STORY 1: Chicago Portage National Historic Site/Sitio Histórico Nacional de Chicago Portage

Chicago Portage National Historic Site

The Chicago Portage National Historic Site commemorates the place where the Kaskaskia, a tribe of the Illiniwek, showed 17th century French explorers Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette an ancient portage connecting the Great Lakes Basin and the Mississippi Valley watersheds, which overtime became the birthplace of Chicago. The expedition – which also included five voyagers of French-Indian ancestry or today’s Métis people – was returning from its exploration of the Mississippi River when they were shown the portage. Yet long before the French explorers came through, the portage was well known to the indigenous people who lived throughout the region for centuries. It was also home to ancient oak trees and was abundant with beavers, otters, owls, deer, elk, black bears, and other wildlife. The historic site commemorating this essential transit point and once wild land is located in the Portage Woods Forest Preserve in Lyons, Ill., and is adjacent to the Ottawa Trail Woods Forest Preserve. The historic site deserves deep interpretation and exploration. Find out more about this historic site on Friends of the Chicago Portage’s website.

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Geography

The Chicago Portage that connected the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers was a narrow seven-mile long marsh which would become known as Mud Lake. Formed by a glacier that melted approximately 12,000 years ago, the length of the portage varied with the seasons. In dry times, travelers had to drag their canoes through waist-deep mud or carry them over a longer, nearby trail. However, when the marsh flooded in the springtime, Mud Lake formed the pivotal link of a complete waterway from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Michigan via the Mississippi, Illinois, Des Plaines and Chicago Rivers. The east end of Mud Lake was located around 31st Street and Albany Avenue on the near southwest side of Chicago at the north end of what is now the Collateral Channel. From the east end of the marsh, a portage trail ultimately led to the South Branch of the Chicago River.

Native Americans

The site of the Chicago Portage had been used for centuries by Native Americans as a connection from the Great Lakes to the West and was an important transit point. The local Native American communities did well, living along rivers and marshes which provided an ample food supply that made life comfortable year round. While it was the Kaskaskia who showed the portage to Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette, the area (which encompasses Cook County) was also the ancestral home of the Council of Three Fires, a long-standing Anishinaabe alliance of the Ojibwe (or Chippewa), Ottawa (or Odawa), and Potawatomi North American Native tribes.  In 1816, The Council of Three Fires ceded the Portage corridor from Lake Michigan to Ottawa, Ill., in the Treaty of St. Louis.

Europeans Arrive

In 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier began the French colonization of North America. Cartier’s three expeditions along the St. Lawrence River later enabled France to lay claim to the lands that would become Canada. In 1634, Explorer Jean Nicollet was the first known European to encounter Lake Michigan and what is now Wisconsin. In 1673, Father Marquette and Jolliet crossed the Chicago Portage on their return voyage exploring the Mississippi River, and Jolliet proposed a canal for the portage which came to be in 1848.

Fur Fuels Expansion

Initially, the driving force for European expansion across North America was fur. European fashion trends had created enormous demand for beaver top hats and by the end of the century, European beavers (Castor fiber) had been virtually hunted to extinction so the hat industry turned to North America for supply. At the time, American beavers (Castor canadensis) were common. But prized for their thick, warm fur, by the early part of 19th century they had all but disappeared from the Great Lakes region from over-hunting and by 1860 the fur trade was at an end.

Mad as a Hatter

The expression “mad as a hatter,” made commonplace by Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland, grew out of mercury exposure by hatters who commonly used mercury in the making of felt for hats. During a process called carroting, in which furs from small animals such as rabbits, hares, or beavers were separated from their skins and matted together, an orange-colored solution containing mercuric nitrate was used as a smoothing agent. In the United States, a physician from Orange, New Jersey published a thorough occupational description of mercury poisoning among New Jersey hatters in 1860 declaring “that mercury should not be used so extensively in the manufacture of hats….” In France its toxicity was kept secret for decades and in the United States the use of mercury in hat making was not made illegal until 1941. Hatters from Danbury, Conn., which was a center of hat making, were known for having the “Danbury Shakes,” a symptom of the poisoning.

Chicago is Here Because the River is Here

Long understood that the portage’s water-based connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi provided the key to the interior of the continent, in 1803 the U.S. Army built Fort Dearborn at a high point along the main stem of the Chicago River at what is now Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago.  Over the years, Mud Lake itself was transformed when canals were dug, expressways were built, and Chicago became a metropolis. The first major transformation was the building of the Illinois & Michigan (I&M) Canal. Construction of the I&M Canal began in 1836 after a bill authorizing its development passed by a single vote in the Illinois Senate, and by a single vote in the House (where Abraham Lincoln voted in favor).The canal was completed in 1848.

The Chicago Portage Site Today

The National Park Service recognized the Chicago Portage, which is owned by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, as a National Historic in 1952. It is located in Portage Woods Forest Preserve, at 4800 S. Harlem Ave., in Lyons, Ill., about 12 miles southwest of downtown Chicago. The entrance is on the west side of Harlem Avenue (7200W) just north of the Stevenson Expressway (Interstate 55). It is adjacent to the Ottawa Trail Woods Forest Preserve which is located just north of Portage Woods on the west side of Harlem Avenue between 47th Street and Joliet Road (old Rt. 66). Located in the Village of Lyons, the historic site is also located near the Villages of Forest View, McCook, Stickney, Summit, and the 23rd Ward of the City of Chicago. 

Learn more about the history of the Chicago Portage, the I&M Canal, and the Forest Preserves: