In 1673, the governor of New France (now known as Canada) sent the explorer Louis Jolliet to find out whether the Mississippi River offered a shortcut to the Pacific Ocean. Jolliet went to Mackinac Island, picked up a traveling companion–a priest named Jacques Marquette–and set off, via canoe, on the only route they knew: down Lake Michigan to Green Bay, then up the Fox River to the area that is now Portage, Wisconsin, where they got out and schlepped to the Wisconsin River. They traveled the Wisconsin until they reached the Mississippi, then journeyed south as far as the Arkansas before concluding that the big river was in fact headed to the Gulf of Mexico, and turned around to take this news back to New France. As they paddled upstream, their Native American guides suggested a shortcut–the Illinois River, branching off the Mississippi north of Saint Louis. Jolliet and Marquette took the advice, traveling north on the Illinois to the point where it forks, and then taking the left branch, now known as the Des Plaines River. They continued on to around what’s now 51st and Harlem, where they passed through Portage Creek and into the long swamp that came to be called Mud Lake. Near 31st and Kedzie, they took a portage of about a mile and a half to the south branch of the Chicago River, then a quick trip to Lake Michigan. And, says Friends of the Chicago Portage executive director Gary Mechanic, that connection between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes is the original reason for the emergence of the metropolis of Chicago. You can tread the ground walked by Jolliet and Marquette Saturdays August 31 through October 26, when Mechanic’s group is offering free tours of the Chicago Portage National Historic Site, which meet at 10 AM at the statue of the explorers and their guide in the Portage Woods Forest Preserve. Enter the preserve on the west side of Harlem Avenue, two blocks north of the Stevenson Expressway in Lyons. The tour runs from 10 to 11:30; wear long pants and walking shoes, and be prepared to hike a half mile on dirt paths through woods. Reservations are not necessary for individuals; groups should call 773-267-0948.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lynda Wallis.