Connecting Worlds: The story of the Chicago River Portage

Vol. XIX No. 3 - FALL 2008

Gary Mechanic from the Friends of the Chicago Portage presented an interesting and informative program at the EHS museum on October 15, 2008. He began the evening by asking how many in the audience were 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation Chicagoans. It was surprising that there were some who were 4th generation.

Next he took us back to the exploration of the Great Lakes by Louis Joliet and Father Marquette in 1673. Joliet was a trained geographer and took notes on all their travels. They learned from an Indian guide that there was a connection between the Chicago River and the DesPlaines River that would essentially connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi watershed. They decided to see for themselves, despite dire warnings of monsters in the river, dangerous Indians and extreme heat as you went further south. The first trip they took connected them in Wisconsin to the Mississippi but, after encountering the unfriendly Indians at the southern tip of Illinois, they returned up the Illinois river to the DesPlaines, where they found Mud Lake or what is now called the Chicago Portage.

The portage was about 1.4 miles long and required the transport of everything, including the canoes, over marshy land. It was not an easy portage but it was a significant one. This connection was the prelude to the building of the great city of Chicago at the mouth of the Chicago River. The site has been memorialized as the Chicago Portage National Historic Site and the Friends of the Chicago Portage offers tours in the warmer weather.

As you may remember, Father Marquette became ill on this trip and died not long after it. As for Joliet’s notes, they were kept in a strong box that was swept away when they encountered rapids up near Lake Huron.

The Chicago Portage is marked in a park owned by the Chicago Park District at Origins Park 2800 S. Ashland.

The audience enjoyed learning about the portage and the historical background that was the prelude to Chicago. Mr. Mechanic showed the “Connecting Worlds” DVD and then concluded by answering questions.