The Waterway That Made Chicago

Please note: the following was written by Openlands President and CEO, Jerry Adelmann, who coordinated Openlands’ efforts to establish the nation’s first National Heritage Area along the route of the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal.


Throughout the 20th Century, the Chicago metropolitan region repeatedly distinguished itself as an innovator in the fields of urban planning and open space preservation. The 1909 Plan of Chicago and the subsequent creation of the Forest Preserves of Cook County are both acknowledged as global models of open space planning.

One of these trail-blazing efforts, which Openlands led, was the creation of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in 1984—America’s first Congressionally-designated National Heritage Area (NHA) and the prototype for 48 additional heritage areas that have followed. NHAs tell stories about America’s past, while offering a place to enjoy nature through sightseeing and recreation. However,this innovative and wildly popular program is at risk.

In both 2017 and 2018, the White House attempted to eliminate all Federal support for the National Heritage Areas. Congress offers less than $1 million to local partners who maintain NHAs and ensure they are publicly accessible. Each federal $1 is leveraged by $4-6 in local funds. Luckily, due to sustained advocacy campaigns from organizations like Openlands, those funding cuts were beaten back both times.

NHAs are important to Illinois and one in particular, the I&M Canal Corridor, is important to me.

Photo: Canal Corridor Association (Canal Tourism Boat at LaSalle-Peru)

I&M Canal in Harpers Weekly 1871
I&M Canal at Bridgeport in Chicago as depicted in Harper’s Weekly, 1871

The Illinois and Michigan Canal: The Waterway that Made Chicago

One cannot overestimate the seminal role the Illinois and Michigan Canal (I&M Canal) played in the founding and early history of Chicago.  This pioneering waterway connected Lake Michigan at Chicago with the Illinois River 100 miles to the southwest at LaSalle-Peru.  First envisioned by the French explorers Pere Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673, the hand-dug waterway provided a critical connecting link between the Atlantic seaboard, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico. When the I&M Canal was completed it 1848, it positioned Chicago as a gateway to the West, and as America’s most important inland port and transportation hub.

Newer waterways were established paralleling the I&M, and this historic canal was finally closed for commercial use in 1933.  During the years preceding World War II, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) transformed the canal into a park of great natural beauty and unparalleled recreational opportunities in northeastern Illinois.  Miles of towpath were converted into hiking and bicycling trails; sections of the canal, its locks, and other related structures were rehabilitated; picnic areas and shelters were constructed along the canal’s banks; and state and local parks were developed on adjacent lands.

After the CCC was dissolved, however, most of the extensive improvements accomplished by this highly successful and popular project fell into disrepair.  In the late 1950s, the easternmost section of the canal was used for the construction of the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) and the State of Illinois was preparing to sell off the extension real estate holdings along the canal’s route for private development. As local interest groups along the canal looked to preserve their region’s cultural and ecological legacy, they turned to a newly-formed not-for-profit called Openlands


Operation Green-Strip

Operation Green-Strip

Openlands, one of the first conservation organizations in the U.S. to work in a metropolitan area, organized local leaders and grassroots advocates to launch a preservation campaign called “Operation Green-Strip.” These efforts culminated in 1974 with the establishment of the 60-mile Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail.

Sections of the canal north of Joliet were excluded as they were fragmented with development that precluded a traditional linear park, yet many of these northern communities were some of the greatest supporters for preservation.  Advocates kept coming back to Openlands asking for assistance to protect sections of the canal, important remnant natural areas, archeological sites, and other significant open space and cultural assets along the lower DesPlaines River Valley.

It is in the late 1970s when I entered the scene. A sixth-generation resident of Lockport, I realized that the future of the former canal headquarters was very much tied to a broader regional strategy along the route of the I&M. Collectively the resources of the historic canal towns and adjacent landscapes represented a rich chapter in the history of Illinois and the nation and, if coordinated, could serve as a catalyst to help revitalize this classic rustbelt corridor that was experiencing some of the greatest unemployment in the nation.

Working on a pre-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, I became involved in volunteer projects to save some of Lockport’s historic buildings and unique natural areas, including the ecologically-rare Lockport Prairie. The Forest Preserve District of Will County suggested I contact Openlands with my ideas for a regional landscape-scale approach that would include recreational trails, revitalized waterfronts and historic downtowns, and protected natural and cultural treasures throughout the five-county region.

Openlands embraced the concept and provided critical leadership to move this concept towards reality. The Canal Corridor Association was established in 1982 as an independent not-for-profit, and in 1984 President Reagan came to Chicago to sign legislation that created the nation’s first heritage area, launching a national movement.


Reagan Signing IM Canal Legislation
President Reagan signing the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor legislation at the Hilton Chicago, August 24, 1984.

Enshrining our national heritage

National Heritage Areas combine ecological, cultural, and economic goals, and take a holistic approach to living, working landscapes. The overarching goal is to improve the quality of life for residents and visitors alike. They are “partnership parks” that leverage public and private resources, as well as civic leadership.

The role of the Federal Government is quite limited, but nevertheless crucial: federal designation elevates the significance of these areas as well as the social and cultural histories they represent. Modest funding and technical assistance over the years has supported region-wide coordination with wayfinding and interpretation. Hundreds of millions of private and public dollars have been reinvested in the I&M Canal region since its designation. Tourism and community economic development projects have added countless new jobs to these historic communities.

Positive outcomes like this are seen in the other heritage areas across the nation where modest federal support leverages reinvestment while addressing much need recreational needs and underrepresented stories in the American experience.

The I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor and future NHAs, such as two proposed NHAs in the Chicago region, the Calumet National Heritage Area and the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area, deserve full support from the Federal government.

Since its founding in 1963, Openlands has played a leadership role in most of our region’s innovative open space initiatives, including the creation of the nation’s first rail-to-trail conversion (the Illinois Prairie Path), the nation’s first national tallgrass prairie, and the first national wildlife refuge in the greater Milwaukee-Chicago area.

We will continue to support these projects, ensure their value is understood at every level, and most of all, defend the public’s right to access and enjoy them.


Updated: Congress has passed a budget that increases support for the National Heritage Areas. Learn more…

Have You Discovered Wolf Lake?

Sitting just over 15 miles from the heart of the Loop and straddling the Illinois-Indiana border, Wolf Lake is part of a network of recreation areas on Chicago’s south side. Over the years, Openlands has worked to expand the area’s trail system, which connects communities such as Hegewisch, South Deering and Whiting, and we encourage you to discover Wolf Lake for yourself!

The origin of the lake’s name is unknown, but local residents have offered a few theories: some believe that “Wolf” was a Native American chief while others contend that years ago the surrounding area was teeming with wolves. Neither of these claims have been verified, but they still offer an interesting look into the lake’s history.

Wolf Lake also lies in the heart of the Calumet region, a natural area of over 15,000 acres of river systems, parks, trails, rare dune and swale, and savanna. Openlands has focused on empowering community groups and local governments to care for the region’s natural resources. As we promote a regional culture of conservation, Openlands has helped to develop an interconnected network of protected greenways and trails and to restore public access to the region’s natural treasures.

The area around Wolf Lake is home to numerous open spaces, recreational opportunities, and cultural institutions, including two sites managed by the National Park Service. The area is easy to reach no matter where you’re coming from, and there is plenty to enjoy for an entire weekend.

Have You Discovered Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary?

Sitting quietly on the shores of Lake Michigan, Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary – the Magic Hedge – is home to a vast array of bird species. As of January 2017 over 320 species of birds have been identified at Montrose Point. Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts recently voted the sanctuary as the best place for birding in Illinois, and one could argue that this is one of the top birding locations in the entire Great Lakes region.

Situated along the border of the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway, the Great Lakes region is immensely important for migratory birds. Forests, grasslands, wetlands, and open water provide stopover points for these birds during their semi-annual journeys that, for some species, span across continents. There are many of these stop-over points within Chicago’s city limits – Jackson Park, Humboldt Park, Lake Calumet and Labagh Woods are especially active during spring and fall migration – but Montrose Point is one that stands above the rest.

A bird sanctuary that jets out into Lake Michigan serves is a funnel for birds as they travel over Lake Michigan, looking for green space that is somewhat sparse in our area. Bird lovers were the ones who gave Montrose Point the Magic Hedge nickname and for good reason. This sanctuary truly is a gem and worth discovering for yourself.

Have You Discovered Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie?

Illinois didn’t earn the nickname ‘the Prairie State’ for nothing, but it is no secret that our namesake has virtually disappeared from the natural landscape. Once home to over 20 million acres of prairie, Illinois now holds less than 2,500 acres of remnant virgin prairie. Yet if you are looking to experience the enormity of the prairie and glimpse the natural history of our state, look no further than Midewin.

As the largest open space in the Chicago region, the 19,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is the first such protected tallgrass prairie in the country and it is managed today by the U.S. Forest Service. Midewin sits just an hour’s drive from downtown Chicago and began its journey to federal protection in the early 1990s when the U.S. Army announced plans to close the Joliet Arsenal.

The importance of Midewin cannot be overstated. Its expansiveness makes it ideal habitat for grassland birds; in addition to native prairie, it contains a variety of ecologically-significant habitats and natural areas; and in 2015 it became a new home for a herd of American bison. But Midewin was also envisioned as a place to connect the residents of Illinois to the nature that surrounds them.

Foresight and planning over the last 20 years coupled the restoration of a unique prairie ecosystem with unparalleled opportunities for outdoor recreation, wildlife viewing, environmental education, research, and volunteerism, which made Midewin a contemporary model process for the expansion of public open space. Here are a few options for you to enjoy these public lands, but certainly take a chance to discover Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in your own way.

Raising Parks and Wetlands from Industrial Sites along Lake Calumet

On November 5, Openlands Greenways Director Ders Anderson joined local community leaders, and guided a tour of potential public access and ecological restoration sites along the shores of Lake Calumet. Easily accessible to the neighborhoods of Pullman and Roseland, Lake Calumet is the largest body of water in the city of Chicago; however, the shoreline has sat vacant, cut off from public access for decades.

As part of the Lake Calumet Vision Committee, Openlands has been working in partnership with the Southeast Environmental Task Force, the Alliance for the Great Lakes and Friends of the Parks to develop new parkland and recreation opportunities for local communities at this site. Representatives from Congresswoman Robin Kelly’s office (IL-2nd), Congressman Michael Quigley’s office (IL-5th) and the Chicago Park District joined the Lake Calumet Vision Committee along with leaders from the Active Transport Alliance, Friends of Big Marsh, the Metropolitan Planning Council and REI’s Outdoor Programs for a tour of the underutilized sites.

“When Lake Calumet came under management of the Illinois International Port District decades ago, the surrounding neighborhoods were cut off from their 100-year access to this water resource, and the shore has remained undeveloped since,” explains Anderson. The committee envisions future recreation opportunities for biking, jogging, paddling and sailing, as well as a new trail linking the Pullman National Monument to the new urban mountain bike Park at Big Marsh. The committee has engaged local residents both for their input and reaction to the proposal and found overwhelming support for access to the lake. When completed, the proposed park and recreation sites would restore public access to this neglected natural treasure.

lakecalumetmarsh

The creation of new parkland at this site would further connect the growing network of green spaces in south Chicagoland maintained by the Chicago Park District. Nearby Big Marsh is home to the recently opened 278-acre bike park, Chicago’s first eco-recreation destination, with Heron Pond, Indian Ridge, Deadstick Pond and Hegewisch Marsh located at the southern end of the lake.

But Lake Calumet is valuable for many more reasons than just the recreation opportunities. In 1980, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources listed Lake Calumet on its Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, which listed habitats within the state in vital need of conservation and which has served as a guide to land preservation to this day. However, despite the need for preservation of this aquatic ecosystem, little action has been taken to protect Lake Calumet.

lakecalumetwildlife

At the north end of the lake sits the 140-acre Square Marsh, which the committee hopes to see restored as a hemi-marsh. A hemi-marsh is an aquatic ecosystem, 50% of which is open water necessary for birds to identify the site as habitat, and the other 50% comprised of aquatic plants to provide wildlife with food and shelter. Along with the recently restored hemi-marsh at Big Marsh, the restoration efforts at Lake Calumet would provide a dramatic increase in habitat.

Conditions for restoration are ripe: water levels in Lake Calumet are ideal for wetlands restoration, the lake provides a variety of habitats to support an array of wildlife, and the water quality in the lake is believed to be improving thanks to local efforts to curb runoff from industrial sites. All totaled, the restoration site could support more than 500 acres of new habitat.

With everything moving in the right direction for a positive redevelopment of the shores of Lake Calumet, Openlands hopes to build on existing local support for the plan and realize this important project. “There is very strong local support for this project, it is consistent with the land use plan adopted by the City of Chicago, and Lake Calumet has long been identified as a site with major conservation potential,” explains Anderson, “What we need now is financial support and the will of our elected leaders to see it through, but I am confident they will do the right thing for the community.”

Photo Credit (all): Lloyd DeGrane

Have You Discovered Deer Grove Forest Preserve?

Whether you’re looking for a nice place to go for a walk, a place to spend the day outside with your entire family, or wanting to step back in time and feel what it’s like to wander the prairies, you can find it at the beautiful Deer Grove Forest Preserve.

Located in suburban Palatine and managed by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Deer Grove Forest Preserve is split into to units, East and West. Deer Grove West is a heavily wooded area and supports over 300 unique species of native woodland plants along with a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Deer Grove East, pictured above, is home to an open prairie along with shaded savannas. Together they are a jaw-dropping display of what Illinois’ landscapes resembled prior to European settlement, and at 1,800 acres, you’ll have no trouble finding a spot to enjoy the peace and quiet without the busy bustling of the city.

A paved mixed-use trail wraps around Deer Grove East and some dirt trails meander through the wooded areas. Deer Grove West is home to many more dirt trails winding through the woodlands. Take the time to explore them all, it’s worth it, we promise. You can cross between the two on Quentin Rd, which bisects the preserve, but know that it can be a busy street.

Deer Grove is great for a day outside: the trails are relatively flat and there’s enough variety in the landscapes that you can easily spend a day there hiking. Picnic areas and restrooms are availabe on-site, and bring plenty of water.

Have You Discovered Hadley Valley Preserve?

Hadley Valley Preserve is located just outside Chicago, and it includes over 700 acres of trails, picnic groves, and restored natural habitat and wide open spaces.

Since 2007, the Forest Preserves of Will County have restored more than 180 acres of native habitat, working in collaboration with Openlands, the US Army Corp of Engineers, the Illinois Tollway (I-355 Extension project), the City of Joliet, the Illinois DNR, and local development. Altogether, about 148,000 individual plants have been planted to restore the wetland areas.

The quality of restoration at Hadley Valley has earned it numerous awards and accolades. Native plants and animals thrive in vast prairie, open savannas, and shaded woodland.

Hadley Valley is a remarkable resource for outdoor recreation as well as for birding and wildlife viewing. Come for day in the sun, soak up some vitamin D, and take in the sweet smell of native wildflowers as they bloom. With just a short trip from Chicago, it’s a great discovery for all nature lovers!

#DiscoverYourPlace Photo Map

We at Openlands love that so many of you are getting outside to #DiscoverYourPlace. The social media campaign puts a spotlight on special outdoor and natural areas in northeastern Illinois, southeastern Wisconsin, and northwestern Indiana.

Many of you have gotten out to explore natural areas you didn’t know existed, while others are highlighting species and habitat that make our region special! These include many of the places Openlands helps to protect, restore, and create for people to connect to. So far, there have been over 300 photos of unique landscapes, vast open space, and special green areas in the Chicago region!

As the weather warms, we’d love to know, “Where are you enjoying the outdoors and discovering new and restored natural areas nearby?” Get involved by tagging your photos of parks, gardens, trails, preserves, native species, restored landscapes and more with #DiscoverYourPlace! Share your photos on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Check out this interactive map of some of our favorite #DiscoverYourPlace photos on Instagram so far! Do you see a place you haven’t heard of? How many of these places have you been to? Or maybe you’d like to highlight one of your favorite natural areas not represented below! Join us!

Click here for the interacative #DiscoverYourPlace map!

DYP 1200