STORY 5: LaBagh Woods
One of Chicago’s Wildest Places
Located on the Upper North Branch of the Chicago River on Chicago’s Northwest Side, LaBagh Woods is host to diverse natural areas, including wooded landscapes, wetlands, savannas and sedge meadows. Known for exceptional birding opportunities, this site also offers picnic groves and large open fields. As a wooded riparian strip surrounded by dense urban development, LaBagh Woods is widely recognized as one of the most important refuges for migrating birds in Chicago. A broad-billed hummingbird, a species that is typically found in Mexico, was spotted at LaBagh Woods in May of this year, making it “a once-in-a-lifetime sight,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
At 80 acres, LaBagh Woods is at the southern start of the popular North Branch Trail System of approximately 20 miles paved and unpaved trails connecting Chicago to the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois.
LaBagh Woods is the home of animals found almost nowhere else in Chicago, including mink. Volunteers have recorded 187 bird species, including more than 45 that breed at LaBagh, plus 20 mammal species, 30 species of butterflies, 22 types of dragonflies, four turtle species and two types of snakes. There are also 70-90 mushroom species and 200-300 native plant species. And a rare wild turkey was spotted at the site in the spring of 2021.
The Upper North Branch flows through LaBagh and an oxbow slough fills its bottomlands, drying out some years and full of frogs and fish in others. The forest itself is dominated by swamp white oaks, maples and cottonwoods. Wild geranium, Indian plantain, turtlehead, blue flag iris, marsh blazing star and hop sedge all grow at LaBagh and as critical habitat for resident and migratory birds volunteers have planted over 3,500 native shrubs to provide foods and cover. Sauganash Prairie Grove which lies within LaBagh is a mix of savanna and sedge meadow also under restoration by volunteers.
According to the Origin of Names and Histories of Places of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County by Robert Mann, LaBagh Woods named for Ella LaBagh, a Chicagoan who was a prominent member of the Irving Park Woman’s Club and worked to help establish the Forest Preserves. According to the Chicago Tribune, “While riding her bicycle along the Chicago River's north branch in 1901, LaBagh observed lumbermen cutting down trees. Her anger at the sight turned her into a tireless conservation campaigner.”
However, it was formerly called Snell Woods for the man who once owned the site. Amos J. Snell was a tollbooth operator on the Northwestern Plank Road between Chicago and Wheeling, a travel route established by Native Americans and now familiar as Milwaukee Avenue. Tragically, Snell was killed by burglars at his West Side Chicago home in 1888. The Forest Preserves bought 160 acres from his estate in 1922 for $359,000 – about $5.7 million in today’s dollars – and renamed the woods for Ella LaBagh in 1940.
The area around the LaBagh Woods and the Upper North Branch also would have been important to Native Americans and the river itself would have been a great resource given its proximity to the larger region, a vast landscape dominated by wetlands and the intersection of the prairie, woodlands, and Great Lakes, meant it would have been a very good place to live. Early settlers named the North Branch of the Chicago River the Guarie River, or Gary's River, after a trader who may have settled the west bank of the river a short distance north of Wolf Point.
LaBagh Woods is a symbol of success that restoration efforts underway there are working. According to the Chicago Ornithological Society, a major restoration project at LaBagh Woods “began, and remains, an avian based restoration project” that removes invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle and replaces it with over 40 species of approved and locally sourced and grown native shrubs and under canopy trees. A “native shrub layer in this flood plain woods is essential for its health, and to provide ideal habitat for migrating birds that pass through the site twice a year.”
In June 2020, WTTW Public Television in Chicago profiled the ongoing restoration work by volunteers at LaBagh Woods.