STORY 4: Beaubien Woods
Located on Chicago’s South Side, Beaubien Woods is a 279-acre part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) with access to the Little Calumet River. It contains a myriad of ecosystems including woodlands, wetlands, prairie, pond, and river including Flatfoot Lake. Before European settlement, Beaubien Woods was a wet prairie and open savanna community. Early agriculture and grazing altered the soil and removed native vegetation. Railroad and expressway construction further damaged soils and cleared areas for use in construction staging.
Recent ecological restoration efforts by the FPCC, The Field Museum, and community volunteers including members of Friends’ Centennial Volunteers partnership with Friends of the Forest Preserves and FPCC, have been successful in restoring some of the site’s original natural communities. Beaubien Woods has nearly nine acres of high-quality wet prairie and five acres of oak savanna, with plants such as big and little bluestem, cordgrass, prairie dock, Riddell’s goldenrod, and starry false Solomon’s seal.
Flatfoot Lake is a 19-acre former strip mine with a maximum depth of 15.4 feet. Surrounded by grassy groves populated with ancient oak trees, Flatfoot Lake is an accessible fishing area with a barrier free-fishing pier. It is also designated as an ice fishing lake.
There is also a trail from the north across from Carver Military Academy which features an oak woodland and small sections of wetland, prairie, and savanna.
Beaubien Woods is part of the Calumet region of Chicago. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the Calumet region, multiple Native American tribes, predominantly the Illinois, Miami, and Potawatomi inhabited the area. These tribes were all part of the Algonquian language group and were closely connected through their heritage and interactions with each other, according to the Historic Native Americans of the Calumet Region.
According to the Origin of Names and Histories of Places of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County by Robert Mann, Beaubien Woods was named for Mark Beaubien, a French Canadian who arrived in Chicago in 1826. By 1831, he established the first hotel in Chicago – The Sauganash Hotel – at Lake Street, located just south of the confluence of the North, South, and Main Branches of the Chicago River collectively known as Wolf Point. Beaubien named the hotel in honor of Billy Caldwell, who was also known as “Sauganash,” meaning “Englishman” in the Potawatomi language. In 1831, Beaubien also became the first ferry keeper in Chicago.
Beaubien Woods is “located on the South Side of Chicago in the Riverdale community—not to be confused with the Village of Riverdale—Beaubien Woods is adjacent to several communities, including Altgeld Gardens, the largest Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) development, Golden Gate, Eden Green, Concordia Place, Riverside Village and Pangea Lakes. Riverdale itself is sandwiched between rail lines, industrial sites, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Plant, the Little Calumet River and the Bishop Ford Freeway,” according to the Metropolitan Planning Council.
The African American Heritage Water Trail
One of the most recent contributions to the cultural history of the region is establishment of The African American Heritage Water Trail, which begins at Beaubien Woods and promotes the exploration of 29 significant African American sites along the Little Calumet River and inland between Beaubien and Robbins, Ill. The water trail is within the Calumet Heritage Area. According to Openlands, one of the lead partners on the project, “The Calumet River traces nearly two centuries worth of stories about African Americans who fought for freedom and equality.” The Beaubien Woods Boat Launch provides access to the Little Calumet River for canoes, kayaks, rowboats, sailboats and boats with trolling motors.
Stops on the African American Heritage Water Trail include:
Hazel Johnson EJ Way named for the founder of People for Community Recovery, Hazel Johnson. Johnson launched the national environmental justice movement, documenting hundreds of environmental health problems in the Altgeld Gardens community starting in the 1970s and organizing people to hold the polluters accountable. In the 1980s, future President Barack Obama worked with her as a community organizer. In 1992 Johnson received a presidential award. In 1994, as a result of Johnson’s activism, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.”
Site of Ton Farm, which was the home and farm of Dutch immigrants Jon and Antje Ton. The farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad and the Tons helped freedom seekers on their way to Canada. Although the farm and farmhouse are long gone, the National Park Service designated the farm site as part of the “Network to Freedom” because of their significant role.
SEPA 2 is a side stream elevated pool aeration station installed by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago to improve dissolved oxygen in the river to benefit the health of fish and other aquatic life. Friends of the Chicago River, working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, installed 150 channel catfish nesting cavities in the Little Calumet near the SEPA station and upstream and down in an effort to boost burgeoning channel cat populations.
Other partners in the Water Trail project include the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project, Robbins History Museum, Village of Robbins, We Keep You Rollin’ (Bike & Wellness Group), Golden Gate Homeowners Association, People for Community RecoveryForest Preserves of Cook County, The Field Museum, Metropolitan Planning Council, and Friends of the Chicago River.
Calumet is My Backyard
Another key program in the Beaubien Woods area is Calumet is My Backyard (CIMBY), which is a joint program of The Field Museum's Action Science Center and its Youth Conservation Action. CIMBY engages high school students and teachers in Chicago’s Calumet region in educational activities and experiences that connect classroom learning with stewardship opportunities, creating the next generation of environmental leaders.