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A water trail celebrating the Chicago region’s heritage

The Little Calumet River corridor hosts valuable sites from the Underground Railroad, the Tuskegee Airmen, and more. A collaborative new riverfront-access project honors the history, culture, and ecology of a special landscape.

The Chicago Community Trust is currently funding 11 community-led riverfront projects through their Our Great Rivers grant. This piece is the first in our 2019 series highlighting these projects.

Out on the Little Calumet River. Photo courtesy of Openlands.

A project is currently underway to increase access to the Little Calumet River near Beaubien Woods, a forest preserve on Chicago’s South Side.  Openlands is leading the project with support from many local organizations, such as the Golden Gate Homeowners Association, We Keep You Rollin’, The Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project, The Robbins Historical Society, The Village of Robbins, and People for Community Recovery. Plans are evolving for cycling and walking trails and water access for canoeing and kayaking, with a focus on strategies to ensure a meaningful relationship to the community’s cultural, ecological, and historically significant sites.

This joint effort will create linkages between historically significant African-American sites.  These include the Jan Ton farm yard, the Underground Railroad site that was recently recognized as a National Park Service “Network to Freedom” location. Planning work for this project incorporates the surface archaeology needed to narrow the location of the Jan Ton farm yard, which has been a goal of the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project for many years.  This effort also includes other significant places, such as the historic airstrip in Robbins where several Tuskegee Airmen were initially trained.  The Ton farm, the Robbins airport, and many other sites, will be included along a six-mile heritage water trail from Beaubien Woods to Robbins.  The water trail incorporates stories important to the communities where they happened and that are also of regional or national significance and interest.  This water trail is being created in partnership with the Village of Robbins and the Robbins Historical Society, the Little Calumet Underground Railroad Project, and the communities that it traverses.

This plan will enhance the quality of life in the neighborhoods adjacent to the river and provide new economic and development opportunities for communities through creation of important heritage sites and recreational opportunities. For example, The Little Calumet Underground Railroad Project is advocating for the creation of an interpretive walking trail near the riverfront. The planning for this project will also result in improvement of water quality through the improvement of habitat along the river’s banks, making a more amenable environment for people and wildlife. Developing community supported access to the river and surrounding sites honors and celebrates the histories and present communities in the area.

Openlands and its partners’ plans for the area surrounding Beaubien Woods and the Little Calumet River contribute to the vision of Our Great Rivers in a number of exciting ways. The plans will enhance accessibility through riverfront trails, and incorporate signage and art that brings awareness of the significant cultural places and important histories of the region.  Adjacent communities and visitors are invited in to enjoy and learn about the river, and the area and its history. Integrating community sourced activities and planning for a rich ecological habitat corridor lays the groundwork for strong and lasting stewardship practices to enable healthy, accessible, and productive environments for the people, plants, and animals surrounding The Little Calumet River.

Our Great Rivers / Great Rivers Chicago: MPC’s Blogs and highlights on Our Great Rivers are made possible in large part by the Chicago Community Trust, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Union Pacific Foundation, BNSF Corporation, Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation ArcellorMittal, Comcast Corporation, and individual donors.