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Chicago’s Crossroads

Chicago’s Crossroads | Chicago

If you want to know what Chicago looked like 200 years ago, head to the city’s southeast corner. Native wetlands, forests, and prairies all come together here, at a natural crossroads.

The story of the Calumet Region is a story of survival.

Fragmented pockets of wilderness have somehow managed to endure despite 200 years of environmental abuse by agriculture, urbanization and the rise and fall of industry at the southern tip of Lake Michigan.

Located along the Illinois and Indiana border about 15 miles south of downtown Chicago, the Calumet Region encompasses 45 miles on either side of the Calumet River. Scattered amongst the steel mills, scrapyards, railways, and factories that sprouted here during the 1800s are native ecosystems, including oak savannas, prairies, forests, sand dunes, and wetlands.

Environmentalists have taken notice of the Calumet’s biodiversity and are now determined to piece the area’s fragmented ecosystems back together. Reconnecting the Calumet’s natural areas will allow more interactions among plant and wildlife species and continue to increase the area’s biodiversity.

As The Field Museum’s Mark Bouman wanders through a restored oak savanna at Calumet’s Powderhorn Marsh and Prairie, a nesting osprey soars overhead. Bouman points to wild blackberries and explains how Powderhorn’s intersecting habitats, including native tallgrass prairies and “dune and swale” ecosystems, combine to make Powderhorn “the most biodiverse spot in the city.”

The juxtaposition of nature and industry remains prevalent at Indian Ridge Marsh and all throughout the Calumet Region. Sean Keenehan

Bouman serves as president of the Calumet Heritage Partnership and is a longtime advocate for enhancing the environmental quality of Calumet’s natural gems. A map of the Calumet Region that Bouman helped create in 2009 has played an important role in facilitating planning and restoration work in the area.

Gary Sullivan, senior restoration ecologist at The Wetlands Initiative, has been leading marsh restoration crews across Calumet’s wetlands to remove invasive plant species and “start over” with native vegetation. Restoration efforts include planting indigenous species like black oak trees and Black-eyed Susans, and removing non-natives, namely phragmites.

Phragmites—also known as European common reed—is a tall, perennial wetland grass that, if not managed, can take over wetlands and outmuscle native wildlife habitats. Traveling between Deadstick Pond and Indian Ridge Marsh on 122nd Street, a cornstalk-like wall of phragmites towers over each side of the street. To combat these persistent pests from smothering the Calumet’s landscape, restoration crews are burning phragmites down to the ground throughout the region.

There are approximately 4,000 acres of wetlands in the Calumet Region. Converting small patches of land into restored wetlands will provide critical habitat for a number of wildlife species, including resident and migratory birds, and a plethora of reptiles and amphibians. Calumet’s location between Midwestern prairies and Eastern deciduous forests makes the area a hotspot for snakes and lizards.

Herpetologist Alan Resetar, a colleague of Bouman’s at The Field Museum, has been strapping on waders and searching in and around the Calumet’s wetlands for salamanders, turtles, frogs, and snakes since the 1970s.

“This is nice stuff,” Resetar said while overturning tires, wooden boards, and other “artificial fill” items near Hegewisch Marsh. Resetar uncovered an Eastern American toad under a discarded rug and a northern water snake under a mattress.

This is the first time since the 1970s that Resetar has discovered a northern water snake in Calumet and he barely blinks as the reptile slithers around his hand and snaps at him. Resetar is used to getting bit by snakes, “It’s all part of the territory,” he said.

Now efforts are being made to connect the Calumet Region’s residents to local natural spaces, including the 9-mile Calumet Trail, the Burnham Greenway, and the recently opened Big Marsh Bike Park.

“Symbiosis has to characterize the 21st century—a city where people are connected to nature,” Bouman said. “I think folks are really recognizing what is here, it’s a coolness factor. The old industrial landscape next to the marshes with the birds is really resonating with people. That’s why I think this is a nationally-significant landscape that the country needs to understand.”

The wetlands of Calumet are a biodiverse hotspot for amphibians and reptiles, including these sunbathing Blanding’s turtles. Alan Resetar

— Sean Keenehan

Media Manager ID