The Skokie Lagoons
Nature Bulletin No. 646 September 9, 1961
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
John J. Duffy, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
THE SKOKIE LAGOONS
The Skokie Lagoons and their surroundings comprise a remarkable
development of which we in the Forest Preserve District are extremely
proud. They lie in the valley west of three north shore suburbs --
Wilmette, Winnetka and Glencoe -- between Willow Road and Dundee
Road. They fulfill a dream of many people for many years: the
transformation of a great marsh, ruined by drainage ditches, into an area
as notable for its scenic beauty as for the recreation it provides.
The Skokie valley lies between two broad ridges of glacial drift.
Originally, the southern portion was an elongated shallow bay of
ancient Lake Chicago when that ancestor of Lake Michigan was at its
highest level. As the lake level dropped the bay became a marsh. Into
and out of it flowed a stream, now called the Skokie River or East Fork,
that drained a watershed extending northward beyond Waukegan.
Emerging, its course was deflected westward by a long sand bar until,
joined by the Middle Fork, they could turn southward and, joined by the
West Fork, form the North Branch of the Chicago River.
Chewab Skokie, meaning "big wet prairie", was the Potawatomi name
for that marsh. Until this century it had a distinction and beauty all its
own. Mysterious and fascinating in all seasons, impenetrable in places
with tall grasses and wildflowers, teaming with waterfowl, wading
birds, songbirds, muskrats, mink, turtles and fish -- the Skokie marsh
was a resource for unlimited exploration and enjoyment. In flood times
it became a shimmering lake from ridge to ridge.
The topsoil was mostly peat and muck from one to four feet deep,
underlaid by glacial clays including an impenetrable rubbery layer. By
1900 a group of Hollanders were raising choice "Glencoe horse-radish"
in rich loamy soils along the eastern border; and 20 years later the
marsh had been almost completely drained by speculators who sought,
unsuccessfully, to convert it into truck farms.
the outlet was inadequate, during spring floods it became a
lake that inundated adjacent property and all roads in the valley. In dry
autumns the peat beds, ignited by fires in the rank vegetation, burned
for months and shrouded the countryside with dense acrid smoke.
Mosquitoes were also a serious nuisance.
1933 the Forest Preserve District had acquired most of the Skokie
marsh and lands on both banks of its outlet. As recommended in 1929
by the Advisory Committee to the Board of Commissioners, plans for
its conversion into a series of lagoons -- and a clay model -- had been
completed. So, when the Civilian Conservation Corps was created in
1933, ten companies were allocated to this huge project. Using heavy
equipment, and aided by several thousand CWA workers, construction
proceeded continuously until 1942. Four million cubic yards of earth
Now there are seven lagoons with a total normal water area of 190 acres
and a flood plain of 434 acres. They are held within undulating dikes of
the excavated material by a main control dam at Willow Road. Three
low dams maintain three water levels close to the surface of several
marshy islands. The lagoons provide fishing, boating, waterfowl refuges
and, along their shores, many attractive picnic areas. A ruined marsh
has become a beautiful recreational area.
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Update: June 2012