An Urban Nature Adventure

This past Saturday, June 11th, students in my PLS 392 Seminar in Humanities online summer course at Roosevelt University took an “urban landscapes” field trip to Chicago’s near Southwest Side, where we visited two city parklands: Canal Origins Park on South Ashland Avenue, and Stearns Quarry (aka Palmisano) Park on Halsted Street. This afternoon field trip was a chance for us to discuss the history and ecology of these locations and their relation to Chicago’s urban landscape, as well as think about the visual aesthetics of these areas, the integration of nature and culture in urban environments, the importance of parks to city communities, and how such areas can serve as windows into the rich history of Chicago.

PLS 392 students help clean up Canal Origins Park before our walking tour of this urban parkland along the Chicago River, June 2011 (photo by M. Bryson)

We began our afternoon by meeting at Canal Origins and, before starting our walking tour of this 2002 riverfront parkland, picking up several bags’ worth of litter along Ashland Avenue near the park’s entrance. (Thanks to my students for pitching in like troopers!) Canal Origins provides impressive views of the present-day juncture of the Chicago River’s South Branch and Bubbly Creek, and commemorates the origin of the I&M Canal, which was constructed from 1836 to 1848. Use of the canal peaked in 1882 (when over a million tons of cargo were transported), but construction of Sanitary & Ship Canal in the late 19th century spelled the eventual demise of the I&M, as did the advent of railroad transport in the latter third of the 1800s.

The old canal, though, has made a comeback the during the last 30 years though the establishment of the I&M Canal Heritage Corridor by Congress in 1984 by Congress, which celebrates and promotes the Canal as natural resource, wildlife corridor, recreation destination, and source of cultural memory and historical preservation. Here at this area of Chicago, the canal is filled in and is covered by Interstate 55. Visitors to the park can see it only in their imaginations.

This walkway from the entrance of Canal Origins Park leading to the river symbolizes the canal’s walls, and features artwork by Chicago high school students. Unfortunately, now the displays are heavily tagged with graffiti (photo by M. Bryson)

To the west, the South Branch soon morphs into the Sanitary and Ship Canal, begun in 1892 and completed in 1900. This canal marked the permanent reversal of the Chicago River for improved sanitation (via dilution) and navigation, and continues to be used heavily to this day for commercial transportation. North of the S&S Canal is the filled-in waterway formerly known as the West Fork of the South Branch, which flowed southwestward until it ended at the Continental Divide separating the two watersheds that meet here in the Chicago region (those of the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes). Here was located Mud Lake, between Kedzie (to the east) and Harlem (to the west), which earlier voyageurs could paddle across in wet years to travel between the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers. The Chicago Portage National Historic Site is at Harlem Avenue, north of the canal, and it commemorates the history of the portage made via Mud Lake. The Stickney Wastewater Treatment plant, the world’s largest, now sits where the fickle waters of Mud Lake once were.

After touring Canal Origins Park, we walked a few blocks south to the Ashland stop of the CTA Orange Line, where suburban students enjoyed the novelty of an L ride one stop to the north to Halsted Street, where we disembarked and walked a couple of blocks south to Stearns Quarry Park.

RU students walk the trails at Stearns Quarry Park in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, June 2011 (photo by M. Bryson)

This extraordinary urban greenspace finished in 2009 is a cutting-edge example of city park design with nature in mind. Its meandering walking trails provide a different kind of view as one walks along, from the terraced wetlands that filter water circulated between the park’s fishing pond to its entrance fountain; to the old walls of the limestone quarry, which operated here from the late 1830s to 1970, when the site became a landfill; to the neighboring churches and houses of the Bridgeport neighborhood; to the dramatic scene of the Loop’s skyline, as viewed from the grassy-topped mound of the park. Throughout the park, native vegetation provides natural beauty, efficient water retention, and ample wildlife habitat — and many other sustainable design features make this truly a 21st century parkland.

A view of the terraced wetlands in Stearns Quarry (photo by M. Bryson)

A closer view of the one of the wetland’s terraces; red-winged blackbirds and barn swallows were in abundance here (photo by M. Bryson)

A view of the stocked fishing pond at the bottom of the quarry, as well as the its limestone walls — a most unusual sight within the city of Chicago (photo by M. Bryson)

Those seeking an off-the-beaten-path Chicago experience should consider visiting Stearns Quarry Park, which is easily accessible via the CTA (Orange Line and #8 bus) as well as car, with free street parking available next to the park. An excellent audio tour is provided by the Chicago Park District, as well.

The mound at Stearns Quarry Park affords impressive views of Chicago’s downtown skyline, only a few miles to the northeast (photo by M. Bryson)

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  1. Pingback: Attending the 2011 ASLE Conference | Michael Bryson @ Roosevelt University

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