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County forest preserves celebrating 100 years

Tuesday, September 01, 2015
The Beverly Review
by Carol Flynn

The Forest Preserve District of Cook County (FPCC) is recognizing its centennial anniversary.

More than 69,000 acres of nature sites and recreation areas are located in the preserves. Brookfield Zoo (managed by the Chicago Zoological Society) and the Chicago Botanic Garden (managed by the Chicago Horticultural Society) are both on FPCC land.

As early as the 1860s, Chicagoans were concerned about adequate space for recreation and outdoor activities. By the 1890s, sentiment grew to preserve the “outer belt” of forested lands surrounding the city. Daniel Burnham, the architect and urban planner who gave Chicago the White City at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, is largely credited as the father of modern city planning. His “1909 Plan for Chicago” urged the acquisition and development of these outlying tracts as next in importance to developing the lakefront. His report was not the first, but undoubtedly one of the most influential, in spurring action.

After a ten-year political struggle, the Forest Preserve District Act of 1913 was passed. This act set the mission of the district, “to acquire, restore and manage lands for the purpose of protecting and preserving public open space with its natural wonders, significant prairies, forests, wetlands, rivers, streams, and other landscapes with all of its associated wildlife, in a natural state for the education, pleasure and recreation of the public now and in the future.”

On Feb. 11, 1915, the Cook County Board of Commissioners also took on the role of Board of Forest Preserve Commissioners, an arrangement that continues today.

This finally put the forest preserves in business. Daniel Ryan was finance chair for the county, so he became the same for the preserves. Bonds were issued to purchase land, and the first tract purchased was the 500-acre Deer Grove in Palatine in 1916.

The Dan Ryan Woods

The forest preserves are mostly located outside of the limits of the city of Chicago. A few small tracts of land exist within the city proper, however, and one of those is the Dan Ryan Woods at 87th Street and Western Avenue. This site was one of the earliest and most popular sites of the preserves, considered a real gem for its history and geology.

In an 1899 “outer belt” report, the Blue Island Ridge was mentioned as one of the areas that should be preserved “for the benefit of the public … and for their own sake and scientific value.”

It was well known that the Blue Island had been an actual island that rose out of Lake Chicago, and the elevation of the area was the highest in the city, as much as 60 feet higher than the elevation of downtown Chicago. The Ridge was formed by wave action along the eastern shoreline of the island.

On Nov. 10, 1916, a small article in the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that the forest preserve board would have a walk through the woods at Beverly Hills that day, with an eye toward purchasing them. Apparently that visit was a success; in September 1917, for the price of $152,937, the FPCC purchased 112.88 acres of land from the estate of John B. Sherman, roughly bordered by Western Avenue, 83rd Street, the railroad tracks and 89th Street.

In 1921, Eugene R. Pike, former city comptroller, sold 32 acres to the FPCC, bounded by Hopkins Place, Pleasant Avenue, 91st Street and the railroad tracks, for $12,259. This included the Pike House, still standing, which would be used as a superintendent’s headquarters. Later the land north of 83rd Street was also purchased.

The woods didn’t have a formal name in the early years and were referred to by variations of Beverly Woods or the Beverly Hills Preserve. The main attraction was the “towering bluff” reported to be of historical interest as an “Indian lookout and signal station.” The value was in the view from the top of the ridge—there were few buildings blocking the vista all the way to downtown Chicago.

The Indian lore and the view earned the bluff the name Lookout Pointe, and there is still a marker attesting to that in the woods, installed in 1922 by the Dewalt Mechlin Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The Beverly Woods were an incredibly popular place all year. From spring through fall, hundreds of events were held there, including private and group picnics, weddings, sports events, graduations and retirement parties.

Early sports facilities included two baseball diamonds, tennis courts and a half-mile cinder track. Shea’s Riding Academy at 86th and Seeley Avenue offered saddle horses and Shetland ponies for rental at $1 per hour. By the mid-1920s, for winter sports, there was a 30-foot ski jump for “amateurs,” toboggan slides and flooded baseball diamonds for ice skating.

Beverly Woods housed one of 12 free “tourist camps” in the early 1920s for automobile travelers; it was a stop along the Dixie Highway. The camp included shelter with tables and benches, running water, toilet facilities, firewood and open-air cooking ranges.

A 1918 forest preserve report pointed out that this preserve “has the distinction of being the one accessible to all of Chicago on a five-cent fare.” Visitors could take the Ashland Avenue streetcar to 87th Street and walk the rest of the way.

In 1922, 87th Street was extended west through to Western Avenue; at the same time, Western Avenue was graded, expanded and paved. An attractive new entrance was built to the preserves at that location. The woods also had an entrance at 91st Street because of the train station there.

The Beverly Hills Woman’s Club (BHWC) adopted this site for development and beautification. In the mid-1920s, BHWC members worked with the county board to establish a bird sanctuary around 91st Street and Winchester Avenue. The sanctuary included 50 birdhouses built by Boy Scouts in the community.

A bronze plaque dedicating the sanctuary and other improvements was installed by the BHWC on a stone pillar near the 91st Street train station in 1928. The pillar is still there, but the plaque is gone.

Daniel Ryan served as president of the county and forest preserve boards in 1921-22 and was a commissioner when he died in June 1923. His son, Dan Ryan, took over his spot on the board, and a few years later, the Beverly Woods were formally named the Dan Ryan Woods (DRW) in honor of Daniel Ryan.

The Dan Ryan Expressway was named for the son in 1961.

The mid-1930s saw extensive work done in the FPCC by the Civilian Conservation Corps, formed by President Roosevelt in 1933 to give jobs to young men unemployed because of the Great Depression.

Today, DRW boasts more “living history” from this time period than any other FPCC location due to the visible structures still standing. There is the warming station north of 87th Street, the passage under 87th Street, and several concrete dance floors. Most interesting are the “ravine improvements” for erosion control found in the south woods—a drain channel, walkways, stairways and a wading pool.

In 1955, new toboggan slides were installed. These were removed in 2007, and now the hill is used for sledding. All of the toboggan slides have been removed from the FPCC due to maintenance costs and liability concerns. Many people mourned the loss of “these pieces of history.”

There were times when the FPCC could have given up the DRW. In 1928, an advisory committee recommended that the forest preserves turn the woods over to the Chicago Park District, stating that the area “was better suited for city park use than forest preserve use.”

In 1954, a neighborhood group recommended selling off the woods to help combat “urban blight.” In the 1970s, there was talk that the proposed Crosstown Expressway could go through part of the DRW. None of these recommendations was ever acted upon, and the woods remained intact.

The safety of DRW was a minor issue through most of the years. In 1927, five mounted and motorcycle officers and one plain-clothes officer were assigned to the woods for “protection from tramps and other undesirables.” Through the years, isolated muggings, robberies and vandalism have occurred.

The reputation of DRW was severely damaged, however, when two women were attacked by pitbull dogs while jogging in the woods in 2003. One woman died, and the other was permanently injured.

In 2012, the First District Appellate Court upheld the trial court’s judgment that the FPCC was not legally liable for the attacks because it did not knowingly permit the dogs to remain in the woods.

DRW today

Picnics and sledding are the most popular uses of DRW today. The northern terminus of the Major Taylor Trail is in the DRW at 81st Street. This cycling trail, named for legendary black cyclist Marshall “Major” Taylor, is more than six miles long and connects with Whistler Woods to the south. A spur to the Cal-Sag Trail is planned for 2016.

Since 1985, the Chicagoland Toys for Tots Motorcycle Parade has kicked off from DRW and traveled north to Addison Street. This is the world’s largest motorcycle parade, providing tens of thousands of children with Christmas presents.

FPCC is in the midst of a “master plan” to bring improvements to the DRW. A current building is being renovated into a visitor center. A snowboarding-lesson hill, a pavilion gathering area with performance space, a gathering and warming area, and a bike launch area are all parts of the plan. A future phase calls for a nature center and a treehouse.

The master plan boards can be viewed at fpdcc.com.

A number of volunteer groups work with the FPCC on projects. One group is the Friends of the Forest Preserves (FFP), founded in 1998 as a grassroots non-profit organization that works to protect, restore and promote the FPCC. Under the direction of Benjamin Cox, who lives in North Beverly just steps away from the DRW, FFP offers a variety of ways for people to get involved in the preserves, from volunteering for restoration projects to photo contests to bike tours to armchair programs. The FFP adopted the DRW in 2006.

The group’s web site is fotfp.org. Cox can be contacted at benjamin@fotfp.org for information on getting involved.

Other South Side preserves also offer a number of opportunities for involvement. Chris Weber is the field organizer for the South Side preserves and is at chris@fotfp.org.

In a recent interview, Cox was asked to name the one thing he would want people to come away with from an article about the 100th anniversary of the forest preserves and the history of Dan Ryan Woods.

“Pride. We have the oldest and largest preserves in the country. We have an amazing variety of habitats in our area, woodlands, oak savannahs, prairies, wetlands. When Chicagoans mention what is best about the city, in addition to the lakefront, the museums and the fine restaurants, I’d like to see them include the forest preserves.”

Editor’s note: The Ridge Historical Society assisted with information for this article.



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