Potawatomi called it the Chewab Skokie, meaning "big wet prairie,"
and through it flowed the east fork of the North Branch of the Chicago
River. Often called the Skokie Branch, this stream originates near
Waukegan and flows south ultimately reaching Chicago itself. The Cook
County Forest preserve acquired most of the marsh lands by 1933 and
drew plans to convert it into a series of lagoons. When the Civilian
Conservation Corps was formed in the 30s, ten companies were assigned
to this project, the largest CCC project in the nation. Work continued
til 1942, mainly by pick and shovel, creating seven lagoons connected
by channels amounting to about seven miles of waterways. Workers were
paid $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home to families. Eventually,
four million cubic yards of earth were moved with wheelbarrows called
"Georgia Buggies". The water levels in the lagoons are controlled
by a series of three low dams and a main control dam at Willow Road.
The lagoons and surrounding forest preserves became a major fishery
and recreational area covering about 750 acres.
Ralph Frese first explored the lagoons in 1940, about the time fishing
began to peak in the new impoundment. The CCC barracks were still
standing on the island north of Tower Road and the present day forest
was just beginning to develope. Because the larger lagoons were only
five to six feet in depth, winter kill was a problem and the fishing
slowly diminished as the lagoons silted in and pollution from Lake
County entered the area. In 1986, a plan had been developed and work
began to resuscitate the ailing lagoons under the EPA's Clean Lakes
Program. The treated sewage that had fouled the waters was rerouted
around the lagoons and the larger ponds were dredged to a depth of
at least 12 feet, allowing fish a chance to winter successfully. The
rough fish were first killed off and restocking began with game fish.
Bank stabilization has been done in many sections to help control
Today, the lagoons offer the urban explorer a chance to wander the
miles of waterways of the Skokie with simple hand-propelled craft
as no motors are permitted. The larger bodies of water also host small
sailing craft. Deer and other animals are common and the bird life
is plentiful. Early morning or evening is best as the traffic on the
adjacent bike trail slows and all creatures venture forth at that
time. Early spring and autumn rate high as the heat of summer can
be oppressive. To see all of the waterways, one can start at the Willow
Road dam and by following every left hand channel, travel all the
way north to Dundee Road. Then by turning south, and taking every
left hand channel again, you will eventually arrive back at the Willow
Road Dam where you started from. The lagoons are laid out like the
links of a chain, separating around an island and coming together
again on the other side.
Since the waters have been restocked with fish, the Skokie Lagoons
have become a first class bass, walleye and pike fishery. The walleye
average 14 inches in length with many larger ones available. Pike
run to 24 inches and it is considered the best place in Cook County
for bass. As the average bank fisherman often unintentionally tramples
the shoreline plantings doing much damage to the vegetation, it is
suggested that the best way to cover the area is with a simple canoe
or kayak. These can be rented by the day if the fisherman does not
own one and with it, he can cover the remotest areas of the lagoons
he couldn't reach before. The canoe and the kayak are the basic hunting
and fishing craft all over the world and their usefulness in our local
waters has not diminished in spite of our technological advances.
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