It’s sometimes said that national parks “tell America’s story.” Of course, lots of sites outside the National Park System also tell America’s story. From the geographical perspective, none of these is more interesting than Chicago Portage National Historic Site, an Affiliated Area that celebrates its 53rd anniversary today.
With apologies to those already familiar with the Affiliated Area concept, let me begin by clarifying how an Affiliated Area differs from a National Park System component. Here’s what the NPS Index 2005-2007 has to say about it.
On page 96 of the Index we find this statement [italics added]:
In an Act of August 18, 1970, the National Park System was defined in law as “any area of land and water now or hereafter administered by the Secretary of the Interior through the National Park Service for park, monument, historic, parkway, recreational or other purposes."
The Index goes on to say [italics added]:
The same law specifically excludes “miscellaneous areas administered in connection therewith,” that is, those properties that are neither federally owned nor directly administered by the National Park Service but that the National Park Service assists. The Affiliated Areas comprise a variety of locations in the United States and Canada that preserve significant properties outside the National Park System. Some of these have been recognized by Acts of Congress, others have been designated national historic sites by the Secretary of the Interior under authority of the Historic Sites Act of 1935. All draw on technical or financial aid from the National Park Service.
An Affiliated Area is a strange critter. The most recent NPS Index lists two dozen of them, and you could go crazy trying to categorize them. A complicating factor is the tremendous range of themes or subject matter. The Affiliated Areas roster includes a synagogue, a Swedish church, a tenement museum, rock monoliths, battlefields, an early Colonial village, plantations, statues, historic houses, gardens, elaborate memorials, part of the Jamestown Island complex, and an entire ecosystem of vast size. There’s an enormous range in size, too. The largest Affiliated Area (New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve) sprawls over 1,164,025 acres and the smallest (Benjamin Franklin National Memorial) is less than .01 acre – so small that the Index lists its acreage as “0.00“.
OK, here’s why I consider Chicago Portage National Historic Site to be one of America’s premier Affiliated Areas, despite its small size (just 91 acres). It’s basically a matter of simple geography.
The Chicago metro area is an urban complex (or “conurbation”) of tremendous significance. In fact, Chicago was this country’s second-largest city until Los Angeles bumped it to number three in the 1980s.
What enabled Chicago to become the dominant urban center of America’s heartland? Just look at any good map that includes America’s cities and waterways and you’ll see that Chicago has one of the best locations in all of North America. It’s in the Heartland, it’s on Lake Michigan, it’s on the seam between the nation’s Breadbasket and Foundry regions, and it’s THE single best place to link North America’s two most important navigable waterway systems -- the Mississippi River, and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system. That’s because the Illinois River, a Mississippi tributary, originates at the Des Plaines River confluence where the Mississippi/Great Lakes drainage divide lies a scant mile from Chicago’s site on Lake Michigan.
Two French Canadian explorers, Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette, “discovered” the Chicago Portage in 1673 (Indians had been using it for a long time) and it quickly became a vital route for moving people and goods. Early transport, including the fur trade, relied on an overland link that was little more than a path. The 97-mile long Illinois & Michigan Canal (I&M Canal) was completed in 1848, and high-volume railway and highway links were quickly established. Vast tonnages of freight and bulk products move along this route today.
Had it not been for the fortuitous positioning of a key drainage divide, Chicago would have been an also-ran and the nation’s Second City would have been Gary, Indiana, which is situated at the southern end of Lake Michigan where east-west rail and highway traffic must converge to pass the lake. That’s how important the Portage site is. Small wonder that a Chicago Tribune columnist once declared that the Portage site is Chicago’s “sacred ground." Others have referred to the site as Chicago’s ‘Plymouth Rock.”
Designated on January 3, 1952, Chicago Portage National Historic Site was placed under the administration of Cook County. If you go to this site in the Portage Woods Forest Preserve and Ottawa Trail Woods Forest Preserve today, you’ll see where Chicago engineers changed the course of the Des Plaines River and built levies, embankments and dams at the Portage site that the city depends on today. You’ll see memorials to Joliet and Marquette, of course, and other features of interest, including beach sand left by an earlier version of Lake Michigan.