Portage to the future
Groups seek to promote historic Lyons site
By Steve Metsch
Driving on busy Harlem Avenue, just north of the Stevenson Expressway, you may have noticed a statue if you glanced west.
It’s a towering statue of a native American, Louis Joliet, Father Marquette and a canoe, recalling their visit in 1673.
It’s significant, representing a key historic element for Chicago and our nation. Yet it probably doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, supporters say.
That’s why a large group of diverse groups met Oct. 3 at the Summit Public Library to discuss ways to generate more interested in the Chicago Portage National Historic Site in Lyons.
It’s the actual site where Marquette and Joliet, with help from the local native Americans, portaged their canoes from the Des Plaines River about seven miles east to the Chicago River.
This statue, erected in 1989, shows Father Marquette and Louis Joliet with a Native American at the actual site where they would portage their canoes from the Des Plaines River east to the Chicago River. Several groups are looking at ways to improve the National Historic Site, one of two in Illinois. Photo by Steve Metsch.
The site, explained John Langer of Friends of the Portage, looms lare in history because it connected east and west.
The Des Plaines feeds into the Illinois River, then the Mississippi River and to the Gulf of Mexico. The Chicago River leads to Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes and all points east.
Representatives of the Illinois State Archeological Survey, Daughters of the American Revolution, Friends of the Chicago Portage, National Park Service, Canal Corridor Association, Lyons, the MWRD and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County attended, along with local residents.
They gathered in four small groups, kicking around ideas of how the site can be improved and better promoted.
Some may be surprised to learn it is one of two sites in Illinois on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The other is Abraham Lincoln’s home. Everybody is aware of that. You talk about the Chicago Portage and you get a blank look. The site is 98 acres and includes Portage Woods and Ottawa Woods,” said John Langer, of Friends of the Chicago Portage.
River access, more parking, improved trails, and building an interpretive center ranked high on the list of suggested changes.
“People aren’t aware it’s a historic site. It’s also a great birding site,” Langer said. “Because of this portage, that’s why Chicago is where it is today.”
La Grange resident Paul Lubenkov said “if they clean up the trail and had some historical markers, that could bring a lot of people into the area. It doesn’t seem to me that it would be that expensive.”
Lyons Village Trustee Dan Hilker thinks an improved site could generate more interest, adding, “if more people visit, more become aware of the community, Lyons, Summit, Stickney.”
Hilker noted that turning into the site from northbound Harlem Avenue could be a challenge and should be addressed: “I was on a PACE bus tour. Maybe they’d set this up as a stop?”
“Even though this looks little, there’s potential here,” Hilker said. “I think the community would be supportive.”
Being located so near the Stevenson Expressway could result in 500,000 visitors a year, Langer said.
Hopefully, the meeting will result in ideas that “raise the visibility,” Langer said.
“Volunteers are great,” Langer added, “but you need a staff to market and to connect with museums and schools and park districts.”
One group said it liked “the primitive nature of the site, how it probably was at the time of the portage.” Another called it “a living museum.”
The four groups later shared ideas.
Some of the other ideas were parking across Harlem Avenue from the site, increased access from the Des Plaines River, adding public art, bringing more elementary school students there, and more informative signage.
Kindy Kruller, a senior planner for the forest preserve district, said ideas generated in the meeting will be reviewed and narrowed down to possible options to discuss at a future meeting.
Summit Mayor Segio Rodriguez said he’d like to find a way to connect his village with the site using a bike path.
Friends of the Chicago Portage to offer tours of the portage site at 10 a.m. on the first Saturday of each month. The last tour offered this year is on Nov. 3. Tours resume next spring.
“I’d encourage anyone who hasn’t done it yet to take advantage of this. I was aware of the area but didn’t have comprehension of all the detailed information. They do a super job conducting the tour,” Lubenkov said.
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