STORY 8: Whistler Woods
A magical haven for migratory birds and Monarch butterflies, Whistler Woods is located in south suburban Riverdale, Illinois. The 137-acre forest preserve along the Little Calumet River is an excellent site to see a wide diversity of bird species and to explore the historic Major Taylor Trail named for Marshall “Major” Taylor, who was an African-American bicycle racer and civil rights advocate who won races around the world from 1896 to 1910. Taylor was one of the first African-American athletes to become a world champion in any sport. He was known for many years as the fastest bicycle rider in the world.
The origin of the name Whistler Woods is unknown, according to the Origin of Names and Histories of Places of Places of Cook County Forest Preserves by Roberts Mann, who worked for the Forest Preserves of Cook County from 1930 to 1964 including as the first superintendent of the conservation department, which started in the mid-1940s. Mann’s historical chronicle also references the “implausible” naming of the site for Captain John Whistler who commanded a company of soldiers which built Fort Dearborn alongside the Chicago River in 1803. The Cook County Forest Preserves acquired more than 100 acres of the site in 1921, and the remaining acres were acquired in 1922.
Whistler Woods contains oak trees that are up to 300 years old and is also plentiful with cottonwoods. The site is also one of our focus Centennial Volunteers river-edge preserves, where volunteers help restore special forest preserve sites along the Chicago and Calumet Rivers by removing invasive vegetation, collecting and spreading native seeds, conducting brush pile burns, and more. The Centennial Volunteers program was established in 2014 and is a partnership between Friends of the Chicago River, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Friends of the Forest Preserves, and The Field Museum. Some volunteers also choose to receive specialized forest preserve training as workday leaders.
Little Calumet River and Native Americans
Visitors to Whistler Woods also experience scenic views of the Little Calumet River from high atop the bridge which spans the Little Cal as part of the Major Taylor Trail. The Little Calumet River would have been important to Native Americans and the river itself would have been a great resource of food and transportation. The Calumet region was a vast landscape dominated by wetlands and the intersection of the prairie, woodlands, and lakes. The Native Americans of the Calumet Region collected food by means of hunting, fishing, foraging, and cultivating the land.
Prior to the arrival of the first well-documented European explorers to enter Illinois – Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet – in 1673, the area was inhabited by multiple Native American tribes, including the Potawatomie, Mascouten, Fox, Illinois, and Miami. Social boundaries and geographic territories of these groups shifted frequently throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, according to the Natural and Cultural Resources Master Plan (download here) of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, which also states that “a series of treaties between 1816 and 1833 transferred what is now Cook County from native groups to the United States government.” According to Native Americans of the Calumet Region, “The Calumet region has 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.”
Major Taylor Trail
The 7.6 mile Major Taylor Trail is the first cycling trail named after the world’s first African American cycling world champion – Marshall “Major” Taylor. The trail starts and ends in the Forest Preserves of Cook County: Dan Ryan Woods in the north and Whistler Woods in the south. According to the Forest Preserve Foundation, “Taylor was one of the most celebrated bicycle racers of the late 19th century. And, despite the rampant racism he faced in the cycling world, he set several world records and won numerous races all over the world.” In 2007, after a 10-year effort, the trail was officially dedicated in the West Pullman community. The trail itself is a disused South Side railroad. The northernmost section of the trail at the Dan Ryan Woods is on an elevated portion of the former train line. At Whistler Woods the Major Taylor Trail connects to the Cal-Sag Trail which runs through the adjacent Joe Louis Golf Course. The Cal-Sag Trail continues to expand and some parts under construction but it will eventually stretch 26 miles from Sag Quarries in Lemont to the Burnham Greenway near the Indiana border.
In 2017, Chicago artist Bernard Williams painted a 400-foot mural on the bridge over the Little Calumet to honor the legacy of Taylor. The mural panels include dates of Taylor’s championships, names of cities where he raced, and visual representations of the cyclist.
According to the Chicago Sun Times, “Williams used his artistic skills to chronicle Taylor’s life based on Taylor’s autobiography, ‘The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World’.” Click here to view a map of this historic trail. Visitors to Whistler Woods should view the mural by foot from north to south to capture the complete story of this iconic legend.