1871 was only the biggest to strike Chicago in terms of property damage and the acreage affected, but it was far from the deadliest. During a matinee on December 30, 1903, a fire broke out in the nearly new Iroquois Theater at 24–28 W. Randolph. Some 1,900 people were in the room, most of them women and children who’d gone to see a popular musical of the day; at least 600 of them were burned, suffocated, or crushed to death.
It is hard to read of the Iroquois fire without outrage even today. The Iroquois was touted as fireproof by its builders but that turned out to only one of the lies told about the building. Its construction has been hurried to open it in for the rich holiday season. Investigation revealed that the building had no exit signs or exterior fire escapes and its exit doors opened in rather than out. Indeed neither its firefighting equipment, sprinkler system, or fire alarm worked. City building inspectors responsible for certifying the building’s safety proved corrupt—they had been paid off in free tickets—and fire department officials proved negligent.
The lessons of the Iroquois fire was slow to be learned. On December 1, 1958, Our Lady of the Angels School at 909 N. Avers caught fire. More than 90 people died, most of them students between the ages of nine and 12. The building, it was later learned, was a disaster waiting to happen; built in 1910, it had been exempted from a tough fore safety code adopted in 1949, and the building, as so many parochial schools were in that era, was very dangerously overcrowded. The disaster was especially cruel, in that many died who did not need to; the fire was not reported for fully 40 minutes, the first fire engine on the scene went to the wrong address, and misguided nuns instructed pupils to pray rather than try to escape.
It was not only civilians who died. In 1910, 21 members of the Chicago Fire Department were killed when a burning warehouse collapsed in the stockyards district—the single greatest loss of firefighters in U.S. history until Sept. 11, 2001. In 2004 a memorial sculpture recalling them and the rest of the 530 Chicago firefighters who have died in the line of duty was dedicated at Exchange Avenue and Peoria Street near the preserved Union Stockyards gate.
Happily, Chicago’s contributions to the history of urban fire fighting consists of more than corpses. The fire pole was invented or rather discovered in 1878 by men of Engine Company 21, who found they could get to their trucks from the station’s third-floor hayloft by sliding down a hay-binding pole; the innovation was ordered installed at all city firehouses. Many of the accouterments that subsequent generations of moviegoers have come to take for granted, such as lighted “exit” signs and panic bars on out-swinging exit doors, owed their adoption to the Iroquois fire. The fire at Our Lady prompted safety improvements in thousands of school buildings around the country. Most its catastrophic fires were caused by failures of fire prevention—lax safety and building code standards and enforcement—rather than fire-fighting. In the latter area Chicago stands rather tall. The system is use across the country to classify extra-alarm fires was invented in Chicago, for example, as was the hydraulic snorkel used to lift firefighters to a fire.
Such a rich history would seem to deserve formal and permanent commemoration, but while Aurora and Elgin have fire museums, Chicago did not. Since 1997, local buffs started collecting memorabilia and soliciting financial backing for a museum to honor the city's fire history and its firefighters. It finally got one, in what used to be Engine 123’s 1916 quarters on South Western Ave. in the Gage Park neighborhood; on display are leather water buckets, a hand-drawn horse cart, and restored fire trucks.
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 of 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 riverwalk 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 riverwalk 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 riverwalks 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—some say it 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 Jensen, Perkins, and the rest were their heroes’ superiors. Saving a woods 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. Typical was 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 fellow in becoming a housing development. Ten local women who came to be known as the "Frog and Fern Ladies" organized a rescue. In this case 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 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, more like all the others, if the place is not saved. Pass petitions so that lawmakers at all levels know more than few cranks who 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 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, riverwalks, 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 lake shoreland survive. 0000 acres 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 lakeshore 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."
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, therefore, 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. Non-natives often turn invasive in ecological settings where they face no natural barriers to expansion.
The 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, the buckthorn produces killing shade on forest floors, which leaves the now-barren ground vulnerable to erosion. Such plants, by out-feeding or stealing light from natives not adapted to presence, with result that a diverse forest becomes a monoculture, the woodland equivalent of corn-and-soybean farm.
Also, the preserves squelches fire from their lands. However, 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 a 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 subjected to cleansing fires, seeds of native plants collected and sown. Under such a regimen, seeds that had lain dormant for decades, some 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, and a dolomite prairie at Theodore Stone Woods; at Poplar Creek Prairie Stewards and Deer Grove Restoration Project volunteers are restoring native habitat to large forest preserves in northwestern Cook County; in Southwestern Cook, Cap Sauers Holdings, whose 1,600 acres make it the largest roadless tract in Cook County, and Paddock Woods, Spears Woods, and Black Partridge Woods.
Indeed, for some 20 years a small army of citizen botanists gather 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 s 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, however, averred that the Packard approach was misguided, and were turning a naturally recovering forest into an artificial prairie. The presettlement savanna that was the destination of 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, restorationists were interrupting it.
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 Stylers—Jensen and Maher, Wright and Perkins—failed to shift the local culture’s aesthetic center of gravity a century ago. 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 sheafs 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 10 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. ●