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 the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve?

Just north of the City of Chicago sits a mile of lakefront beach and a series of unique ecosystems, which are home to a rich array of plants and wildlife. After 10 years of restoration work, the site has become a natural treasure, earning distinctions as a registered Illinois Nature Preserve and an International Dark-sky Preserve. This is the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

During the fall, this preserve is a beauty to behold. The changing leaves paint the bluffs and ravines in deep reds and vibrant yellows, accompanied by the more muted yellows, whites, and purples of goldenrods and asters. Birds hop around the trails and land in the trees, taking a break from their long fall migration. Small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks are also particularly active, gathering up nuts and seeds as they prepare for winter.

In spring and summer you can walk the beach, bring your binoculars to glimpse some rare birds, or take time to explore the rare ravines. The steep ravines were formed by erratic lake levels and glacial meltwater after the last Ice Age about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago! Even in winter the Lakeshore Preserve offers some unique perspectives to appreciate nature.

Then, of course, there is the lake. Visible from all points along the various trails, Lake Michigan provides a gorgeous backdrop for all of this land-based activity. You can walk along the shore, or you can walk the trails on top of the bluffs, almost 70 feet in the air.

Restoration at Openlands

Through restoration, Openlands connects the dots of nature. Our work brings sunlight to developing trees, fish and amphibians to streams, birds to the shore and canopy, and people to the land. Such is our mission, to connect individuals and communities to the natural world in which we all live.

Openlands Lakeshore Preserve

Visiting the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve for the first time is truly enchanting. As I walked out to the lookout on my first trip, the fog seemed to peel away from the water and I remember thinking to myself, “This is Lake Michigan.” I had seen the Great Lake many times before, but never like this. The melody of the gently rising and falling waves against the pale sand was truly hypnotic. It was quiet. There wasn’t a soul in sight, and yet life was all around. Shorebirds scuttled in the brush, mergansers paddled offshore, and I sat and watched.

Since the fall of 2011, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve has provided northeastern Illinois with rare access to nearly 80 acres of shoreline and ravine ecosystems. In December 2015, Openlands announced a 5 year project to reestablish lost habitat across the Preserve. With funding from the Grand Victoria Foundationand a partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we have spent the winter months removing an array of non-native and invasive tree species that have dominated the area and choked out native trees. The removal of these invaders allows native plant and tree species to flourish without having to compete for sunlight.

As the winter comes to an end, the spring phase of the restoration plan is set to begin at the Southern end of the Preserve, in Schenck Ravine. Thriving ravine ecosystems are phenomenally important, as they provide pools and riffles that organically manage stormwater, reduce erosion, and serve as habitat for local fish.

Lastly, we will also work to restore portions of the southern bluffs as well as the endangered marram grass which, when healthy, works to bind loose sand – a process that is essential in forming and maintaining the dunes that separate the bluffs from the lakeshore. Healthy dunes means more stable bluffs which, in this case, acts as a landing zone for hundreds of species of migrating birds.

As Openlands continues to restore the area, more and more people become connected to the land. This connection can already be seen throughout the Preserve, but perhaps, particularly, when walking through the shaded trails. Where the brush has been cleared, new trees and wildflowers are being planted ensuring that people will experience the enchantment I enjoyed on my first visit to the Preserve.

Deer Grove West

Like the Preserve, the Deer Grove West Forest Preserve was equally engulfing – literally the minute I arrived I spotted three, maybe four species of birds before I was even out of the car. As I ventured further into the area, the magnitude of restoration really hit me. Looking around, all sorts of dense brush was being cleared, giving way to new life. Previously, this brush was very obviously suffocating juvenile trees that were desperate for sunlight. These trees would soon find new life, which they would share with the birds, the frogs and with visitors like me.

Nearly 100 years ago, the Deer Grove preserve became the inaugural piece of land acquired by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. For years it served as an oasis for various species native to our region.

In 2008, Openlands partnered with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, City of Chicago Department of Aviation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and began the savanna, prairie and wetland restoration efforts on the eastern half of Deer Grove. Deer Grove East once again boasts several wetland areas as well as vast rolling prairies and open oak savannas.

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Finally, in 2015, we announced that Deer Grove West would be next – just in time for its 100th Anniversary. Over the next several years, a $3.15 million restoration plan will be implemented to restore a robust ecosystem, that, when finished, will support more than 300 species of native woodland plants, as well as a wide variety of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.

Similar to the work being done at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, much of this focuses on clearing invasive species and reintroducing native plants. We will also be performing controlled burns. Burning is a natural process that has been a part of the Illinois landscape for thousands of years. It stimulates the development of native plants, which in turn provides healthy habitat for new life throughout the ecosystem.

Openlands Protects Important Bird Areas Near Chicago

This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty between the United States and Canada. In 1916, this landmark agreement made it illegal to hunt, capture, kill, sell, or even pursue migratory birds. (See the original 1916 treaty here: Convention between the United States and Great Britain for the Protection of Migratory Birds.)

To celebrate this treaty, Openlands wants to make Chicagoans aware of Important Bird Areas nearby. Important Bird Areas or IBA’s are internationally recognized places that are chosen for their unique role in providing habitat for birds. These habitats play a vital part in the lives of birds who are endangered or threatened, either by providing breeding grounds, pathways for migration, or places to spend the winter.

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White-faced Ibis at Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland

Through environmental policy and advocacy, habitat protection, and land acquisition and restoration programs, Openlands has positively impacted IBA’s around Chicago. Just south of the city, we’ve helped to establish natural areas like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and save places like Goose Lake Prairie State Park. We’ve restored vital wetlands and other habitats at Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland and Illinois Beach State Park, and have used our policy wing to advocate for several additional sites. We fought for the Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance that keeps our lakefront protected for migrating birds along the Mississippi Flyway.

Here is a list of Important Bird Areas Openlands has helped to protect:

Notably, Openlands and the Forest Preserves of Cook County have worked together since 2001 to expand over 900 acres of continuous grassland habitat at Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland in southern Cook County. Bartel Grassland was an existing IBA on its own, but in September 2015, Audubon Chicago Region approved adding the Tinley Creek Wetlands restoration areas to Bartel. This more than doubled the overall acreage for this Important Bird Area.

In the end, Openlands wants to make sure these special places are accessible to people from all walks of life. Through our Birds in My Neighborhood Program, we are able to engage Chicago Public School students with nearby nature areas. The program has taken educational visits to Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland, introducing these children to a rare and unique world of nature and experiences they will never forget.

We hope you venture out and find an Important Bird Area near you!

Protecting Chicago’s Second Shoreline

A wildlife biologist peers down at the Chicago River from the Washington Street Bridge. River otters are fastidiously building cones out of the remains of their breakfast on a ledge behind the Civic Opera House. Once completely gone from Illinois, the otters – along with over 70 kinds of fish, black crowned night herons, bald eagles, and scores of other wildlife – have returned to Chicago’s rivers. They share the waters at dawn with high school crew teams who clip along the surface.

Chicagoans have come a long way over the last forty years in how we see and value our second shoreline. Once considered open sewers, the Chicago and Calumet rivers have become vibrant natural attractions that are economic drivers and community assets. Offices and homes are now facing the river again, and the number of docks and boat launches is rising.


BSG For WP_Sharpened

Managing stormwater to help our rivers

One solution is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s (MWRD) “Deep Tunnel” and reservoir project, which captures billions of gallons of rain. When storms overwhelm MWRD’s treatment plants, it has to flush the overflow of rainwater and sewage into our rivers and Lake Michigan. The 30-foot tunnels and giant reservoirs hold massive amounts of polluted stormwater until MWRD can treat it all. The quality of our rivers has also improved as MWRD has upgraded the technology at its treatment plants.

MWRD is also partnering with Openlands and other organizations to help communities capture rain where it falls. Through the Space to Grow program, Openlands and Healthy Schools Campaign are working with MWRD, Chicago Public Schools, and the City of Chicago’s Department of Water Management to transform underutilized schoolyards into lush gardens and safe playgrounds for students, families, and community members. Because of these new amenities, we have fewer basement backups, less stormwater flowing into our sewers, reduced flooding, and ultimately less pollution discharged into our waters. The program is gaining national recognition as a model for other cities to leverage public and private partnerships for a multitude of community benefits.


Big Marsh Open Space Reserve

Strengthening regulations

The State and Federal EPA are recognizing our progress in reclaiming the Chicago and Calumet rivers and are requiring stronger protections for people and wildlife that are on and in the water. Since so many people are enjoying our waterways, the Illinois Pollution Control Board (Board) has adopted regulations that require the MWRD to disinfect over 600 million gallons of sewage that it discharges each day from its North Side and Calumet treatment plants. Earlier this month, the Board took another giant step towards passing comparable regulations to protect the resurgence of fish and other wildlife by requiring power plants and other industrial users to remove more heat and pollution from its cooling water before returning it to our rivers. Openlands and our colleagues continue to advocate for the Board and the United States EPA to hold strong on these improvements so that our rivers can reach their potential.


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The work continues

This growing consciousness has sparked new plans for the future. The Calumet Stormwater Initiative is leveraging the vision and resources of Chicago’s south side communities to attract millions of dollars in public and private funding for a host of stormwater projects. As a result of ongoing collaboration between government agencies and non-profit organizations, the region is a strong candidate for up to $500 million in federal assistance to help communities become more resilient to the effects of flooding and climate change.

We still face challenges ahead. Openlands and our partners are already challenging requests by industry for permission to sidestep the new water quality standards. We are preparing for upcoming Board proceedings that will determine how much industry can continue to pollute our rivers with road salt, ammonia and other chemicals that are toxic to rebounding wildlife. In addition, Openlands has intervened in a proceeding where the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is considering whether to continue to allow the MWRD to use Lake Michigan Water to flush out our rivers.

Overall, we are seeing progress. At Openlands, we will continue to press for revitalizing our waterways and better connect the people of our region with these natural treasures.

Exelon Employees Volunteer at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve

On April 5, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve got a helping hand from a group of Exelon and ComEd employees, and their families. Ten dedicated volunteers spent the morning cleaning up 100 pounds of trash from the beach. “The weather was perfect, the team did such a great job, and everyone enjoyed themselves,” said Preserve Site Manager Aimee Collins.

The volunteer opportunity was one of many organized by Exelon as part of National Volunteer Week.


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The volunteer workday, which also took place last year, was just the most recent partnership between Openlands and Exelon. The Exelon Foundation funds Eco-Explorations, wherein elementary and high school students learn naturalist skills both in the classroom and at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve. Additionally, both Van Horne Ravine Overlook at the Preserve and the ongoing art education partnership between Openlands and Marwen are funded by the Exelon Foundation.

For more information on beach cleanups or to register your organization for a corporate workday, please contact development@openlands.org or call 312.863.6261.