Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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.

Because 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.

By 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 were excavated.

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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