Ghosts of the Quarries

Icebox Quarry, Lemont, Illinois. The Illinois and Michigan Canal was dug through limestone, and after the canal opened in 1848 business owners in Lemont turned to quarrying stone. This stone was so popular at one time that the Sears catalogue sold a paint color called Lemont Stone. In the early 1900s the stone’s popularity started to wane and eventually quarries were abandoned, in some cases leaving the pumps that had kept them dry in place. The quarries eventually filled, and during the forties and fifties became popular swimming holes. Due to a number of drownings, swimming is no longer allowed, but the quarries are open today for fishing and scenic hiking. Photo compliments of the Lemont Area Historical Society.

Many ghost hunters describe something called the “limestone theory,” holding that paranormal activity is more frequent in areas where there are large amounts of limestone. One possible explanation is that the chemical makeup of limestone is similar to that of magnetic recording tape, and therefore is prone to being imprinted, thus capturing and storing activity. Another theory is that the chemical make-up of limestone is prone to drawing, storing and releasing electromagnetic fields (EMF) on which “hauntings” depend, thus enhancing any activity that happens to be in the area.

I’m probably using a lot of incorrect language here, as I am neither a geologist nor a paranormal investigator. The point is that regardless of whether one believes in the ability of such stone to capture impressions or be used as an energy source for paranormal activity, regardless of the science, in other words, areas where large amounts of limestone exist do apparently have more reported paranormal incidents.

The stone that exists in the Lemont-Joliet region is dolomite limestone with a high percentage of crystalline structure. This adds credence to the electromagnetic field theory, should you choose to believe that.

Here are some of the experiences that have happened near Lemont quarries:

Archer Avenue, said to be one of the most haunted roads in America, is the site of many tales of Resurrection Mary, the haunted Willowbrook Ballroom, and ghosts at St. James at Sag Bridge: monks, glowing caskets, the woman in white, the disappearing carriage, etc. I’ve described these in a previous post so I won’t repeat them here, except to mention that these areas are adjacent to quarries.

Aside from the stone itself, it is known that many Irish-American canal workers died from disease, poor living and working conditions, and violence in the 1840s when the I and M Canal was being built; later quarry workers shared the same conditions and fate. Many were buried at St. James at Sag Bridge, but it is said that, due to poverty, some of the deceased were cremated and their ashes scattered over the quarries. Most people who believe in the supernatural will say that people who died violently or untimely are more likely to remain as spirits.

American Indians lived in the area since before Columbus; remnants of their villages have been found in the Des Plaines and Sag valleys. One could surmise that such burials, combined with the underlying beds of local limestone so close to the surface, could account for some of the tales of Indians on horseback being seen in the area long after the tribes had moved to western states.

In 1897, the skeletons of nine Indians were dug up near the quarries, followed by a rash of reported hauntings: phantom Indians on horseback riding through the town at night and other visions of roaming spirits. Fearing the hauntings were due to disturbing the skeletons, residents demanded they be reburied. Some were reinterred, but some ended up at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Bachelors Grove Cemetery in Midlothian, Illinois continues to mystify visitors with an astounding variety of paranormal experiences: ghosts, lights, mystery houses, disorientation, electronic and automotive malfunctions, among others. It is one of the most haunted spots in the Chicago area and located beside a quarry.

Not all stone in the area remained here. Chicago’s Water Tower on North Michigan Avenue is constructed of stone quarried in Lemont. Stories are told of the ghost of the “Hanging Man,” seen in one of the tower windows, and thought to be that of the “Lone Pumpman,”—the only worker who stayed behind during the Great Fire of 1871.

Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago is another building made from Lemont stone. In 1924, Chicago Gang boss Dion O’Banion was shot and killed in the flower shop he owned directly across the street from Holy Name, reportedly on the orders of Johnny Torrio and Al Capone. Bullets from the ambush lodged in the cornerstone of Holy Name and it is reported that despite numerous attempts to patch the holes they continue to reappear.

I’m not going to ask you to believe that Lemont stone caused all of this—that’s up to you. After all, the area has also been the home of many Irish, who have been known to tell a tale or two….

Photo of Consumers Quarry, Lemont, about 1890. Photo courtesy of the Lemont Area Historical Society.

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Have Yourself an Early Illinois Christmas!

Holly sprigs secured with bits of wax to each window pane are authentic reproductions from 18th century depictions. Photo of Stephenson House provided by Diane Andersen.


When I found out my writer friend, Diane Andersen, had written about historic Illinois Christmas traditions, I invited her to write something for my December blog, and she graciously accepted.


By way of introduction, although exploration and fur trading was taking place in Illinois as long ago as the 1600s, the earliest permanent European settlements were downstate since the earliest settlers came from eastern states by way of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers after the Revolutionary War. The northern part of Illinois was not open for settlement until the 1830s.

The Stephenson House, the home of one of the earliest Illinois settlers, is located in Edwardsville, Illinois, about twenty-five miles northeast of St. Louis. Diane is affiliated with the historical home. She has recently published a book about early Illinois traditions and she has written a novel that is due to be published this spring.

Have Yourself an Early Illinois Christmas!

by D. L. Andersen

An “old fashioned” Christmas brings to mind all sorts of images from stockings hung by the fire to holly and mistletoe and perhaps wandering into the woods to chop down the perfect pine tree for the parlor. Its roast goose and plum pudding and wassail toasted among wandering carolers. Those are the things I imagined and longed to experience after reading stories of Christmas past from Dickens’ chilling tales to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s cozy log cabin Christmases . It’s a wonderful time for me to share all the history and lore of those early American Yuletides and revel in experiencing a truly old fashioned Christmas as if actually time traveling into the past. 

The 1820 Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House, a historic site in Southern Illinois, holds a Christmas Candlelight tour every Thanksgiving Weekend. We have gone to painstaking detail to interpret just what an early American Christmas in Illinois might have been like. Here are just a few of the traditions visitors will learn about and interact with as they wander through our nearly 200 year old site, enjoying a Merry Christmas together:

Decorations: You won’t find a Christmas tree at the Stephenson House. It’s the first thing most visitors wonder about. However, Christmas trees did not become popular in America until around the time of the Civil War. You might find a few families decorating a small tree, as seen in a few paintings from the early 1800s, but it was not the quintessential part of everyone’s holiday décor. Rather at most they might hang a few pine boughs, holly or ivy and mistletoe, as some old poems and carols describe. At the Stephenson House we have copied exact decorations from period woodcuts and lithographs showing a small sprig of holly in every windowpane. Each sprig is mounted with a small dab of beeswax—a natural adhesive that would have been readily available. Other decorations in the house include an apple cone and red ribbons strewn over tables and linens. Early Americans would have used what they had on hand, collecting greenery from the woods and gardens or hand making ornaments. They likely would not have decorated much unless they were entertaining guests and the decorations would only have lasted for a few days, not an entire month as is common now. Candles would have been a necessary light source used on a daily basis rather than just for a cozy glow for the holidays. Yet when the house is all done up and the candles are lit, it feels very festive and full of that old fashioned flavor worthy of a Thomas Kincaid painting, something Laura Ingalls or Charles Dickens might feel right at home in. 

Apples adorn a wooden cone in the Stephenson House dining room. Photo provided by Diane Andersen.

Carols: In the parlor of the Stephenson House is an antique pianoforte where carols are played during the Candlelight Event and visitors are invited to sing along. We bend the historical rules a bit there and allow standard favorites to be sung like Jingle Bells and White Christmas. However, our early American ancestors and the Stephenson family who once lived in the house would not recognize these carols. Yet most of the carols popular in the early 1800s would hardly be recognized today. Oh Come All Ye Faithful is one carol that has stood the test of time and would be well known by our American ancestors as well. But songs like Down in Yon Forest would more likely be heard in the homes of early Illinois as might also Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella or In Praise of Christmas.

Christmas Cuisine: Anyone who’s read Dickens A Christmas Carol remembers the scene of the Cratchet family eating dinner and glorying over the roast goose and plum pudding. These indeed were popular dishes of the 1800s and are still with us today. In learning to interpret an authentic early American Christmas, I was most surprised to find many of our holiday treats have not changed much over the years, in spite of having so many other modern options to take their place. Plum pudding, a steamed concoction of bread crumbs, dried fruits, suet (beef fat), eggs and sugar is not as tasty to some as Dickens makes it sound. Sugar plums are not all that bad though, surprisingly made of sugar coated dates stuffed with a mixture of chocolate and ground nuts. It’s most surprising of all to know that neither sweet treat is made with plums in spite of the name. Other treats of the era that we have on display are gingerbread and shortbread as well as wassail, spiced apple cider usually spiked with rum or whiskey. According to a tradition dating back to Medieval Times, wassail was served in a bowl carried from house to house by carolers. The occupants of the house were given a piece of toast to dip into the bowl, hence the beginnings of our word “toast” in sharing a drink and offering a salute or a good word between friends.

These and more traditions and the older Christmas carols were woven into my latest story, Ben’s Christmas Treasury. It is reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Story and Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, based on the life and times of Benjamin Stephenson, a founding father of Illinois.  For more information on the historic site visit their website:

Thank you, Pat, for allowing me to share one of my favorite topics with your readers.

Ben’s Christmas Treasury
is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.


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A Walk along the River


The Des Plaines River near Lemont Road. Note the north bluff of the river in the distance, the inlets and dense grasses on the valley floor.

The Des Plaines River near Lemont Road.
Note the north bluff of the river in the distance, the inlets and dense grasses on the valley floor.

Yesterday afternoon my husband pulled me away from my computer to take a walk on what might turn out to be the last warm day before the onset of winter. I picked the place though. I had done a lot of walking and picture-taking from the bluffs that overlook the Des Plaines River Valley surrounding Lemont, but it had been a while (should I admit a couple of years?) since I checked out what was happening down in the valley, along the river.  

There is an industrial road that runs along the river. It’s private and full of potholes, but we drove down it anyway. Between the road and the river is a bike trail, which is separated from the road by a fence. At I-355 the trail meets Veteran’s Memorial Trail toward Woodridge. We looked for a parking lot so we could walk the trail, but didn’t find one. There was no real place to leave the car, and no break in the fence. So we went back to the access road near Lemont Road and entered the trail there.

Centennial Bike Trail along Des Plaines River. Note fence separating trail from dirt road on the left.

Centennial Bike Trail along Des Plaines River.
Note fence separating trail from dirt road on the left.

A sign greeted us, which explained that the fence we were looking at was not to protect bike-riders from the road, but to keep those crazy jumping Asian carp in the river! If you have read my books or earlier blog posts you will already know that the Des Plaines River is prone to flooding large parts of the valley here, and that the river runs parallel to the Sanitary Canal.

If the river were to raise significantly, which historically it has done, there is danger that the floodwaters, potentially home to voracious Asian carp, could flow into the Sanitary Canal and gain access to the Great Lakes via Lake Michigan. The fence is there to prevent that.

The Centennial Trail runs from Willow Springs to Romeoville along the south side of the Des Plaines River and then connects to the 70-mile I & M Canal Trail. We were the only walkers on the trail.

Although we did encounter a runner and a few bicycle riders, mostly we were alone and it was quite peaceful. If I ignored the dirt road and fence, it was easy to imagine I was transported back to the time when only the Potawatomi lived along the river, making their home on the north bluff I saw in the distance. I found multiple inlets on the north shore, and dense grasses—the islands and swampy areas I had written about in The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, where the victim’s body had been found. I pictured Native American homes tucked beyond the swamp on the bluff beyond. I saw piles of dead trees caught in the waters near bridges. This view couldn’t look a whole lot different than it must have two hundred years ago. (See first photo above.)

I grinned as I pointed these things out excitedly to my husband, who was at least interested if not as delighted as I was.  This is one of the rewards of being a writer: experiencing in real life what you have imagined in your stories. It is a great feeling, and it was a great walk.

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THE BONAPARTES’ HONEYMOON AT NIAGARA FALLS: Guest Post, Ruth Hull Chatlien, author of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte

This is the view the Bonapartes would have seen, although today surrounded by pavement, fences, and tourists. Photo from Niagara Falls State Park Photo Gallery.

This is the view the Bonapartes would have seen, although today surrounded by pavement, fences, and tourists. Photo from Niagara Falls State Park Photo Gallery.

When I read The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien, I was surprised to find that Niagara Falls was visited by tourists as early as 1804, by people such as Jerome Bonaparte and his wife, as well as Aaron Burr’s daughter and husband. As a follow-up to my post about Niagara Falls, I asked Ruth if she would be kind enough to tell us more, and today she has written this guest post.

Thanks, Pat, for inviting me to be a guest on your blog.

Pat asked me to talk a little bit about the role Niagara Falls plays in my historical novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. The novel tells the story of the Elizabeth (Betsy) Patterson, the daughter of a wealthy American merchant, and Jerome Bonaparte, youngest brother of Napoleon. The two met in Baltimore in September 1803 and impulsively married by the end of the year. In 1804, they went on a wedding trip—first to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.

At the time, France and Britain were at war. British warships were stalking the waters outside New York Harbor, hoping to catch Napoleon’s baby brother and make him a hostage, so Jerome and Betsy were unable to sail to France as they wanted. During their trip, the Bonapartes had met Aaron Burr, who told them about his daughter Theodosia’s trip to Niagara Falls. (Theodosia Burr and her husband Joseph Alston were the first couple ever to honeymoon at the falls.) Jerome decided he wanted to see such an impressive sight before he left the United States.

Although it’s hard to believe now, Niagara Falls was still a pristine wilderness at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The following excerpt portrays Jerome and Betsy’s arrival at the falls.

On their ninth day out from Utica, they began to hear a low thrumming sound ahead of them. The further they rode, the louder it grew until it was a dull roar, like the distant sound of violent waves crashing on shore. “That must be the falls,” Jerome said. “Burr said that you can hear their thunder for twenty-five miles or more.”

They did not reach the falls that night or even the next day, although the sound increased continually. Their tenth night out, as Betsy tried to fall asleep, she felt the noise vibrate inside her as a physical presence, and she wondered how anyone ever got used to the roaring.

Early the next day, they reached the Niagara River. Riding on the northeast bank, they passed a place where the river divided to flow around a huge, heavily wooded island. Immediately beyond it, the river was about two miles wide, but the rocky gorge through which it ran quickly narrowed.

The crashing water was deafening. Jerome gestured with his arm and led the way to a high point, where he dismounted. Betsy followed and saw that they were on a promontory overlooking two gigantic waterfalls. The near set of falls featured tons of water plummeting from a wide precipice. The more distant and even wider set of falls was curved like a horseshoe. The waterfalls were much taller than she had imagined; they looked to be more than twice the height of the Presidential Mansion. The cascading water churned and foamed, creating a thick white mist that rose for hundreds of feet.

Jerome led their horses away from the promontory’s edge and tied them to a tree in a grove twenty feet away. Returning to Betsy, he slipped his arms around her waist from behind.

The air was filled with a cool spray, and the thunderous sound enveloped them. Mesmerized by the sight of the tremendous stream racing toward the precipice, Betsy felt that it symbolized the way she and Jerome were caught in the onrush of forces beyond their control. As she gazed upstream, she saw a dark shape moving in the water. A young deer struggled in the river, trying frantically to swim to shore, but the forward crush of the water was too powerful to escape. The animal swept over the edge of the falls and disappeared. Horrified, Betsy hid her face against Jerome’s chest.

Was that to be their fate? By defying Napoleon, were they flinging themselves over a cataract to their own destruction?

Today you can catch a light show at Niagara Falls. Author's Photo.

Today you can catch a light show at Niagara Falls. Author’s Photo.

Thank you, Ruth. Those who would like to know more about this story can purchase The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte at Amazon, in both print and ebook editions.




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Upcoming Speaking Engagements: October 22, November 5, November 10

patcamalliereposter-elgin-novel-ideas-oct-22-2016-copyWant to know more about what it takes to see your novel in print?

Join me Saturday in Elgin!

Free program but be sure to register: or call 847-429-4597

Saturday in Elgin doesn’t work for you?

The same program will be given at the Lemont Library.

Saturday, November 5, 2016, 1-3 pm

Lemont Public Library, 50 E. Wend, Lemont

A Novel Approach

A fast-paced program designed to give a condensed view of the novel-writing process based on first-hand experience. Includes basic information on setting, characters, organization, helpful tips, tools and resources, editing, publishing, and book promotion.

Free Program, Registration required:
See or call  630-257-6541.



Or for a very different program,  join me at Frugal Muse on  Thursday night at 6 pm,  November 10.

During this program I will show  photos of local sites visited in my books, accompanied by readings
featuring those places.

Free program: Register at

Frugal Muse – (630) 427-1140

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Last month I wrote about the Chicago Portage, the route used by American Indians, explorers, and others to travel from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, and the reason Chicago became one of the greatest cities in the world.

I took my family on vacation to Niagara Falls this past summer, and, knowing that originally men traveled the interior of our country on water, I could not help but wonder what it would have taken to get from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. Can you imagine paddling a canoe up the Niagara River, encountering rapids along the way, and then seeing this in front of you?

American Falls at Niagara, New York, as seen from the base of the falls.

American Falls at Niagara, New York, as seen from the base of the falls.

The waters of Lake Erie roar along for thirty-five miles through the Niagara River to Lake Ontario, descending from 571 feet above sea level to 245 feet, a drop of 326 feet. Niagara Falls plunges 170 feet into a pool estimated to be 100 feet deep. The remaining drop of 156 feet is made over a series of rapids and around many islands in the river on both sides of the falls. Much of the river is impassable, and had to be portaged. And yes, portage routes were known and traveled, first by Seneca Indians, and as early as 1615 by French traders.

The Cascade Rapids, Niagara River above American Falls.

The Cascade Rapids, Niagara River above American Falls.

The portage began about six miles below the falls, at a Seneca Indian Village, later called Lewiston, on the American side of the river. From there, travelers climbed three elevations that they called “three mountains” to arrive a mile or two (historically debated) above the falls. The Seneca were “in charge” of the route. Travelers had to appeal to them to travel it, and hire them to do the work.

By 1719 French fur trade was prospering, and the Joncaire Trade Post and landing were established at the village, then called Frenchman’s Landing. The French cut a road through the portage to make the work easier.

In 1759 the English took control of the route and “improved” it, constructing in 1764 what was the first “railway” built in North America. It consisted of two parallel-running cars (or trams), each on a separate pair of wooden rails supported on stone pillars. A cable linked the cars, and when loaded with equal weight it required little effort to bring one car up while gravity pulled the other down. This allowed heavy goods to be passed up and down a 75-foot gulley along the route.

In 1796, the Jay Treaty established the international boundary separating the United States from Canada at the river. The earliest portage routes were on the American side, but after the treaty another route was developed within the borders of Canada. 

After the War of 1812 ended in 1815, construction began on the Erie (opened 1825) and Welland (opened 1829) Canals, and with their opening, both American and Canadian portage routes were abandoned, leaving today little if any trace of their existence.

Most of this information came from articles written by Philip Vierling. Phil was largely responsible for the preservation of the Chicago Portage and the creation of the Chicago Portage Ledger. He provided careful research of early Chicago, personally cut footpaths, installed interpretive signs, and built a dam to hold water in Portage Creek, among many other accomplishments, even cutting vegetation with scissors and carrying in 1400 pounds of concrete bag by bag on his back! I was fortunate to be able to talk with Phil this spring, and regret I did not have the chance to know him better, as he passed away in August of this year. He will be well remembered and missed by all who knew this remarkable man.

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Join Me at my Book Release Party October 1

 I’d like to invite you to my  Book Release Party

at Smokey Row Antiques

on Saturday, October 1

from 3 pm to 5 pm.

Come and say hello, share  some refreshments, and  help me celebrate the

publication of

The Mystery At Black Partridge Woods.

I’ll be so happy to welcome my friends, both old and new, and hope you will spare some time to stop by and enjoy some conversation and light refreshments!



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Join Me at my Book Release Party October 1 or Lemont Historical Society’s Art Walk on Friday night!

Pat Camalliere at Book Release Party April 26, 2015, The Inn at Smokey Row

My official Book Release Party is at Smokey Row Antiques on Saturday, October 1 at 3 pm.

Come and say hello, share some refreshments, and help me celebrate the publication of

The Mystery At Black Partridge Woods.

I will also be signing books this Friday, 6:30 pm at the

Lemont Historical Society’s Art Walk, beginning at 306 Lemont Street

Enjoy a relaxing evening that will introduce you to the many artists in the Lemont area. Here’s what’s going on:

-The “Walk” will begin at the Lemont Historical Society at 6:30 with a reception2016-lahs-art-walk-flyer-copy and visit from President Lincoln as well as the opening of their new exhibit commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Viet Nam War. Lincoln will begin his walk through town at 7 pm.

At Budnik Plaza there will be a shuttle talking strollers back and forth to the Lemont Center for the Arts to view their new exhibit “Lemont Then and Now”.

There will be Lemont Art Center members at the murals depicting the Lemont Massacre of 1885 as well as the Rudy Kling mural.

– Artists will be located throughout town at the following locations:
·        VFW Hall
·        Petersen’s Main Inn
·        The Vault
·        Mabel’s Market
·        Sinfully Delicious Cupcakes
·        L’Arte e Vita Studio
·        Smokey Row Antique Shop
·        Stonehouse Pub

Also, there will be a d.j. and face painter sponsored by Edward Jones at the plaza and Sweetwater Deli.

There will be a book signing at the Inn at Smokey Row featuring author Pat Camalliere’s new release, The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods.

The following participating establishments will have specials:
·        Otto Brandt Cellars
·        Gelsosomo’s Pizzeria & Pub
·        Nick’s Tavern
·        Old Town Restaurant
·        Front Street Cantina

Second Chance Thrift Shop will be having a sale – 75% off all of their artwork and frames and $1.00 for all clothing excluding coats.

Hope to see you there!

For those of you who missed “A River Thru History Rendezvous” at Willow Springs this weekend, we had terrific weather and it was a fun event. Perhaps you can make it next year. Here’s a couple of pictures:


A River Thru History Rendezvous, 2016: Parade and Campground

A River Thru History Rendezvous, 2016: Parade and Campground

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Join Me at A River Thru History Rendezvous September 10 & 11

Where:Columbia Woods, Willow Springs Road and Corcoran Road, Willow Springs When: 10 am to 5 pm Saturday, September 10; 10 am to 4 pm Sunday, September 11 For info:

Where: Columbia Woods, Willow Springs Road and Corcoran Road, Willow Springs
When: 10 am to 5 pm Saturday, September 10; 10 am to 4 pm Sunday, September 11
For info:

Those of you who follow this blog are well acquainted by now with the importance of the area’s rivers and waterways to the Chicago area. This weekend you have a unique opportunity to see this history first-hand at A River Thru History Rendezvous in Willow Springs. I will be there, signing my new release, The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, which is set in the time and place that Rendezvous depicts.

If you’ve never been to a reenactment event, here’s your chance. Reenactors select a character from history and play that role, dressing in period costume, camping, displaying trades and authentic items, in a campground located along the river. Visitors can circulate through the camps and talk to the participants, learning about the fur trade era. There will be voyageurs, craftsmen, musicians and entertainers, games, animals, food, storytelling, tomahawk throwing, and more…

My new release, The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, has a scene that depicts a similar Rendezvous, and a main character is an Indian woman from this time period. I will have the books available for sale and signing at the pavilion. Stop by and say hello!

If you miss this opportunity to get your copy of The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, I will be at Lemont’s Art Walk on September 16 and my book release party will be on October 1. Watch for more details in upcoming announcements.


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The Chicago Portage and Its Importance

Photo I took at the Chicago Portage on one of my visits there, while conducting research for The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods. It gives a pretty good idea of what the area looked like in the early days—the early days being when American Indians and explorers traveled by canoe to Lake Michigan, and when they told Fr. Jacques Marquette about the route when he came this way in 1673.

Photo I took at the Chicago Portage on one of my visits there, while conducting research for The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods. It gives a pretty good idea of what the area looked like in the early days—the early days being when American Indians and explorers traveled by canoe to Lake Michigan, and when they told Fr. Jacques Marquette about the route when he came this way in 1673.

My new book release, The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, has a number of scenes where the characters travel through the Chicago Portage.  It was this arrangement of bodies of water and ground level that was responsible for the City of Chicago. To understand its importance, you need to know the geography.

Thirteen thousand years ago, Lake Chicago was a pre-glacial lake. It later receded and left Lake Michigan. The curved line on the far right is the shoreline of today’s Lake Michigan.

Thirteen thousand years ago, Lake Chicago was a pre-glacial lake. It later receded and left Lake Michigan. The curved line on the far right is the shoreline of today’s Lake Michigan.

The large “island” wedged where river meets the lake is Mount Forest Island. Today that island is Lemont, Palos, Willow Springs, and Cook County Forest Preserves, the western tip near the intersections of Route 83 and Archer Avenue. Two valleys formed on each side of the island, the Des Plaines River Valley on the north, the Sag Valley on the south. A good deal of both valleys, as well as much of the Chicago area, was swamp.

Rivers were used then like highways are today. The Des Plaines River runs south and west, beginning in Wisconsin and connecting to the Illinois River, and from there to the Mississippi and Gulf. The Chicago River ran parallel to the Des Plaines, but connected to Lake Michigan. These two rivers were only a few miles apart, and a low, swampy area connected them, becoming navigable after spring rains. This distance was a piece of cake! Men in those days were accustomed to carrying their canoes and belongings (portaging) over rough areas. This was just north of what is now Harlem Avenue and Route 55.

If Illinois was to be settled, people had to get from one place to another easily. How else to transport, for instance, a crop of corn? No sense growing it unless you could get it to a large population, right? No sense to have a farm, a village, a city, until transportation could be worked out. A port on Lake Michigan would connect the area to the east, but then what? No sense anyone coming to that port unless there was a population further west, and a way to get between the two.

It was this portage or low spot that connected the two rivers that was the reason for it all. Which is the reason the Illinois &Michigan Canal was built, to link the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The reason the state line was drawn where it is rather than across the bottom of Lake Michigan as originally planned. The reason Chicago developed into a transportation hub and one of the largest cities in the U.S.

Some historians propose—look at the old map above again—that originally the plan was to travel through the swamp to the Calumet River and then to Lake Michigan. Indians lived here for many years, and they had developed a line of villages on Mount Forest Island overlooking the “Sag,” or swamp, that lay roughly where 107th Street is today. “Sag” is a geologic term that describes a persistent low area, opposite of a ridge or bluff. Some proponents thought that would be a better route for a canal, and perhaps it would have been. It is likely that politics came into play…

The Indians, and earliest travelers and maps, referred to all the rivers as Chicago, or Chi-ca-gou, or many other spellings of the Indian word. This universal name caused a great deal of confusion when historians tried to figure out what the explorers were referring to. There are also many meanings of the name; contrary to what is commonly believed, “stinking onion” is not the only meaning. In fact, the Potawatomi meaning is “desolate,” which the Chicago Portage still is today.

Let’s try to describe what the traveler taking this route would have encountered. He would have paddled his bark canoe (bark so the canoe was light enough to carry across tough spots) upriver from the southwest, and when he passed what is today Summit, Illinois he would have come to an area where the river turned straight north, where trees hugged the bank, penetrated by many inlets. He would come to a small stream, and making his way up it, to a wider area called Mud Lake. The water would be stagnant, maybe smelly, vegetation covered, with shallow spots, and he might have to get out of his canoe and pull it. There would have been mosquitoes, gnats, leeches, other “nasties.” Eventually he could go no further, and he would stop and unload his canoe, piling his possessions on the first solid land he could find. He could not drag the canoe for fear of destroying the fragile bark. Then he would carry everything, including the canoe, a mile and a half (if he was lucky, farther when the river was low) over open prairie to a fork of the Chicago River, where he could continue (downstream now) to Fort Dearborn and Lake Michigan.

The Chicago Portage is a National Historic Site and you should visit it. You can walk the trails and view the signage on your own. The Friends of the Portage have either a walk or a lecture the first Saturday of every month. They also have excellent websites and a wealth of historic materials that are well researched. Check these websites: and

Go see it. You won’t be sorry. (Wear old shoes and bring bug spray!)


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