Chicago Portage - The Waterway West
Photo by Dave Waycie

The Chicago Portage National Historic Site is at the head of the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor. The Portage site is located on land owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County west of Harlem Avenue, south of Joliet Road and north of I-55 (Stevenson Expressway) known as Chicago Portage Woods. It serves as an interpretive and historic site for the Corridor and the Cook County Forest Preserves.

The guiding feature of Chicago's geography is the Chicago Portage, a low divide between the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers. The portage connected the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River System, creating one of the key routes across the continent.

In 1673, Native Americans showed explorers Marquette and Jolliet this vital connection between the two major waterways of eastern North America. They paddled their canoes up the Illinois and Des Plaines Rivers to Portage Creek, made a short portage (carried their goods and canoes overland) to the south branch of the Chicago River and paddled on into Lake Michigan.

It is almost impossible for us today to imagine the world of Indians and traders, of canoes and portages. It was a hard life of battling harsh weather with poor shelter, of dragging boats through the mud, leeches and mosquitoes of Mud Lake, and many other difficulties. It was also a time of abundant wildlife and seas of grass and wildflowers.

The portage trail passed north of Mud Lake on a sandy ridge. The trail, which eventually became Route 66 and Joliet Road, was also a major land route to the southwest known as Ottawa Trail. It crossed the Des Plaines River at rocky outcrops known as Stony Ford and Laughton's Ford.

Jolliet immediately saw the potential of a canal connecting the two waterways of the Illinois River and Chicago River, thereby eliminating the difficulties of the portage.

The Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed in 1848 and extended from the Chicago River at Bridgeport to the Illinois River at LaSalle. The canal was an immediate success. Despite increasing competition from railroads, the Canal was a driving force in the growth of Chicago.

A monument to the French explorers Marquette and Jolliet and their Indian guides has been erected at Chicago Portage Woods. Beyond it you can see a portion of Portage Creek where it joined the Des Plaines River at Wall's Meander. This fragment, cut off from the main river by a levee and channelization during construction of the Sanitary and Ship Canal, still holds the spirit of a bygone era.

At Ottawa Trail Woods, just north of 47th Street and the Portage site, you can walk along the ridge where many footsteps passed on their way to Laughton's Ford. A rock outcrop still marks this ford in the present river and you can pass at the site of Laughton's Trading Post, where perhaps, the ghosts of Native Americans and traders linger.
(Excerpt from Chicago Portage National Historic Site, a brochure of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County)

For more information, go to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County at and Friends of the Chicago Portage at

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