Our Priarie Centennial
Nature Bulletin No. 159 September 11, 1948
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
William N. Erickson, President
Roberts Mann, Supt. of Conservation
OUR PRAIRIE CENTENNIAL
This year we celebrate the centennial of two events which foretold the
greatness of Chicago and the conversion of the prairies into the bread
basket of the nation. In 1848 the Illinois and Michigan Canal was
completed, 96 miles in length, enabling boats and barges to travel
between Lake Michigan and the deep water of the Illinois River at Peru;
thence to the Mississippi. In that same year, the Galena and Chicago
Union Railway was completed across the 12 terrible miles of swamp
between Chicago and the DesPlaines River. Today, Chicago is the
greatest railroad center in the world and the prairies are all farm land.
The early settlers gazed with awe as they emerged from the dark
wooded hills, valleys and uplands of the eastern and southern states,
and first beheld the Illinois prairie -- a vast expanse of sun-drenched
grassland reaching to the horizon. Back east it had been necessary to
hew down trees and clear away brush before the land could be tilled and
the sun could shine upon the first crops planted among the stumps.
Years toil were necessary to dig out the stumps and, frequently, to clear
the land of rocks.
The rich deep soils of the prairies were covered only with sod. But this
sod was so thick and tough that it could not be turned until, in the
1830's, the steel moldboard plow was developed. Even then it was often
necessary to hitch several horse or oxen to a single plow and use an ax
to chop through the matted roots of the tall prairie grasses ahead of the
plow share. Furthermore, most of the prairies were so flat that they were
wet much of the time and, eventually, great ditches had to be dug by
hand or with teams, and connected with the tile drains laid under the
fields before they could be farmed. Hordes of mosquitoes made life
miserable and transmitted malaria, then called "ague", that wracked the
pioneers' bodies with chills and fever.
So the first prairie farmers, lacking the improved means of
transportation later furnished by canal and railroad, settled on timbered
ridges or along small streams bordered with trees. From the timber they
got lumber to build houses and barns, fuel for cooking and heating,
wood for fences, furniture, tools, etc.
Prairie life was rugged.
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Update: June 2012