History of the Jackson Park Lagoons and the Rehabilitation Project, 2001-3

This project was granted an award by the Illinois EPA and Chicago Wilderness in a ceremony May 11 at Osaka Garden

Map of Lagoons and Project. Lagoons in 1938 vintage areal.
View photo gallery of the lagoons under construction.
The lost oldest oak. Recollection of Doug Anderson's tour "Lost Wooded Island"
Columbian Exposition

Boardwalk/Nature Path page (incl. pictures and drawings). See also NATURE PATH/Lagoon Restoration Project.
Milfoil, zebra mussels invasions- in News and Bulletins

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In this page:

History and background

The vision of Frederick Law Olmsted and its realizations

Edge of the lagoon in fall. George RumseyLagoons were proposed by park designer Frederick Law Olmsted in his 1871 Plan and took their approximate modern shape, under Olmsted's direction, during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 The Lagoons surrounded the Wooded Island, which served as a respite for fairgoers and housed a wonderful Japanese pavilion (placed there against Olmsted’s wishes). (There were preexisting embayments of the Lake as well as north-south tending swampy swales alternating with sand ridges in the future park.)

Olmsted planted a distinctive palette of aquatic and shore plants in the lagoons, including lily pads and cattails, and created a grand vista graced with willows when one looked from the north bridge south of the Palace of Fine Arts. Olmsted's idea from the start was that boaters would progress from the Lake and harbors (and you could until the 1950's) through the wild splendor of the lagoons and down the (never realized) Venetian canal in Midway Plaisance to Washington Park’s lagoons and pastoral Great Meadow. Olmsted’s sons redesigned the lagoons in the decade after the Fair.


George Rumsey

Click here for a spectacular 1938 areal view of lagoons surrounding Wooded Island.

Olmsted's 1880 plan Lagoons as at full extent 1918
Lagoons 1950

Columbia Basin and north end  of lagoons 1950

Above left: 1880 version of Olmsted's plan. Note that from the start all major Jackson Park water bodies including Midway Plaisance and Washington Park and Lake Michigan were to have an integrated circulation. Above right, The southern part of the Jackson Park lagoon system at its largest extent. (This drawing 1918. "South Lagoon" is now called the Inner Harbor.) Left: an areal view from the south c. 1950--Before the fill-ins for the land swap for the Nike base, the lagoons still connected with the Inner Harbor at the Hayes Drive bridge, and the south end of the East Lagoon was very wide. Many small islands remained. Right of that, looking at the north part of the lagoons south of MSI. (Light area in upper left corner is an open field, not lagoon.)

Below: Lagoons as envisioned in the 1895 post-Fair Olmsted and Olmsted Plan and as somewhat revised in the 1905 Plan ("historic template"). The main differences are a much more naturalistic shore for Columbia Basin and elimination of half of the so-called Middle Lagoon (never built?) south of Hayes Drive. Notice the half-circular viewing and fishing pier at the north end of the West Lagoon, complementing the Music Court, and the much larger south end of the West Lagoon, mostly filled with large, serpentine islets.

1895 waterways plan 1905 plan (template). Les forma. Does not show full extent reached by 1918



Over the years, the water quality, plants, and edge deteriorated, islets eroded or became submerged due to fluctuating lake levels and rain regimes. The lagoons became dumping grounds for everything from highway and other construction debris to tires, and even a safe and water fountain. In the 1930’s, federal works projects straightened edges and filled in embayments. The southeast lagoon and its connection to the Inner Harbor were filled in to accommodate the Nike missile base in a sort of dry land for wetland swap. Connections to the Inner Harbor and 59th Street Marina were severed.

Looking south from Darrow and Wooded Island North Bridges, and southeast to the North Bridge from new observation/fishing pier. That on left illustrates Olmsted's desire for grand vistas. By Gary Ossewaarde.

Lagon from Darrow Bridge-close to Olmsted's vision of a grand vista East Lagoon from Wooded Island North Bridge
North Bridge across north end of West Lagoon View from North Bridge, rainy day

Having an essentially closed circulation now, the lagoons deteriorated further. The lagoons have only 20% of the rain watershed needed to be self-sustaining and self-cleansing, needing as much as a foot acre of water a day to maintain their level. Algal blooms are a problem and a symptom. Also, non-native, invasive plants took over much of the shore and islets. Through all this, the lagoons, islands and shores continued to attract hosts of resident and migratory birds and is one of the finest places to see birds of the Great Lakes Flyway. (In the Birding at Jackson Park page, there is a list of birds you are likely to see in Jackson Park’s the natural areas.)


New opportunity and new choices

New shore plantings protected. South from Darrow Bridge Restored East Lagoon shore from Osaka Garden

2002 South from Darrow Bridge: new stone pier; mat protects new plants. East Lagoon restored shore from Osaka Garden

A state grant of $250, 000 was secured by State Representative Barbara Flynn Currie just as the Chicago Park District and City of Chicago undertook a new commitment to restore lagoons throughout the park system. The result is a $3.5 million Jackson Park project. Elizabeth Koreman became project manager for the District. Prime contractors included Schaefges Brothers and Madden. Clauss Brothers undertook collateral work in Osaka Garden in 2002. Contributing also were staff of the Park District’s Department of Natural Resources including Mary Van Haaften and JPAC’s Nature Committee, chaired by Ross Petersen and including Doug Anderson.


Purpose and Scope of the Project (Phase I)
As presented to JPAC by Chicago Park District in the spring of 2001

Jackson Park Lagoon Rehabilitation: Phase I

The Jackson Park Lagoon Rehabilitation project is part of a citywide effort by the Chicago Park District to improve park facilities and ecological conditions. Today, these lagoons look as though they were always part of the natural landscape. However, the park was designed and built at the end of the 19th Century by the famous landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. Over time, the lagoons have evolved from passive use area primarily for pleasure boating and weekend strolling into a dynamic park with uses ranging from bird watching to fishing.

The landscape itself has also changed as the islands have been lost to erosion, sediment has clouded the water, and non-native vegetation has invaded the shoreline. This project will maintain Olmsted’s original design while restoring the ecological balance of the lagoons. The restoration program focuses on improving water quality and wildlife habitats, providing public access, rehabilitating the shoreline, establishing natural plant communities and increasing biodiversity.

The following list a list of the highlights of this phase of the project:
1) Recreational Access. Stone walkways and piers will be installed along the shore of the lagoon in key areas to allow people safe and convenient access to the water’s edge.

2) Restoration and Enhancement of Native Plant Communities. Restoration of the native plant communities will augment the ecological balance of the lagoon and improve water quality and wildlife habitat. The improved ecological conditions will increase biodiversity and the habitat types available to spawning fish, macro invertebrates and migratory birds.

3) Removal of Non-Native and Invasive Vegetation. The plants that will be
removed are not indigenous to the region and often do not support native wildlife. Most invasive plants are aggressive and choke out native plants creating dense shade that does not allow sunlight to reach the woodland edge of the lagoon. This results in the loss of herbaceous vegetation and eventually to erosion.

4) Restoration and Reconstruction of the Submerged Islands. The islands will
be enlarged and protected to stabilize erosion and enhance the diversity of habitat. The islands, important elements of the historic design of the lagoon, provide wildlife a habitat free from predators, including feral cats and raccoons.

4) Control of Water Levels. Presently water levels in the lagoon fluctuate
rapidly causing bank erosion and loss of vegetation. The water control structure will be reconstructed to stabilize water levels.

August – October: Installation of force main, reconstruction of water control structures at the Music Court Bridge, and construction of Islands C D and F.

November – January: Construction of Islands A and B, hard edge treatments in half of the Columbia Basin.

January – March: Hard edge treatments of the remainder of the Columbia Basin.

Spring 2002: Completion of wetland and woodland plantings.

This project is being phased in order to minimize disruption to both public access and existing habitat.

Lagoon Restoration Project sign

The work unfolds with its major improvements and some setbacks

Designers opted to retain or restore many of Olmsted’s design elements (including a grotto-like walk under the Darrow Bridge) but not to try to undue all later contour or shape changes. They introduced new changes to improve or add habitat, water quality control, or access for visitors, educators, and fishermen. For the most part the result has been excellent.

Plant choices and placement were based on a desire to honor newer scientific or naturalist standards, ensure variety, and encourage native and bird-friendly plants. One desire was to open up to sunlight, another to create a balance of heights from ground to canopy and to and restart the clock of plant succession. Also, funds are not infinite. There were several considerations: How much should the height of the islets be raised? What is the best way to stabilize the banks? How many hard-access points should there be to the waters’ edge and where? How much deadwood that birds and turtles need should be left? To what extent should Olmsted’s choices be respected? What differences in treatment should there be between the more formal north part of the natural areas (Columbia Basin, parts of the West Lagoon, Osaka Garden on Wooded Island, the Music Court and Bridge?

As phase I unfolded, there was widespread agreement that the first two islets done (in the north) were overly thinned. Also, many observed that wildlife fled the worked islets and shore and have not yet returned in former numbers, some species not at all. It will take at least years before wildlife regains confidence in these areas and plants grow higher and thicker. Geese posed problems in the spring of 2002. Netting and fencing were needed to discourage geese from nesting on the islets and eating the new plantings. Fencing had to be opened periodically so that hatched goslings could get to water. Boards were place in the Music Court dam impoundments as a stopgap so geese and other animals could get out Protective webbing also had to be placed at the water’s edge and over the new stabilization stone around shores and islets before the water was raised to what it is hoped will be a stable level maintained by the pumps, dams and spillways at the Music Court Bridge. Some plants went unwatered and so died in the droughty summer of 2002, or died from faulty positioning too far from the waters edge; others were drowned when the water rose a foot and a half more than anticipated. Some plants were stolen, vandalized or trampled. These plants were not cheap.

A major change to the aspect of the Columbia Basin and the northern side of the West and East lagoons was creation of wide limestone walkways and piers down to and along sections of edges and a grotto-like walkway under the Darrow Bridge (as at the 1893 Exposition.) The limestone slabs were reused from the Lincoln Park Lilly Pond restoration. (Left over slabs and their surrounding fencing by the Columbia basin have been slow to be removed. Looming over the horizon east and southeast of the Basin is the prospect of impact from the coming move of the U-505 Submarine to the north side of MSI and the possible impact of this project on the adjacent lagoon and oak grove.)

Phase I wound down and final plans were worked out for phase II work, mostly impacting one area, the southeast lobe of the East Lagoon. JPAC members and many birders and naturalists wanted to keep this remaining semi-wild sector as untouched as possible and to keep intact the main islet’s wood and shrub vegetation (even though this is dominated by invasive and non-native plants) and likewise with the cattail beds on the southeast landward shore.

Phase I dedication, May, 2002

Phase I dedication May 2002: Pickens, Mitchell, Curie, Petersen, Daley, Hays, Hairston, Doig. Photo Ossewaarde Left to right: Park Commissioners. Robert Pickens and Cindy Mitchell, State Rep. Barbara Currie, JPAC Nature Committee Chair Ross Petersen, Mayor Daley, JPAC President Nancy Hays, Alderman Leslie A. Hairston, CPD General Superintendent David Doig.


Sign for Phase II southeast


The next step

To construction photos (in Lagoon Photo Gallery--The construction photos will soon be separated out for faster loading.). To drawings of Phase II project southeast sector.

Outline of Phase II of the Lagoon Restoration Project

Above: map of southeast part above, showing boardwalk and expanded wetland (red) as planned at time of the dedication of Phase I.

Lagoon Phase II project scope includes completion of an accessible observation and fishing pier at the north end of the West Lagoon and reconstruction of the southeast projection of the East Lagoon. The latter includes channel cleaning and partial deepening, shore reconstruction and re-vegetation on the large island, construction and planting of a new island, introduction of new, wildlife friendly aquatic and landward-shore vegetation, and public/educational access up close to nature. JPAC recognized the need for cleaning. During the turtle rescue, Ross Petersen pulled up part of a Nike Missile.

The Southeast Bay consists of:
· A wetland shore with major cattail beds and deadwood that are home to a rich variety of birds, turtles, macro invertebrates and other wildlife, many species being rare or threatened,
· Shallow waters that are home to many species of fish, turtles, and more,
· The last island untouched by the Lagoon Restoration Project. This has become a haven for green herons and other birds and wildlife since the other lagoon islands were heavily thinned.

Return above to the schematic of the lagoon outlines in 1918 and compare the south sector to Olmsted's 1880 ideas, historic templates, and as changes occurred into the 1950's. To the rendering at the start of the 2000 Rehabilitation.

Below, changing configurations of the southern part of the lagoons. 1918, 2001, 1950. View concepts 1880, 1895, and 1905 ("historic template") at top of page. Note that the project had only a remnant of south lagoon to deal with.


The Phase II work involved a temporary damming and drainage of the south part of the East Lagoon. Only when the channel was dry would the extent of work to be done in the interior of the main islet (Turtle Island) be determined--(in the end a little more than minimal. But the work would turn out to much more extensive in the wetland and the south lagoon shore, the latter have parts by the boardwalk virtually de-treed.) However, in meetings in fall, 2002, planners including Madden, Wolf Clements and the Park District, with input from JPAC and naturalists, agreed to keep large equipment off Turtle Island and do mainly infill planting in the interior. Contemplated work also included channel scouring, creation of a new islet, reconstructing the shore and mainland shore work. A new palette of shore plants was still in process of introduction in 2003; the Council may help introduce more, native variety in 2004. Great effort was promised to relocate wildlife as necessary, for example turtles—not well fulfilled.

Inevitably, differences also arose over achievement of public and disabled access in this sector (such as via a boardwalk in the water). The large islet here is the last large islet to see reconstruction. It is used by birds as a refuge or substitute for the islets thinned (until their vegetation matures) by the project. The whole sector was meant by Olmsted to be wild, within the bounds he understood by “wildness”. Indeed, the proposed (and best place for) a boardwalk is also where a shallow cattail wetland is to be re-vegetated. This is a favored and sensitive area for several species, including certain herons kingfishers and turtles that are rare or endangered in this part of Illinois. Also, Turtle Island was one of the last few of such islands, much more plentiful before the south reaches of lagoon were filled in.

Although the proposed boardwalk was reduced, lowered and moved to shore-to-shore route with observation decks, naturalists and JPAC still thought it would lead to disturbance to the birds, wildlife and wetlands by visitors or possibly rowdy persons and not accord with its historic Olmsted-designed character. Birders disputed the park district position that such structures have not driven away birds or prevented their nesting. At best, they said, this part of the lagoons was the wrong place for a boardwalk at the shore or over the water. JPAC (twice) and the Hyde Park Historical Society passed resolutions against the boardwalk. As of mid-October, 2002, planners were only amenable to minor adjustments in placement and not to selecting another part of the lagoon, said this was their last chance to comply with what they perceive as a universal access accommodation, and planned to start construction in the next few weeks.

After a coffer dam was built across the bay and before the water was drained, JPAC members and a team of heroic and generous volunteers from Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and several naturalist organizations including the Chicago Herpetological Society, helped move turtles to another sector of the lagoons, hopefully ahead of the time they dig themselves into the mud for hibernation. However this rescue was delayed at least two weeks and only one day was allowed.

As work progressed in spring, the path/boardwalk was clearly conspicuous but definitely on the shore (raised a bit). Much of the "woods" was cleared except for the mid to larger trees. The planting template was still not completely known. Turtle Island was largely untouched and the shore was to repopulate itself from the new aquatic and emergent wetland plants. Cattail beds to the north remained covered with mesh for protection as of mid-April. JPAC's seed-fund funding could help with planting in these sensitive areas. Stewardship volunteer teams are expected to be involved.


The long haul—Can we have a sound maintenance/management and water quality plan for the Lagoons?


Update: Milfoil seems to be controllable.

Rehabilitation of the lagoons is an ongoing process and will continue long after the funded construction phases have concluded. Regrowth may take decades. Meantime, both wildlife and public health require improvements to the water’s quality. Walk throughs and discussions are being held on a continuing basis to the present on a long-term natural area management and plant maintenance plan and further steps to ensure water quality. The advisory council has stated that this should include elimination of deleterious flushing of pollutants into the lagoons through drain outflows and should include ways to increase aeration of and flow in the lagoons. A constant battle seems to be required against both natural disturbances and the direct and indirect effects of human activity as the "natural" world more and more retreats. How do we maintain a naturally evolving but believable habitat that is not just an island outdoor museum maintained in an artificially chosen state? Some recent problems are heavy storm damage to trees and invading Eurasian milfoil--one of a parade of non-native invasives that often become runaways. And there is also the battle against occasional plant-and-neglect programs and theft by people of new plants. There is other evidence that the circulation of the lagoons is still poor.