Tracking the Once-Important Watershed of the Great Lakes and Mississippi – Chicago Magazine

If you want to understand why Chicago has become a great city – the continent’s transportation hub, railroad players and the country’s freight handler, etc. – stand at the corner of Prospect Avenue, Touhy Avenue and Northwest Highway in downtown Park Ridge. Right across from the Pickwick Theatre. In either direction, east and west, there is a short climb leading to the intersection. This is the watershed line, now paved, between the Great Lakes Basin and the Mississippi Valley. Raindrops falling to the east migrate into the Chicago River and then Lake Michigan. To the west, into the Des Plaines River, then the Illinois, then the Mississippi.

Unlike Detroit, Buffalo or Cleveland, Chicago is not entirely a Great Lakes city. Parts of the northwest, west, and southwest sides lie outside their basin. But because Chicago straddles the divide between North America’s most important waterways, it’s been a valuable transportation link since Native American and French times. travelers, when canoeing was the fastest way to get around the continent. Chicago was a convenient way station not only because the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers are so close together, but because it was so easy to travel between them. On the southwest side, a swamp called Mud Lake often overflowed, allowing canoeists to simply paddle between two rivers, rather than hauling their cargo and ships. The same was sometimes true on the northwest side. To control this road, the natives built a village near what is now Six Corners, which is why this neighborhood is called Portage Park.

“The Chicago Portage is one of the most important and overlooked places in early American history,” wrote Benjamin Sells in his 2021 book, A History of the Chicago Portage: The Crossroads that Made Chicago and Helped Make America. “Its importance began in prehistoric times as the habitation of early Native Americans in the Midwest, and it became part of a major trade route for North American tribes. It was heavily used during the fur trade , was a focal point for French and British missionary and imperialist dreams during the 17th and 18th centuries, and was a military concern for the British during the American Revolution.It was a gateway for the westward expansion of settlers, and it served as a model for some of the most important waterways created in the 19th and 20th centuries.The Chicago Portage gave the city of Chicago its name and was its initial impetus for success .

Marquette and Joliet first crossed the Chicago Portage in 1673, on a voyage from the Mississippi River to Quebec, guided by the Kaskaskia. Afterward, Joliet enthusiastically wrote that a short canal would make it possible to paddle from Canada to Florida. Illinois and Michigan finally opened in 1848, allowing shipping traffic to bypass the portage. The canal, railroads, and Stevenson Highway all follow the old portage route.

The Great Lakes-Mississippi watershed no longer plays a role in transportation, but it still exists, as a geographic feature and as a line on a map. I decided to follow it through the northwest and northwest suburbs, to bridge the once-important divide that made Chicago great. It’s hard to say now that you’re in such an important place.

From downtown Park Ridge, the watershed heads south along a street known as Ozanam on the Chicago side and Canfield on the suburban side. Given the predilection of Midwesterners for straight, ruled borders, this is a rare border that follows a natural feature. I ask a passerby in which city I am exactly. Hard to tell the difference as I see the same mix of bungalows and McMansions on both sides of the street.

“This is Chicago,” she said, pointing east. “It’s Park Ridge. It’s so close. Edison Park station is right there.

Edison Park is to Chicago what the Northwest Territories is to Canada: a remote possession bordering a foreign land. When I’m forced to drive through Ozanam to avoid a ComEd truck blocking the sidewalk, I don’t just drive from city to suburb, but from the Great Lakes to Mississippi.

(Note: all street names here begin with “O”, as it is the 15th letter of the alphabet, and it is 15 miles west of the city limits. Antoine Frederic Ozanam was a historian and French literary scholar who helped found the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Obviously the town planners just opened an encyclopedia on “O”.)

In Ozanam and Devon, the watershed passes through an old Dairy Queen (“House of the cone with the loop on top!”), which is in the Mississippi Valley. South of Talcott Avenue, it weaves its way east through a suburban neighborhood that is anything but address: two-story brick houses stand on quiet, winding streets, laid out in defiance of the Chicago grid. Basketball hoops go up the aisles, American flags flutter from the porches, planted in the yards are “STOCK ROCKS” signs, in praise of Frederick Stock Elementary School, 7501 W. Birchwood Ave.

The Dairy Queen in Ozanam and Devon. Edward McClelland

The watershed runs through the Dan Ryan, just east of Oriole Park, then through another suburb: Harwood Heights, which only became a suburb because Chicago refused to annex it in 1947. It certainly looks like to a neighborhood on the northwest side, with more bungalows. than the bungalow belt, many display Polish eagles in their windows. (Nearly 20% of Harwood Heightsians were born in Poland, the second highest percentage in the United States) At the corner of Oketo and Carmen, I see a small rise leading to the intersection, rare physical evidence of the watershed . (Note: according to the book chicago on the street“Arkaketoh was the chief of the Otoe Indians and the namesake of Oketo, Kansas.”)

At Lawrence Avenue, Harwood Heights gives way to Norridge. The watershed runs through Norridge Park and takes me to the Norridge Manor shopping centre. I walked four miles, so I sit down for lunch at ABC Bakery & Deli, a Serbian restaurant where I’m the only one who doesn’t speak Serbo-Croatian. From the menu of peasant dishes, the valiant cook recommends the fish soup, then urges me again: “Do you want bread? It’s homemade. »

The slices are thick and hearty, just what I need to keep walking to my next stop: the Harlem-Irving Plaza, located just inside the Great Lakes Basin. I’ve always thought traveling west on Belmont, or Addison, or Irving is like traveling back through Chicago’s history, a decade at a time. Perhaps that’s why the HIP is still a thriving mall, with an Express, Hobby Lobby, Victoria’s Secret and DSW. The surrounding area still belongs to the era of shopping malls. Right across the street is Rolling Stones Records, which is Chicago’s coolest music store, not because of its bulky stock of CDs, but because it’s located directly astride the Great Lakes watershed and from Mississippi!

After five miles of walking, my quads are the consistency of Quikrete, so I unlock a Lyft e-bike. It makes the bungalows pass faster. The route takes me east through Dunning, then back across Harlem Avenue into another suburb, Elmwood Park. On the corner of Harlem and Wellington sits a three-story apartment building with those groovy exposed stone accents that were so popular in the 1960s and are such a common feature of architecture on the northwest side.

In Montclare, which has old Victorian houses considerably more sophisticated than bungalows, the watershed borders Rutherford Sayre Park, with its Prairie-style country house, and the Mars/Wrigley factory. On Oak Park Avenue, the brown honorary sign is “Milky Way.” Intelligent. On Armitage Avenue, the air smells like the Three Musketeers bar, broken in two.

South of North Avenue, the street signs seem foreign again.

“Am I in Oak Park?” I shout to a landscaper. (The fact that I see a landscaper should have answered this question.)
Yes, he told me. I’m in Oak Park. My fifth commuter of the day. I haven’t been here long. In Austin and Augusta, the watershed turns sharply to the east. It runs along Iowa Avenue, through the Austin neighborhood, past blocks and three-apartment blocks with lawns too small to landscape, until it turns sharply south, onto a right-of-way just east of Kilpatrick Avenue. It runs along these lanes to 67th Street, just north of the Ford City Mall – a ten mile long berm. It happened on Chicago Portage national historic site, between the Des Plaines River and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal at Lyons. That’s as far as I’m going to follow the watershed line. Downtown, I lock up the bike near another watershed, the one between the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. It runs along State Street. (Further north, it naturally runs along Ridge Boulevard.) Chicago is a place where many waters meet.

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