STORY 6: Big Marsh Park

Big Marsh Park is located on Southeast Side of Chicago in the South Deering neighborhood, part of an area commonly known as the Calumet Area Reserve. It’s on the eastern shore of Lake Calumet.

Since the late 1800s, the site was an active industrial property for waste and slag dumping from surrounding industrial operations. The Chicago Park District acquired the site in 2011 and it opened as a new public park in 2016. 

At nearly 300-acres, Big Marsh Park is the Chicago Park District’s largest natural site. Big Marsh includes a paved bike park, walking paths, dirt trails, jump lines for bikes, and picnicking space, and roughly 45 acres of hemi-marsh is home a vast and increasing variety of native wildlife species. A new Ford Calumet Environmental Center, which will serve as a hub for programming and “eco-recreation” for five Southeast Side parks, will open later this year. Programming at the environmental center will focus around native plants, animals and habitats, with a particular focus on helping kids interact with natural surroundings.

Big Marsh Park is part of an effort to restore access to “degraded” Calumet region lands, alongside recent and planned upgrades to nearby Indian Ridge Marsh Park, Hegewisch Marsh Park, the Marian R. Byrnes Natural Area and Steelworkers Park, according to a news story in Block Club Chicago. Big Marsh Park is a “dramatic turnaround of the former slag dump into a gateway to the region, which is better known for its industrial past than its natural beauty.” The bike park is “capped” with clay, which protects people using the bike trails from any contamination lingering from the past industrial use of the land. 

According to the Park District, “the vision of Big Marsh is to provide a new type of recreation in Chicago that marries habitat restoration with public use.  Roughly 45 acres are developed for eco-recreation opportunities including hiking, adventure courses, and off-road biking. The eco-recreation elements are located primarily on existing slag fields where plants have a hard time growing and good habitat creation is unlikely. Other acreage is reserved for more passive recreation including bird-watching and nature walking.  All acreage is being developed to protect or further enhance the overall natural habitat of the park property including sensitivity to flora, fauna, and wetlands.”

History

Friends of Big Marsh chronicle the history of the region from Lake Calumet’s formation by a glacier; to a region inhabited by native people; to its rise and decline as a 20th century industrial powerhouse that gave birth to the environmental justice movement by groups such as People for Community Recovery and the Southeast Side Environmental Task Force.

The Calumet region long served as a home for tribes belonging to Algonquin groups around the Great Lakes. The primary inhabitants of the region were the Miami and Potawatomi, while nearby tribal groups whose range did not include the Calumet region instead interacted with resident groups through trading or during the course of migration. These groups include the Illinois Confederation, a group of 13 or so Algonquin tribes associated with Cahokia (including but not limited to the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Tamaroa, Cahokia, and Michigamea); the Mascouten and Sauk to the east and northeast; the Ojibwa and Ottawa, located in the northern Great Lakes; the Winnebago to the northwest; and the Kickapoo, Shawnee, and Wyandot, located primarily to the east and southeast. 

The Lake Calumet area is known for its industrial heritage as a center for production of steel, minerals and chemicals. The toxic byproducts of these industries still present major issues for public health and natural resource management, and the concentration of industry in the area is a remains a challenge for environmental justice. The region was a center for the labor rights movement of the 1930s. Today, the Calumet region is notable for its many habitat restoration projects such as Big Marsh Park, which contributes to improved public health as well as climate and pollution mitigation.