The Road to Green Bay
Vol. X No. 1 - WINTER 1999
Chicago to Andersonville Geological Site
By: Ray Noesen
The imagination is strained to picture Clark Street two-hundred or even one-hundred years ago. Much of the terrain as well as the function of the road has changed. As one of the oldest roads in Chicago, it has gone from a narrow meandering trail traversed by Indians and European traders to a bustling thoroughfare. Straightened out, paved, lit by overhead electrical fixtures and flanked on either side by commercial enterprises, Clark Street travels through any number of developed settlement areas that were built and have survived as a direct result of this ancient road.
It was retreating glaciers that caused the area’s ridge formations which became the route of Indian trails and, later, highways. As the ice sheet retreated irregularly, it occasionally paused long enough to permit shore currents in the lakes formed by the melted ice to create spits, bars, and beaches. In later times, these sandy strips were the only well-drained ground in the spring, and the Indians used them for overland travel when the surrounding area was water logged.1 As with most early diagonal trails and roads, Green Bay Road followed the glacial ridges, or other high ground, because it was less susceptible to being washed out by mud and flooding. (See fig.1) Today Clark Street and Ridge Avenue remain positioned along the geographical inheritance.
An ancient road
There were many thoroughfares that played an important role in the development of Chicago. The Indian, like his European successor, originally had a choice of routes by which to travel to his chosen destination. Roads to the south linked the trading post, and later the city, with eastern centers. Roads that led westward sought Galena as a terminating point where the Galena and Chicago railroad linked Chicago with the eastern portion of the United States. In contrast, the objective of the ancient highway leading north had Green Bay as its terminus where Fort Howard was an important trading post.
Green Bay, Wisconsin, as well as Chicago, Illinois, were important areas first to the Indians and later to the European settlers. To the Indians, Green Bay and Chicago were trading areas within the Great Lakes region. Both were portages between Lake Michigan and river systems, making them natural trading centers. In the era of European and American settlement, these two trading posts were marked by forts. In Chicago it was Fort Dearborn and in Green Bay it was Fort Howard. To move from area to area the Indians established connecting trails between the two cities. The Europeans, mostly French and German, adopted and developed them for their own use. Andrew J. Vieau, whose father came as a trader to Milwaukee in 1795, referring to the road between Green Bay and Milwaukee in 1837, writes: “This patch was originally an Indian trail and very crooked but the whites would straightened it by cutting across lots each winter with their jumpers, wearing bare streaks through the thin covering, to be followed in the summer by foot and horse back travel along the shortened path.”2 A jumper was the type of sled known as a French train, consisting of a box some six feet long and three feet wide, which was drawn over the surface of the snow.
The Green Bay trail began in Chicago with two alternative routes, each of which gave rise, in the period of European settlement, to an important highway. The first, which is the one more commonly identified with Green Bay road, started at the north end of the Michigan Boulevard bridge and ran north along the height of land between the lake shore and the North Branch of the river. The route led north on Rush Street as far as Chicago Avenue and from there northwesterly for a mile to the intersection of Clark Street and North Avenue. In the earlier life of the city this diagonal path was represented by a road, but modern city building pays little heed to the preservation of Indian trails, and all traces of this diagonal path has long since disappeared. Professor Halsey, an industrious historian of Lake County, recorded in 1860 that he lived at the south end of this diagonal, and it was then and for several years afterward known as the Green Bay Road. Continuing northwest, the trail kept inland from the lake some distance, coming in sight of it between Chicago and Milwaukee only at Gross Point (now Evanston). It passes Waukegan three miles inland, Kenosha five miles, and Racine about the same distance.
In 1831, a post office was established in Chicago and for some time cities for 50 miles around became tributary to Chicago for its postal facilities. It wasn’t until the middle 1830’s that settlers in any numbers began to turn their attention to the wooded area to the north of the city.
The primary use of the Green Bay road during the pioneer days of Chicago was as a mail route between the two forts and it is here where most of our information about the conditions of this road are gathered.
Instances of northern settlement can be observed as early as the 1820’s. A mail route between the military posts at Green Bay and Chicago, over which a carrier passed once a month, was in use as early as 1825. The earliest descriptions of travel over the road, known as Green Bay Trail, are from the narratives of the mail carriers who, before the coming of the settlers, traversed the wilderness between Fort Howard in Green Bay, Wisconsin and Fort Dearborn in Chicago. John H. Fonda, with his French Canadian companion, Boiseley, “ran the mail” between these two forts in the winter of 1826. According to Milo Quaife, in his book Chicago’s Highways - Old and New, Fonda was garbed in a smoke-tanned buckskin hunting shirt, trimmed leggings of the same material, a wolf-skin chapeau with the animal’s tail still attached, and moccasins of elk-hide. He carried a heavenly mountaineer’s rifle with shortened barrel and a strap attached so that it could be slung over his back. A powder horn hung by a strap from his shoulder, while a belt around his waist held a sheath knife and a pair of pistols, in addition to a short-handled axe. Attached to the belt, also, was a pouch of mink-skin in which he carried his rifle bullets. Boiseley was dressed similarly and he had with him a long Indian gun and always carried in his belt a large knife, pistol, and hatchet. Like most of the voyagers he was superstitious, and tied to his horn were several charms which were supposed to possess some mysterious power to preserve the wearer from harm.
The most important item of the outfit, however, was the receptacle which contained the mail-a-flat tin box or canister, covered with untanned deer hide.
At this time the mail was carried by messenger on foot. Later, stage coach companies competed for business to deliver the mail as well as to transport passengers. For Fonda and Boiseley however, the round trip of nearly 500 miles on foot usually consumed a month, and since the region traversed was an utter wilderness the men were forced to rely entirely upon their own resources. If for any reason the carrier was delayed beyond the expected time, the presumption was that he had been detained by Indians or fallen a victim to starvation.
Leaving Green Bay on foot, laden with arms, blankets, and provisions, as well as the mail, the two men traveled the two hundred and fifty miles following the Indian trail leading to Green Bay southeast, passing through dense woods of pine interspersed with cedar swamps and the occasional grove of red oak. Encounters with all kinds of animal life supplied them with food as well a little danger such as the occasional encounter with a wildcat. It can be assumed that given the proximity to the lake of what later became Edgewater, this portion of the area traversed by these two men was primarily prairie land with sand dunes, tall grass, and little in the way of trees except along the river banks. While an abundance of wildlife provided nourishment for the long journey, the real hazards of such a trip were those of the hardships and exposure of wilderness travel. A Canadian half-breed who had frozen his feet while carrying the mail from Green Bay to Chicago became the subject of the first capital surgical operation on record to be performed at Chicago. The incident took place in 1832 and the surgery was conducted by Dr. Elijah Harmon, who has been denominated the “Father of Medicine” in Chicago. The procedure consisted of tying up the man, applying a tourniquet to each lower extremity, and with the aid of rusty instruments, removing one entire foot and a large portion of the other.
Though Indians during this time period were generally peaceful, they were liable to avenge upon travelers for harm done to them by some other European, creating another problem for the mail carriers.
Improvements in the road by the military, though slow, made travel on Green Bay Road much easier.
Improvements made for military use
The process of transforming the Green Bay trail into a highway able to accommodate the needs of the European settlers was begun by the federal governments. A logical complement to the establishment of garrisons at Chicago, Green Bay, Portage, and Prairie du Chien was the construction of roads to make possible the free movement of troops between points. The first military road in Wisconsin was designed to connect Fort Howard at Green Bay with Fort Winnebago at the Fox-Wisconsin Portage. In 1830, Congress appropriated funds of $2,000 for the purpose of improving this road. However, the work of surveying the area did not begin until October, 1832. The road as surveyed ran up the south side of the Fox and along the east side of Lake Winnebago, the route being identical as far as Fond du Lac with the Indian trail to Milwaukee. The work of improvement chiefly consisted of cutting a narrow track through the forest. Captain Martin Scott had the oversight of the twelve-mile section east of Lake Winnebago. He cut the road straight as an arrow for the entire distance, and this section was long known as “Scott’s straight cut”.
The road from Chicago to Green Bay dates its beginning from an act of Congress approved June 15, 1832, for the establishment of a post road between these points. A report made to the Secretary of War in October, 1833, states that the funds appropriated had been applied to the purpose intended, while a later report indicates that the survey was completed the following year. Andrea’s History of Chicago states that stakes were driven and blazed along the line, and that as far as Milwaukee the road was “somewhat improved” by cutting out the trees to the width of two rods (33 feet) and laying puncheon and log bridges over the impassable streams. Yet one person who traveled the road in the spring of 1835 relates that from Waukegan to Milwaukee the road was still a primitive Indian trail. Present day single lane roads are thirty-three feet wide and a double lane road measures sixty-six feet wide. With parking not an issue during this time period the thirty-three foot road would have been sufficient for the passage of two truck farming carts or the ability for one to turn around. By 1832, when improvements began on Green Bay Road, farming settlement had already begun in the area covered in this thesis.
Sometime in the mid-1820’s, a man named John K. Clark, generally known as “Indian Clark,” built a cabin some distance up on the North Branch, at Northfield, a few miles west of where Winnetka now stands, and devoted himself to hunting and horse trading. Archibald Clybourn had a farm and slaughtering establishment about four miles up the North Branch, near the spot now known as Clybourn Junction, and furnished vegetables and meat to the military post at Fort Dearborn. Clybourn’s farm for a long time was the limit of settlement to the north. “Indian Clark” was a half brother of Archibald Clybourn.4 The name Green Bay Road at a later date changed to Clark Street but is not named after the early settler John K. Clark. It was named after General George Rogers Clark (1752-1818) a revolutionary war hero who captured much of the Northwestern territory including the present state of Illinois from the British.5 However, Clybourn Street is named after John Clark’s half brother Archibald Clybourn.
In the 1840’s and 1850’s, travel on Green Bay road became more frequent as Europeans immigrating from countries such as Luxembourg and Germany were attracted to the northern area’s good farming soil. Here they could own and cultivate far more land than could ever be possible in their home countries. A few of them settled in the area that is now Edgewater, and as a result Green Bay Road became a truck farming route that led into the South Water Market area of Chicago in near the central city. Green Bay Road at this time was being called a road rather than a trail. As were the majority of the road at this time, Green Bay was still a dirt road. However, travel became easier as Chicago began implementing plank roads.
About our Author: Ray Noesen moved to Lakewood Balmoral in September of 1996 when he began the Masters of Science program in Historical Architectural Preservation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A fourth generation Chicagoan, he became interested in the neighborhood and began researching it. This led him to his thesis “The Contributions of Two Commercial Avenues to the Historic District of Lakewood Balmoral” which has been published in the Ryerson and Flaxman Libraries. Our story about Green Bay Road, now Clark Street is an excerpt from that thesis. Ray graduated in May 1998 and has continued to take an active role in the community. He served as a tour guide for two EHS home tours. He is a member of the Lakewood Balmoral Historic District Committee.