CBA Record March-April 2020
EDITOR’S BRIEFCASE BY RICHARD LEE STAVINS, ACTING EDITOR-IN-CHIEF The Chicago Portage: A True Continental Divide
A propos for the Chicago Bar Associa- tion and myself as acting editor of the CBA Record, I ask: Why is Chicago located where it is? The answer is for one and only one reason: the Chicago portage. What’s the Chicago portage? A portage is a strip of land lying between two natural water systems that are close to each other, but never flow into each other. Walk- ing from one water system to the other while hauling one’s watercraft is called portaging. Oft forgotten is the fact that Chicago has two natural water systems, with a portage between them. The first local water system is the Chicago River. It flowed naturally (until reversed by human engineering at the end of the 19th century) into Lake Michigan. Lake Michi- gan in turn flows into the other Great Lakes, which eventually flow into the St. Lawrence River and then into the Atlantic Ocean. So, fromChicago, one could theoretically paddle a canoe to the Atlantic. Of course, you’d have to go over Niagara Falls along the way, but that’s a mere detail. The second water system in Chicago is the Des Plaines River. It flows into the Illinois River, which flows into the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. So, from Chicago, one could also theoretically send a boat to the Gulf of Mexico. At certain points, the distance between various branches and forks of the Chicago River and the main channel of the Des Plaines River is just a fewmiles. That fewmiles of land is the Chicago portage. At no other place on the North American continent, other than at the Chicago portage, do the Mississippi River/Gulf watershed and the Great Lakes/ Atlantic watershed come anywhere near that close together. The Chicago portage is truly a continental divide. A Strategic Transportation Hub Shapes Chicago Early Europeans arrived here by water and carried their boats (usually canoes) over the
Chicago portage from the Great Lakes system to the Mississippi system. Those with vision immediately recognized that the Chicago portage was the most strategic transportation spot on the continent: Anyone going from one water system to another would need to do so at the Chicago portage. And the only means of long-distance travel in those days was by water. The U.S. War Department saw the strategic significance of the Chicago portage and built Fort Dearborn -- at what is now the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive -- to put troops here to protect the strategic portage. Early settlers realized that walking across the Chicago portage was not exactly the most efficient way to go from system to system, and that cutting a navigable canal from the Illinois River to the Chicago River would be a terrific idea and, more importantly, a great way to get rich -- which is what human progress is usually all about. The canal was eventually cut. Named the Illinois & Michigan Canal, it opened in 1848 and soon went bankrupt. The canal’s financial failure was due to two things that year that no one could have foreseen: a finan- cial depression and the arrival of the first of many railroads. The latter quickly supplanted water as the principal means of long-distance transportation in America. The significance of the Chicago portage as a transportation hub thus disappeared with the coming of the railroads. That could have meant the end of Chicago, as it did for many other waterfront towns. (Kaskaskia, located strategically on the banks of the Mississippi River and once the capital of Illinois, now has a human popula- tion of nine.) In 1848 Chicago immediately embraced the new railroad technology. Yes, railroads were once considered the latest in new technology. Within a few decades, Chicago became the railroad center of the nation, continued to grow, and never looked back. Well, okay, it burned to the ground in 1871, but these things happen.
6 March/April 2020
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