The One Minute Geographer: The Chicago Portage and the ‘Everglades of the North’ at South Bend

Jim Fonseca
5 min readJan 29, 2024
Sections of the Illinois Waterway near Chicago. Map from “Geology, hydrology, water quality…” by Robert T. Kay, Patrick C. Mills and P. Ryan Jackson on researchgate.net

In our previous posts we looked at the Fall Line and portage paths in the Southern U.S. and along the Great Lakes in Erie and Akron. We’ll finish with a look at how portage paths encouraged early settlement in Chicago, South Bend Indiana and Wisconsin.

Chicago got its start on a Native American 6-mile portage path between the Chicago River, flowing into Lake Michigan, and the Des Plaines River, flowing into the Illinois River and then the Mississippi. French explorers Marquette and Joliet built a stockade along the portage path in 1673.

But Chicago, like Erie, would have become an important city with or without its start as a portage town because of its location at the southern tip of Lake Michigan where all northern east-west routes had to ‘bend’ south around the lake. This location became even more critical when railroads started being constructed.

As in Akron Ohio, Chicago’s portage path was canalized, first as the Illinois and Michigan canal in 1848 (map above). In 1900 it was widened into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Again in 1933 the canal was widened and the path was changed so that the new canal, now called the Cal-Sag Channel of the Illinois Waterway, came out at the Calumet River rather than the Chicago River. There is concern about invasive fish species migrating from one water system to the other, thus the electric fish barrier shown on the southwest section of the map above. (Fried fish, anyone? lol.)

South Bend, Indiana started near the portage path between the St. Joseph River, flowing into Lake Michigan, and the Kankakee River, flowing into the Illinois River and then into the Mississippi (map below). As on other portage sites, a fort was built nearby by the French — Fort St. Joseph (1680s).

Map from semanticscholar.org

South Bend evolved just a few miles south of what became the Michigan border. You can see on the map how South Bend got its name from the southern loop of the St. Joseph River. (Not to be confused with another St. Joseph River in northeastern Indiana that flows into the Maumee River and…

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Jim Fonseca

Geography professor (retired) writes The One Minute Geographer featuring This Fragile Earth. Top writer in Transportation and, in past months, Travel.