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Cook's toboggan runs go further downhill
Costly repairs close all slides

Wednesday, January 05, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Jennifer Skalka ,Brett McNeil

Wintertime is bound to be a lot less fun this year for children who used to gleefully anticipate trips to the storied, but of late neglected, Swallow Cliff Toboggan Slides.

Cook County forest preserve officials announced Tuesday that the slides, on Illinois Highway 83 near Palos Park, will be closed for the season because of buckling chutes and damaged toboggans. The outlook for reopening the property seems grim because officials have no plan to pay for more than $400,000 in repairs.

The district also announced that the Jensen toboggan run, in Caldwell Woods Forest Preserve at Milwaukee and Devon Avenues on Chicago's Northwest Side, will be closed for the season. Jensen would require a significant structural overhaul, with estimated repairs costing $122,000, said Steve Mayberry, a spokesman for the Forest Preserve District, which operates the runs.

"The bottom line for us is the money isn't there, and absent new funds, which clearly at this time don't seem to be on the way, we cannot reopen these toboggan slides," Mayberry said.

Three other toboggan runs--Bemis Woods in Western Springs, Dan Ryan Woods in Chicago and Deer Grove in Palatine--have not opened since 2000 for lack of snow and money for repairs. They will remain closed.

The Swallow Cliff run--dubbed "Terror Hill" by fans--hasn't operated at full capacity in years. Last year, just two of six chutes were open for three days, Mayberry said. In the two years before that, the chutes, which require 4 inches of snow and 20-degree temperatures, have been open just one day.

Last year, county officials put out word that they were interested in privatizing the property. But there were no feasible takers.

Since 1994 the Forest Preserve District has spent $138,000 to settle five lawsuits filed by users claiming injuries--broken bones, splinters and back problems--suffered at Swallow Cliff.

So this year, the 90-foot-high, 376-foot-long runs will be quiet. There will be no children laughing as the wind whips at their ears, no shrieks from watching moms and dads who enjoyed the slides when they were young.

For local families, a $3-per-hour toboggan rental once bought an afternoon of snowy glee.

"It's a shame that such a little jewel in our area has to go to waste," said Cynthia Katsenes, an Orland Park mother of two who frequented the run when she was a child. "It's just a wonderful place. It's a family place. It just adds something to winter."

Swallow Cliff has a long history of entertaining local residents, as a ski jump as well as for toboggans. A 1927 article from the Palos Journal describes the site:

"One does not need to go to Banff, to Norway, to Switzerland, or to Lake Placid to enjoy tobogganing and skiing; one can enjoy these sports right in the Forest Preserves of Palos. Here are ample facilities, in the high ski slide, and the toboggans, which may be rented, for enjoying these invigorating exercises in the open air."

In 1923, the first toboggan slide was erected at Swallow Cliff. The following year marked the opening of the ski jump.

In 1929, the site was host to an international ski jumping tournament that drew 45,000 spectators, according to the Palos Journal.

The original slide was replaced with three safer wooden slides, and in the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps added the final three slides, a control tower and earthen troughs, which slow tobogganers when they finish their run.

These days, the site's 121 steps are used more often than the slides. Though local residents climb them for exercise, the steps too are in disrepair.

County Commissioner Elizabeth Ann Doody Gorman said she's received a few dozen e-mails requesting that the county fix them. Gorman, who also tobogganed at Swallow Cliff as a child, said she'd like to see the steps and the slides refurbished.

"It's so important for so many people in our generation to try to maintain it," she said.

Pat Jones, administrator for Palos Park, said she was disappointed to learn that the run wouldn't open this year and that its future is in jeopardy.

"I think it's a shame that the Forest Preserve District hasn't been able to manage their finances to keep those toboggan slides going," Jones said.

Mayberry said district officials estimate it will cost $418,000 to repair the slides and the stairs.

District Maintenance Supt. Len Dufkis said the cost covers the replacement of the popular limestone stairs, possibly with concrete or steel grate steps.

Even if the slides are not repaired, Dufkis said the stairs must be replaced.

"We haven't settled on any type of design," he said. "We're open to all suggestions."

Citing safety concerns, officials said they intend to fence off the entrances to the six toboggan chutes.

Mayberry said the district plans to issue another request for proposals to privatize the slides.

But unless someone has a viable plan or the district stumbles upon adequate grant money, the slides could be history.

"Whether or not this is the death knell for tobogganing is a matter of funding," Mayberry said.

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