O'Brien Lock Marsh

What would the world be once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
Let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

(from Inversnaid, Gerard Manley Hopkins)

The Past

 

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

The Present

 

The scenery in the Calumet region is filled with opposing images of environmental neglect and survival. The natural remnants of the once vast marsh system are scattered among the remains of an industrial age which forever changed the region.

 

The abandoned industrial sites, contaminated areas and garbage dumps serve as reminders that industrial progress doesn't come free. In contrast, the abundant wildlife (see photo gallery), including vibrant wildflowers and rare and endangered bird species, are indicators of nature's capacity to endure.

 

The current pattern of ownership of these critical lands is a complex maze of public and private uses; including public parklands, industrial holdings, contaminated areas, infrastructure use and waste disposal. Industry and wildlife exist side by side. Great Egrets can often be found wading in the Big Marsh which lies adjacent to the Acme Steel Coke Plant on Torrence Avenue.

 

In a landscape crowded with human development, the remaining natural areas in the Lake Calumet region serve as invaluable open space to absorb and filter water and provide habitat for hundreds of species of animals and plants. These wetlands, wooded areas and prairies remain a critical stopover for migrating birds and offer perhaps the greatest concentration of threatened and endangered species in Illinois. The Lake Calumet wetlands are host to the Midwest's largest breeding colony of Illinois endangered Black-crowned Night Herons.

 

One lasting positive impact of the debate over the proposed airport has been a dramatically increased awareness among the local community of the quality and quantity of natural areas in the region. The airport controversy alerted many to the valuable natural areas contained within the Lake Calumet region in addition to its aging or abandoned industrial and waste disposal sites. As a result, local conservationists, the Sierra Club, and others formed the Calumet Ecological Park Association (CEPA) to promote the conservation of the region's natural areas.

 

In 2001, Governor George Ryan and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley held a press conference at the Harborside International Golf Course on the northern shores of Lake Calumet. There, they announced the new Calumet Initiative aimed at restoring and enhancing open space while revitalizing the economic opportunities of the area.

We are at a turning point. Today, the Lake Calumet Land Use Plan has the possibility of creating a new future for the region; to rewrite the history of dumping, pollution, and dying wetlands.  The plan will attempt to bring about the economic prosperity that accompanied the region with its tormented past.  The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the establishment of the Illinois International Port District in the 1950's brought along with it hopes for continuity, growth, and prosperity. However, this boom never transpired.  Alternative methods of transportation led the Port of Chicago to rank 28th in shipping traffic of all U.S. ports. While Lake Calumet has over 60% of the land available for industrial use in Chicago, it has less than 20% of the demand.  This plan, in coordination with government assistance, can revitalize not only the wetlands, but the local economy as well.

The Future

 

Nature's ability to withstand injury and neglect relies on a complex maze of ecological relationships. These relationships are fragile. We must do what we can to maintain those that still exist and ensure that wildlife can continue to thrive in the region.

 

Protecting and restoring all of the Lake Calumet wetlands will provide a critical ecological link between other vital natural areas including the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to the east and the Illinois and Michigan National Heritage Corridor to the west.

 

While work on a National Heritage Area has slowed recently, the desire to link all of these vital natural areas, along with celebrating the region's cultural, historical and industrial characteristics continues strongly through a host of smaller projects.

 

Possible landfill expansions, pollution and neglect continues to threaten the ecological health of the region (see Threats and Dangers). Comprehensive protection of the Lake Calumet wetlands ensures that critical wildlife habitat will remain in an area stressed by pollution and fragmentation. Ptotecting these critical natural areas indefinitely will offer people the opportunity to reconnect with nature for generations to come (see Plans and activities).

 

Ecological preservation can boost economic development. The state of the natural areas and the revitalization of the area's economy are both directly linked to the quality of life in the region. The natural areas are islands of green in a highly industrial area and their fate is indeed intertwined with the urban property surrounding them. Existing contamination and future land use decisions have a significant impact on the character and quality of adjacent natural areas. The Sierra Club will support the future use of these sites as compatible with industry to stimulate the economy in the region.

 

We need your help.