Long before Chicago was settled, shallow marshes and wet prairies filled the landscape behind the dunes, ridges and beaches at the south end of Lake Michigan. Known for their abundant wildlife, the Calumet marshes were the heart of one vast wet prairie system spanning roughly 22,500 acres in Illinois.
One proposed origin of the name Calumet comes from the Native American term for peace pipe, "Callimich" which was adopted and modified by Engilsh settlers.
In northwest Indiana, a similar marsh system existed that most likely equalled the size of the marsh area in Illinois. Indiana also adopted the word "Calumet" for its complex of marshes off the southwest corner of Lake Michigan.
The advent of the industrial age forever changed this once-verdant region. First railroads traversed the marshes, enabling heavy industry to move in. Residential developments soon sprang up to house the influx of workers. As communities throughout the southern Lake Michigan region expanded with industrial growth, so did the regional garbage industry. The low-lying areas in the Calumet region were readily sacrificed, transformed to dumping grounds for industrial and municipal waste. Hyde Lake was filled in and reduced from 520 acres to 120 acres in the 1890's. Marshes at Eggers Woods Forest Preserve and Powderhorn Lake Forest Preserve were once connected to Wolf Lake but are now miles apart. Of the 22,000 acres of wetland that used to meander across Lake Calumet, only 500 remain.
In 1893, the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers indicated that, "keeping the Grand Calumet River channel clear was a fruitless exercise because it "filled up rapidly by slaughterhouse refuse and filth from manufacturing establishments and solid matter from the sewage poured into the dead stream. North Chicago Rolling Mill located at mouth of Calumet River deposited so much slag and dredge that the area around it grew at four acres per year.
In 1925, the City of Chicago authorized a project to turn Lake Calumet into an industrial harbor. The bill's sponsor, Alderman Guy Guernsey, referred to Lake Calumet as "nothing more than a breeding place for mosquitoes and mud turtles." Twelve hundred acres of land were to be filled by the City so a railroad company could expand its rail line. This segregated the lake from adjacent marshes.
The Metropolitan Sanitary District attempted to process domestic and industrial waste, meeting strong resistance from companies. The Army Corp of Engineers sued three companies in 1954 for their failure to stop dumping. Just one of these three companies had discharged 4.9 million gallons of untreated waste on a daily basis. While the Corps won the suit, a 1965 analysis found that at least two of the defendants were among eight polluters dumping 376 million gallons of liquid water per day into the Calulmet Region. The analysis also found that, "the Grand Calumet River was incapable of even maintaining populations of sludge worms (Tubifex) animals whose toleration of low oxygen enables them to survive when literally every other living thing is gone." While industries halted discharge, in 1996, "there were places along the Grand Calumet River so saturated with chemicals that a person's weight could cause an oily substance to ooze from the bank to form a sheen on the water surface."
It was not until the late 1970's that a systematic effort to improve the environmental conditions of Lake Calumet began. Later, in 1985, Jim Landing prepared a "Conceptual Plan for Lake Calumet Ecological Park: Chicago, Illinois" and in 1996, Congressman Jerry Weller urged the National Park Service to undertake a detailed study on including the Calumet region in the national park system. A proposal evolved to create a bi-state Calumet National Heritage Area.
Recent history also negatively impacted Lake Calumet. As steel mills began closing during the 1980's, waste disposal companies wanted to fill in most of the lake to provide land for private developers. The Illinois International Port District legally filled marshland for a golf course, and wetland west of Eggers Woods were illegally destroyed by developers. 9,400 acres of wetland and neighborhoods were almost lost as the Calumet area was proposed as a site for a new airport in the early 1990's. Most recently, Lake Calumet almost became a home for 1,000 motor-boats that would have adversely affected the ecosystem of the area. Lake Calumet cannot continue to dodge these bullets that seek to damage its open space, and endanger its native species.
Throughout its history, numerous attempts have been made to carve out a future for Lake Calumet. In 1909, Daniel Burnham spoke of the large swamps of Lake Calumet being developed into "fine parks." He enjoyed the intermingling of industry and nature. "It is proposed to create a driveway around Lake Calumet, and to reclaim the low lands south of the lake without essentially changing their present topography; also to plant a belt of woods surrounding this lake park set in one of the greatest manufacturing districts in the world, and to construct roadways to form connections with different park reservations and at the same time to become highways to the city." In 1946, the City of Chicago envisioned a deep narrow channel and docks in Lake Calumet, In the 1980's, the site was proposed for the World's Fair.
The Sierra Club has been actively involved in promoting conservation and cleanup in this region since the mid-1980's, when a solid waste landfill was proposed in a high quality natural area known as Big Marsh. After a successful campaign to save Big Marsh from destruction, the Club helped lead the conservation community's efforts against the proposed Lake Calumet Airport, which would have destroyed or degraded thousands of acres of wetlands and other natural areas in the region.
for more information on the history of the Lake Calumet area, read:
"Rustbelt Hell or Redevelopment Heaven? Lake Calumet: Land of Contrasts
by Betsy Mendelsohn
"A Natural History of the Chicago Region"
by Joel Greenberg