The Calumet landscape did not always look the way it does today. In fact, the region—and the lakeshore in particular—has undergone dramatic transformations ever since Lake Michigan formed at the end of the Ice Age, about 14,000 years ago. Retreating and advancing glaciation created several distinct phases in the lake’s history, each with unique geographic features. At their highest, waters stood nearly sixty feet above current levels, reaching places now up to ten miles from the shore. In contrast to today’s landscape, the past shoreline also featured numerous islands, inlets, bays, and peninsulas. As waters retreated to modern heights, they left a series of over 150 beachy ridges and swales, some of which can still be seen today running parallel to the shoreline. All this lake activity created many of the area’s defining geographic features: Lake Calumet formed 1,500 years ago, and Wolf Lake formed a scant 400 years ago.
It is important to keep in mind that while we talk a lot about European settlement in the Calumet region, Native Americans, including the Sauk and Potawatomi peoples, had been living in the region for centuries prior to the arrival of Europeans. When the first non-indigenous people settled in the region in the late eighteenth century, they encountered a land that was nearly three-quarters swamps, swales, and sand dunes. Needless to say, the environment made life difficult; the marshes were too deep to walk through, but shallow enough and filled with enough dense vegetation that they were difficult to navigate by boat. Despite these environmental challenges, European settlers continued to move south into the Calumet as Chicago's population expanded. Word of the region’s wildlife began to spread, and birders and botanists flocked to the Calumet to observe its biodiversity. Laymen were drawn to the area for more recreational reasons; six hunting clubs sprung up in Chicago in the late nineteenth century, three of which—the Tolleston, Lake George, and Grand Calumet Heights Clubs—were situated in the famous Calumet region, widely considered to be the greatest duck country in the West. This initial reverence for the Calumet environment, both for its abundance and impenetrability, eventually gave way to an attitude of extraction as industry moved into the region.
Steelworkers Park, much like other nearby lakefront parks, sits on a part of the lake that was filled in with slag and then covered with dirt. As a result, the wildlife and plants you see have all adapted to life in this relatively newly-created segment of land. A wide range of plants and animals use this park in different ways. Local birders, led in large part by Chicago Ornithological Society member Dan Lory, have identified over 220 species of birds in neighboring Park 566 by making hundreds of visits to immerse themselves in the park. Work by Dan Lory documents the vastly diverse collection of birds, including endangered birds like the Osprey and American Kestrel, showing that these formerly industrial landscapes can foster biodiversity when well attended to by organizations like the Chicago Ornithological Society and the Chicago Parks District. Resilient birds have taken up nesting cycles in short grasses and survived even as efforts to remove invasive plants have resulted in cutting that grass.
Other animals have adapted as well. The Gray Tree Frog, pictured on the front page, is native to the area, where it lives and breeds in trees. In the present day at Steelworkers Park, however, this frog also lives in the Ore Walls, utilizing small cracks and holes as hiding places and breeding grounds. Rock climbers on the Ore Walls occasionally bump into the frogs hiding in the climbing wall handles. Visitors to Steelworkers Park have also spotted other unexpected animals, including beavers biting through felled trees and snakes sheltering under the sculptures. Finally, fish have taken up residence in the rocky waterfront created by the lakefill. Locals use the lakefill edge, especially the Slip at the north of the park, as a fishing spot. (Audio clip and cover photo provided by local birder Dan Lory)