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Where now exists industrial plants and retired landfills once laid a vast network of rivers and swales meandering between marshes, lakes and seasonal ponds. (The word “calumet” is believed to have come from a Potawatomi word for “low body of deep, still water”). Low ridges accommodated drier prairies, but most of the area was flat and grassy at the time of Joliet and Marquette’s expedition through the region in the late 1600s.
As predicted by prominent planners in the area such as Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett, Calumet in the post-Civil War era became a national epicenter for manufacturing – most notably of steel. The vast landscape surrounding the inland Lake Calumet (at that time almost twice its current size and no more than six feet deep at its lowest point) contained all of the elements necessary to become a tremendous hub of production: fresh water for cooling during the manufacturing process, plentiful cheap land, and numerous waterways to connect producers to growing markets. Starting as early as the 1860s, coal from southern Illinois was shipped in large quantities north to Chicago, soon met by iron ore shipped south down the great lakes from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The first mill in the region was John Brown’s Iron and Steel Mill at 119th Street, and it was followed by many to come.
The Illinois and Michigan Canal, completed in 1848, served as the first direct connection between the Great Lakes and international waters through the Gulf of Mexico, precipitating a huge boom in business and population. At its height, the steel industry employed over 200,000 people who moved from across the country and the world to work in the plants. (Even today, with steel production falling by 30 to 40 percent, the amount of steel produced in southeast Chicago and northwest Indiana greatly overshadows any other steel producing region in the nation). The steel that built the Chicago skyline also drove the construction of the railroad, further raising the area’s status as a shipping capital. In fact, as of a 2001 city report, Chicago was the United States’ largest center for intermodal freight shipping – over 9 million containers are shipped in and out of Calumet annually, twice the amount of any other metropolitan region in the country, and third only to Hong Kong and Singapore.
By the 1970s, the demand for steel began to drop as massive urban building and infrastructural projects were largely completed, and aluminum and plastic began to replace steel in popular products such as cans and auto interiors. By 1982, the steel industry in Chicago was only a skeleton of what it once was, and thousands of people lost their jobs. This industry crash affected workers in diverse sectors that either relied on the steel plants for business or served the employees of the steel plants and their families. Aside from mills and processing plants, stores, restaurants and country clubs all went out of business, leaving vacant lots, industrial grounds and many open spaces that remain today.
While its industrial roots are important in understanding the current state of the Calumet region, it is also important to recognize the area’s rich cultural and natural history. Throughout the 19th century, Calumet remained so sparsely populated that it maintained a reputation for excellent hunting, fishing and recreation. Many local residents practiced subsistence hunting, while businessmen took a one-hour train ride from downtown Chicago to hunt at private hunting reserves. While several of these reserves, such as Woodman’s Tavern and Douglas’s Duck Pond have since been taken over by industry (the Acme Coke plant in South Deering), others like the Southeast Sportsmen’s Club in Hegewisch remain today. Chicagoans from the North Side often vacationed in Calumet, spending the summer at the many hotels or summer homes established around Lake Calumet, which hosted sailing and crew regattas in the summer as well as skating and ice sailing on the lake in the winter.
Local and statewide efforts to identify and protect Calumet’s natural resources have been in motion since the later part of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1970s, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) determined a plot of 3,000 acres to be a natural area of statewide significance. In 1998 the City of Chicago, Chicago Park District and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County adopted City Space: An Open Space Plan for Chicago. As a result of this project, Lake Calumet was identified as the most important wetland and natural area within the city and in urgent need of protection.
The Calumet area has attracted federal interest as well, starting with $200,000 given to several local partners by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1999 to develop a sustainable land use plan for nature and industry. In the acquisition and restoration of land, the Chicago Park District and its partners have acquired grants from federal and state agencies as well as private business fulfilling mitigation requirements.
The preservation of this park as an open space is largely thanks to the work of the late Marian Byrnes. A teacher turned community organizer, Marian’s preservation work began in 1979 with a diverse neighborhood coalition to block construction of a CTA bus garage that would demolish half the prairie. The campaign was successful, and Marian became well-known for her environmental advocacy within the Southeast Side community for more than 25 years. We have her tireless efforts to thank for ensuring that we’re able to enjoy this land today.