The Chicago Portage - Historical Synopsis
THE CHICAGO PORTAGE AND LAUGHTON TRADING POST AREA
"The Waterway West"
Prepared By: Wm. E. Rose and Associates, Inc., Hindale Illinois
Prepared For: Forest Preserve District of Cook County, River Forest, Illinois
The Chicago Portage - Historical Synopsis
The geographical relationship of the Des Plaines River, Mud Lake, Chicago River and Lake Michigan was responsible for the location and rapid development of the metropolis of Chicago. This relationship was the connecting link by water and a short portage of the Great Lakes region to the Mississippi River and the Great Northwest. The water route and the paralleling land routes (later to become some of our main highways) enabled the French to explore the Mississippi Valley and Illinois.
Historically, this system of trails and waterways was first utilized by prehistoric man. Over 7000 years ago southern Indians met with those from the north to trade for copper, and later by Indians traversing the Midwest in hunting, trapping, trading and war parties. The first known white men to trod on this historic ground were Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet the explorer, who passed here in 1673. The French were at St. Ignace in 1634 and probably some came to the Chicago Portage area; Marquette reported meeting trappers in the area of Lyons, Illinois. At that time the British Colonists were established along the Atlantic, but the French were in control of Canada even as far west as Green Bay, Wisconsin. Marquette and Jolliet were commissioned by the French to search for what the Indians referred to as the "Great River" that lay in the west.
The historic voyage began at St. Ignace on May 17, 1673 and proceeded to Green Bay by way of Lake Michigan, then westward down the Fox and Wisconsin River routes to their destination - the mighty Mississippi. The "Great River" was explored as far south as the mouth of the Arkansas River. South of here were the Spanish and the Indians whom they had made hostile.
On their return journey, the explorers met Indians who described a shorter route to Lake Michigan. The explorers taking the route, traveled up the Illinois River to the Des Plaines River. Canoeing up the Des Plaines they came to a place approximately midway between present day Summit and Riverside, Illinois. Here, at what is now known as the Chicago Portage, in September of 1673, they came to a little creek (Portage Creek the outlet of Mud Lake) which took them into and across Mud Lake to its eastern edge (the continental divide). At this point they carried - or portaged - their canoes across one and one half miles of open prairie to the west fork of the south branch of the Chicago River. The Chicago River led Marquette and Jolliet to Lake Michigan and back to Green Bay.
Jolliet was the leader of this expedition. However, his journal was lost, and most historic documentation comes from Marquette's journal. Therefore, Marquette has received more historic mention than Jolliet, and is remembered in the names of buildings, streets, parks and statues. A couple of small plaques are all that remind us of Louis Jolliet. Joliet, Illinois was originally named for Shakespeare's Juliet and not for the French explorer.
Marquette had promised the Illinois Indians that he would return to their Village on the Illinois River near Starved Rock, to found a mission. On October 25, 1674 Marquette left Green Bay. His health failing, Marquette and two companions were forced to spend the winter in a cabin constructed at a site near the Chicago River at Damen Avenue. They became the first white persons of record to reside in what is now the City of Chicago.
The importance of "Le Portage-e de Checago" was realized even in the era of early French exploration. Jolliet reported that "it would only be necessary to cut a canal through half a league of prairie to go in a bark by easy navigation from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico." (He saw the site about September 1, when it was between dry and wet seasons.)
The French considered this connecting link as an important possession to control fur trade (centered in Montreal on St. Lawrence) and to expand their Empire. LaSalle received permission from Louis XIV to explore and colonize the Mississippi River Valley. On April 9, 1682, LaSalle reached the mouth of the Mississippi; here in the name of France, he took possession of the river and its tributaries, and all the country drained by it.
The French, with the help of their Indian allies, controlled the Chicago Portage and the fur trade of the region until the year 1700. At that time the French lost control of the Portage to hostile Indians. Many attempts were made to repossess this strategic area but to no avail; the French never again permanently established themselves in the Illinois River Valley. By 1763 the British, with the help of the Iroquois, had acquired control of the fur trade in the Northwest, and had taken from France all her land and possessions in North America.
At the time of the Revolutionary War, the Chicago Portage was used by both the British and the Colonists. At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the Treaty of Paris (1783) gave the Colonists possession of all lands east of the Mississippi and between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.
By implication, the Chicago Portage was included in the "Ordinance of Virginia" which stated that all navigable waters leading to both the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence, and "the carrying places in between" are to be forever free. The British, however, refused to agree to this mandate. They wanted to continue their control of the fur trade and to encourage the Indians of the region to resist the Colonists' attempts to settle the territory.
After several significant battles, the Colonists were able to enter into a treaty with the Indians. The Treaty of Greenville (1795) transferred the ownership of great tracts of land from Ohio to Michigan into the hands of the newly formed country. The treaty contained a provision for the cession of "one piece of land six miles square at the mouth of the Chicago River emptying into the southwest end of Lake Michigan where a fort formerly stood." Similarly lands at Peoria and at the mouth of the Illinois River joining the Mississippi were included in the treaty. And most importantly, the treaty guaranteed "free passages of the portages and rivers connecting these grants."
The United States Government, recognizing the strategic importance of the Portage, erected a fort on the land ceded by the Treaty of Greenville. The first Fort Dearborn was constructed between 1803-4 as ordered by President Thomas Jefferson, and ensured the safety of the fur trade until the fort was burned by the Indians as a consequence of the War of 1812. The Indians controlled the Portage once again until 1816 at which time the second Fort Dearborn was constructed under the Treaty of Ghent.
Once again the fur traders carne in great numbers. The amount of traffic crossing the Portage increased to immense proportions. Boats to be portaged became larger with deeper draft. The old small channel connecting Mud Lake to the Chicago River was worn into a deeper trough. (The only improvement by design was a widening of the Channel in 1852 by the Cook County Drainage Commission.). The larger boats containing heavier loads meant difficult portages requiring wagons.
However, there were times when a portage was not required: during certain wet seasons, the waters of Mud Lake and the waters of the West Fork of the Chicago River connected and covered the continental divide at a depth of four to five feet. It is estimated that this maximum water depth occurred for only four days per year. At other times water covered the continental divide at a depth less than four feet, but did permit boats drawing 15 inches or less to navigate the entire distance from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River for about 48 days per year.
This happened to coincide with the seasonal travel of the fur trappers. Conversely, during the driest periods, Mud Lake was dry and the Chicago and the Des Plaines Rivers were merely a series of shallow pools. At that time boats were portaged from the shore of Lake Michigan 50 miles to the mouth of the Des Plaines, or even 100 miles to the head of navigation of the Illinois River at LaSalle.
The most important Indian trails intersected near the "Chicago Portage." The South Portage Trail crossed the Des Plaines River at Summit Ford. The North Portage Trail (also called the Ottawa Trail) crossed at Stony Ford and at Laughton's Ford. The Ottawa Trail connected Chicago with Ottawa on the Illinois River where there was always enough water for canoes. Portages were made on this trail during dry seasons; later it became a wagon road (now Route 66 and Route 6). The trail from Green Bay, Wisconsin carne into Chicago where Lincoln Park is now located. The trail branched off on what we now call Ogden Avenue (formerly the Old Plank Road) to the Riverside area. The trail crossed the river at Riverside Ford and connected to the High Prairie Road (now Plainfield Road) and the Ottawa Trail.
Traveling southwest along the former land trails and water routes from the Chicago Portage area, one finds many towns that sprang up along these routes. Willow Springs, Lockport, Joliet, Ottawa, Utica on the canal, and towns such as Lyons, Riverside, Hinsdale, Naperville, Morris, "Marsielles and LaSalle along the trails.
The converging of trails near the Chicago Portage gave impetus to the development of the Villages of Lyons and Riverside. These communities were the crossroads of the Northwest Territory and were the center of population in Cook County until 1833. At that time Chicago had, become a village, soon to become a city in 1837.
It was in the Lyons and Riverside area that history saw the passing of the Indian, the trapper, the hunter, the settler and later the Santa Fe Railroad. Bernardus and David Laughton saw the need for a trading center in this region. They farmed and traded first at "Hardscrabble" near present day Racine Avenue and the south branch of the Chicago River. Later they moved to Riverside where they built a tavern. In 1828 they built a trading post on the Ottawa Trail near the ford which bears their name. Both brothers died in 1833. The trading post went out of business in 1834 when the Indians left and the trappers found their raw material in short supply.
Another early settler in the area of the Chicago Portage was Stephen R. Forbes. Forbes was a squatter near the Laughton property, and later purchased land from the Laughton's. He built a mill at Riverside Ford. The record shows that Stephen R. Forbes was Cook County's first sheriff.
William and Mahlon Ogden owned land around the Portage site. William Ogden was Chicago's first mayor. Mahlon Ogden's home was located where Newberry Library now stands, and was one of a few structures to survive the Chicago fire in 1871. They constructed Ogden Ditch to provide a water route for a longer period of time through the north area of Mud Lake. It is reported that the ditch was never an economical success.
Ogden Dam was constructed on Ogden property by the City of Chicago in the winter -of 1876-77. The dam, located at approximately 49th Street and Harlem Avenue, had the effect of moving the continental divide more than six miles west of it's natural location at Kedzie Avenue. The dam lengthened the west fork of the south branch of the Chicago River and caused the Des Plaines River to once again flow down the valley.
Most of the property in the Portage area was owned by the Ogdens. Eventually the Metropolitan Sanitary District purchased considerable acreage from their descendants.
While the Ogdens owned much land east of the Des Plaines River, a man named Prescott owned land west of the River. Prior to the re-channeling of the river by the Metropolitan Sanitary District, the river split into two channels south of Laughton's Ford. The channels joined again at the mouth of Portage Creek (Wall's Meander). In this manner the dividing of the river created an island which was named after it's owner Mr. Prescott. During the prohibition days a speakeasy called "The Blind Pig" was located in the center of what was once Prescott's island.
The great increase in traffic through the Portage area made evident the need for government sponsored improvements.
A treaty was made with the Indians granting additional lands in the Chicago region to provide for the construction of a canal and a military road. Finally, in 1822 the Congress authorized the State of Illinois to build a canal to connect Lake Michigan to the Illinois River, and on February 14,1823, the General Assembly of Illinois passed an act which would provide for the State's internal navigation system. However, it wasn't until 1836 when construction began on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The completion of the I & M Canal in 1848 signaled the beginning of the end of the Chicago Portage. The construction of the Sanitary and Ship Canal (1892-1900) brought with it a straightening of the Des Plaines River channel, and along its east bank a levee extending between Lyons and Summit, leaving Mud Lake dry for all time. However, portions of the Chicago Portage are still there. Today the canals follow the route of Jolliet and Marquette from Ottawa to Chicago. More important now are the modern highways which follow the trails paralleling the waterways in prehistoric times.
Even though the drama and usefulness of the Chicago Portage has ended, there is a need and moral obligation to provide public recognition of the historical significance of this geographic feature. It is likewise important to identify and interpret the relationship of the various other nearby historic features. The features include the Ottawa and Portage Trails, Laughton's Ford and Stony Ford, and Laughton's Trading Post, all of which contributed greatly to the development of the West.