Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Early Cook County Roads -- Part One
Nature Bulletin No. 738   January 11, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor

When Chicago was incorporated as a village in 1833 it was only a squalid hamlet of about 350 inhabitants and appeared to be so poorly situated that it was hopeless -- "crude cabins and flimsy shacks in a chaos of mud, rubbish and confusion. " Only a few feet above the level of Lake Michigan, the place was almost entirely surrounded by swamps and miles and miles of prairies that became nearly impassable after spring thaws and during periods of heavy rainfall.

There were only two important routes that afforded access at all times. One was the Green Bay Trail, ancestor of North Clark St. in Chicago, Ridge Ave. in Evanston, and Green Bay Road north of that. The other, traveled by the soldiers coming from Detroit to build Fort Dearborn in 1803, used the Great Sauk Trail to La Porte, Indiana, then a trail northwesterly to what is now Michigan City, and the firm sands of the lake beach the rest of the way.

Chicago had a tremendous potential in its strategic location at the foot of Lake Michigan, deep in the heart of the Middle West and at the gateway of the best route to the Mississippi valley. Lake vessels could discharge cargoes of commodities and people here, and take away products of this region, if available.

Unfortunately, few were available. The growth of early Chicago and its commerce was stymied by lack of transportation. It was dependent largely upon a few dirt roads so bottomless and hazardous much of the time that one of them -- marked by broken wheels, wrecks of wagons, and the bones of dead horses -- was called the Slough of Despond.

So, at its second meeting after Cook County had been created by an act of the Illinois legislature on January 15, 1831, the board of Cook County commissioners selected two heavily traveled country roads for improvement toward the fertile west and southwest. One was "from the town of Chicago to the house of B. Lawton, thence to the house of James Walker, on the Du Page River, and so on to the west line of the county. " The other was from Chicago "by the nearest and best way to the house of Widow Brown on Hickory Creek. " At that time, Cook County included all of what are now Du Page and Lake counties and most of Will county.

The first road, crossing the "dismal Nine-mile Swamp", went west on Madison St. to Whiskey Point (Western Ave. ), thence southwesterly on the Barry Point Trail to Laughton's Tavern (Riverside -- see Bulletin No. 696) where it forded the DesPlaines River and went southwest to Walker's Grove, now Plainfield. Portions of it still exist as Fifth Ave. in Chicago, Riverside Drive and Longcommon Road in Berwyn and Riverside, Barry Point Road in Lyons, and Plainfield Road from Ogden Ave. to Plainfield.

There is a dispute about the route taken from Chicago to Widow Brown's house in the woods on the north branch of Hickory Creek (east of Mokena). One historian asserts that it went southwest (on Archer Ave. to Justice Park), thence southerly through the Palos forests and across the Sag valley to about 151st St., and thence southwest on what later became the Bloomington State Road. Others assert that it went southward on State St. and Vincennes Ave. on the road to Blue Island, and thence southwesterly on what is now the Southwest Highway. Our next bulletin will describe how these and other dirt roads were superseded or improved by the makeshift construction of plank roads which, although temporary, contributed much toward the growth of infant Chicago.

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