What would Chicago look like if settlers hadn’t changed it?

A good question leads us to the real Chicago bears and a prairie on the mend

March 5, 2013

(WBEZ/Lewis Wallace)

“The country around Chicago is the most fertile and beautiful that can be imagined. It consists of an intermixture of woods and prairies, diversified with gentle slopes, sometimes attaining the elevation of hills, and it is irrigated with a number of clear streams and rivers, which throw their waters partly into Lake Michigan and partly into the Mississippi River.”

Henry Schoolcraft, 1820

Jeremy Cox is looking for something Chicago is short on: nature. That’s why written descriptions like Henry Schoolcraft’s are one of the best ways to answer Cox’s Curious City question:

What would the land Chicago is built on look like naturally, as if humans never changed it?

I spent some time with Jeremy Cox at Loyola Beach on Chicago’s far North Side, enough time for us to throw out guesses while our fingers turned to ice. We had heard that the surrounding Rogers Park neighborhood had once sported stands of white birches; we’d read that the western suburbs had once been prairie; and we kind of maybe recalled that there was marshy, swampy stuff in our region, somewhere or other. And, of course, we’d both heard Chicago was named for a stinky onion. Or maybe a leek?

Anyway, here’s what we could confirm from Chicago history websites and primary documents: Much of the city of Chicago proper had once been a web of marshy wetlands, dry ridges and forest groves — often interrupted by wooded areas that formed oases in an otherwise damp, rough terrain. To the west, an ocean of grasses known as tallgrass prairie stretched farther than the eye could see. And a potent wild leek — called “cheekagou” by the Illinois and Creek peoples — was abundant in local marshes.

Neither my reporting prowess nor the historical record itself is expansive enough to provide a blow-by-blow of what lay in the past of each village square, mall, parking lot and industrial zone in our region, so with Jeremy’s OK, I worked with my editor to narrow the scope of what we’d find out. So, here are a few quick, before-and-after vignettes to consider. After that, we profile a place where land managers think about Jeremy’s question in a very practical way: a highly-engineered prairie restoration area.

The quick hits

Jeremy gave me a lot of license, but the first show-and-tell diptych comes directly from his request to learn about the animals that once populated Chicago, but are now nowhere to be seen. (I have no comment on the presence of pre-settlement foam domes.)

(Flickr/Mark Watson, Flickr/kudzuplanet)

Perhaps the black bear, last seen in the region in the 1830s, was the forerunner of — if not the inspiration behind — the present-day football team.

(WBEZ/Logan Jaffe, Flickr/Renne Rendler-Kaplan)

This Eastern Prickly Pear cactus exists in some parts of Chicago today, but is now less prevalent, at least where Hot Cheetos and Taki bags predominate. 

(James Herriot, 1828 painting of Fort Dearborn, Flickr/lalobamfw)

This 19th-century artist left plenty of sky open in this drawing of Fort Dearborn, which used to sit on a curve of the Chicago River near the outlet. Now, Wolf Point is probably the river's most prominent curve. Had he dreamed of them, the artist could have filled the drawing's sky with the future skyscrapers. 


(Seth Eastman, 1853 painting of wild rice harvest, Wikimedia Commons/urban)

Before Europeans settled here, the sluggish Chicago River was lined with cattails and miles of indistinguishable marsh. Native Americans trolled for wild rice in several areas, including the area near the river’s outlet into the Lake. Today tourists troll for pleasure and photos, and they avoid touching — let alone ingesting — greenery jutting from the water. 

Prairie: An oh-so-scary delight

“The prospect of passing through these prairies in the spring season is delightful. ... Often isolated clumps of trees stand like an island in the midst of the prairie ... The prairies are generally undulating, seldom exactly level, often slightly concave, so that in some cases, they have stagnant waters over their surface in the spring. Their soil is various but fertile. From May to October they are covered with tall grass and flower-producing weeds. In June and July, these prairies seem like an ocean of flowers, of various hues, and waving to the breezes which sweep over them.”

Henry S. Tanner, 1832

The drive to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie from Chicago at no point suggests the likelihood of running into the largest tallgrass prairie preserve in the world. With the windows down, it smells stale and industrial from I-55 all the way to the entrance of Midewin, about 10 miles from the southwest tip of Joliet. The drive takes you past long blocks lined with white corrugated metal warehouses and stacked train cars. In the distance there’s an oil refinery (the site, by the way, of a 2012 oil spill that left five miles of nearby roads slick with black oil), and abandoned grain elevators dot the foreground. I missed the Midewin welcome center twice because I had been expecting a little more nature, but I met environmental educator Wendy Tresouthick there because it’s a great place to help answer Jeremy’s question.

That’s because if you look into Illinois history, one landscape dominates both maps and memoirs: tallgrass prairie. The U.S. Forest Service says only 4 percent of what was once 170 million acres of tallgrass prairie remains in the U.S., much of it in a preserve in Kansas. The website for the park calls the Flint Hills the prairie’s “last stand.” Today tallgrass prairies are more rare than rainforests.

And the true last stand for tallgrass prairie is actually in Chicago’s backyard. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is the only national tallgrass prairie, and if its 20,000 acres are ever fully restored, it will be the largest tallgrass prairie in the world.

The prairie’s disappearing act occurred almost overnight, starting In 1837, the same year the city of Chicago was incorporated. John Deere had patented the self-scouring steel plow, which literally cut through tightly-bound roots and freed the fertile soil for farming. The result was a furious prairie-destruction bonanza, matched in speed and intensity only by the rapid installation throughout the Chicago area of new railroads, roads and canals. These developments transformed a marshy confluence into a commercial center for the new West.

In the 1940s, the Midewin area was quickly transformed again, this time into a U.S. Army munitions plant that built bombs and shipped them around the world. Wendy Tresouthick’s tour offered a glimpse of a Midewin that’s in transition again: from munitions plant and back to prairie.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the Army gave the out-of-use tract to the National Forest Service and the concept of Midewin was born. Now about 2,500 acres are in active restoration; the rest is farmed or mostly left alone while the park’s stewards wait for funding to buy seeds, clear trees and keep up with other restoration needs.

Despite the slow-moving process, Tresouthick is also closely connected with what Midewin could be. To understand the possibilities, we have to go back a few hundred years — to the time before European settlement.

Picturing the old tallgrass prairie

Midewin contains archaeological evidence that Native Americans were present there thousands of years ago; they started prairie fires to maintain grazing lands for animals they hunted, and they sometimes created agricultural settlements at the edges of the prairies.

When French explorers first arrived in the Chicago area in the 1600s, hundreds of native species created an impenetrable floor of roots and a noisy open pasture, with plants sometimes growing twice as tall as people. The Potawatomi, Illinois and Creek people helped the French figure out how to subside in such a topographically unwelcoming place.

The landscape wasn’t just expansive – it could be hazardous. Rattlesnakes, bison, elk, prairie dogs, salamander, deer, lizards, wolves, bears and coyotes used to roam the prairies, savannas and forests. Black passenger pigeons, now extinct, sometimes filled the skies. The topography could shift quickly and unexpectedly from dry prairie to mucky marsh, and there were few structures that could protect you from cold. Early European settlers found the prairie sufficiently nerve wracking that, according to Tresouthick, they gathered near the groves of trees close to the rivers. That, she said, explains present-day names like Morton Grove, Elk Grove and Sugar Grove for ecologically-deprived Chicago suburbs.

But not everyone found prairie so intimidating: By the 1800s various settlers and tourists wrote of their enchantment with the landscape surrounding Chicago. To provide me an example, Tresouthick stood beneath Midewin’s oldest oak tree while reading from an 1841 memoir by American writer Eliza Steele. (I used images from other Chicago-area prairies and savannas under restoration to fill in the gaps in this slideshow):

A glimpse of the past

Steele’s 1840 trip was probably close to the last time anyone saw tallgrass prairie in Illinois. By the time photographic equipment arrived in our area, most of the prairie had perished; maps fill in little of the missing detail. As a result, contemporary restoration efforts depend in part upon the sometimes romanticized accounts in memoirs and travelogues; in other words, restoration is at least partly creative.

According to Tresouthick, it certainly can be be destructive. In Midewin, the land is divided by roads and chain link fences, and striped with rows of army bunkers; the restoration process will involve bringing in heavy machinery to get rid of those structures. The army also re-routed the creek, and Midewin’s stewards are considering whether to engineer the flow back into the old creek bed.

I have to admit that even with an active imagination and a few tracts of prairie at Midewin as examples, it’s difficult to picture the return of an overgrown wild in the middle of a semi-industrial wasteland.

But while the U.S. Army’s use of the land may have completed the destruction of the old prairie ecosystem, Tresouthick points out that it also preserved something nearly impossible to find in the Chicago area today: vast amounts of space not cluttered with buildings, roads and parking lots. Today, most of that is quiet farmland or empty munitions fields. In a few generations, Midewin may have a better chance than anywhere else in the world of resembling the tallgrass prairie that once formed a formidable ocean at the edge of present-day Chicago.

“The country about Chicago, for the distance of twelve miles from the lake, is mostly a low prairie covered with grass and beautiful flowers. Southwest from the town there is not one tree to be seen; the horizon rests upon the prairie. North, on the lake, is sandy hills and barren. Between there and the north branch is a swampy, marshy place, and there is a marshy place on the south branch. The town stands on the highest part of the prairie, and in the wet part of the season the water is so deep that it is necessary to wade from the town for some miles to gain the dry prairie. Notwithstanding the water standing on the prairie and the low, marshy places, and the dead-looking river, it is considered a healthy place. It has almost a continual lake breeze, which will explain in a measure the healthiness of the place. And another reason is the cleansing of the river water by the winds driving the pure lake water into and then running out again.”

Colbee C. Benton, 1833