The Calumet region contains internationally significant history and stories of Black excellence from the past 180 years in the Chicago area. Flowing through the region are the Little Calumet River and Cal-Sag Channel, which pass through several south-side Chicago neighborhoods and the remarkable stories of African Americans who settled along the river. This waterway is a witness to freedom seekers who traveled the Underground Railroad, trailblazers who defied discrimination and became Tuskegee Airmen, and pioneers in the struggle for civil rights and environmental justice. In 2020, Openlands, in partnership with neighboring communities, developed the African American Heritage Water Trail brochure and story map, which serve as a catalog and inventory of the major sites of Black history along seven miles of the Little Calumet River and Cal-Sag Channel, from the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Beaubien Woods to the Village of Robbins, so that anybody can explore and appreciate this valuable and inspiring history.
Three years after the creation of the African American Heritage Water Trail brochure and story map, one of the sites highlighted by the Water Trail, Chicago’s Finest Marina and historical Ton Farm, boasts a new feature: signage. A new marker has been placed on the corner of 134th Street and St. Lawrence Avenue, the former site of Ton Farm and the current location of Chicago’s Finest Marina, educating all those who pass by about the history of Ton Farm as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The sign was created by the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project with a National Park Service Network to Freedom grant. The installment of what will be the first of many signs to commemorate the Ton Farm site marks an important step forward in the evolution of the African American Heritage Water Trail. While exciting press like a feature in the New York Times has introduced the Trail to the world, installing signage is a critical step in establishing the region as a Heritage Area for passersby.
The installation of signage at stops along the Trail will infuse the area with new meaning and reconnect the place with the memory of the land, water, and former slaves who traversed the Little Calumet River on their journey to a free life. Formerly the location of Ton Farm, the site was a place where freedom seekers sought refuge on their journey north. The Ton family was one of several Dutch families that settled in the area between 1847 and 1849. People escaping slavery in the South used what was known as the “Riverdale Crossing,” now the Indiana Avenue Bridge just west of Chicago’s Finest Marina, before stopping to rest with the Ton family, who then helped transport them via covered wagon up through Chicago or Detroit and eventually Canada. Reaching Canada was the ultimate goal for freedom seekers, as they were not guaranteed safety even in northern states. The National Park Service accepted the Jan and Aagje Ton Farm site into the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom registry in 2019.
According to Laura Barghusen, Openlands’ Blueways Director, the importance of signage for placemaking cannot be overstated: “If people are coming to the area for reasons other than the trail, signage raises people’s awareness in a way that nothing else will. For example, Ron [Gaines, owner of Chicago’s Finest Marina] rents his place out for family reunions. With the sign in place, people who are coming down for events are suddenly going to see that it is also an Underground Railroad site.”
As humans, we are all typophiles. The term topophilia was coined by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan and refers to the emotional bond that a person has with their environment —a person’s mental, emotional, and cognitive ties to a place. While places exist whether or not people feel connected to them, having a strong sense of place is what bonds us to the places we inhabit and helps us feel connected to our surroundings and community, whether it be our neighborhood or a single tree. Developing a sense of place in nature can help us feel more connected to the outdoors and motivated to take care of the natural wonders that surround us. In places that contain important history, signs act as a way of establishing an emotional connection to the place for visitors.
While the significant places along the trail have existed for the past 180 years, the creation of the trail and its new signage is an important form of placemaking that provides visitors with a way to connect to the history of the region. When thinking about Black Americans and history, stories are often focused on land as a concept. The trail takes a unique approach to Black history, as it focuses on water and the way in which the Little Calumet River flows and connects the history of the region through time and space. By learning more about the stories of those who previously traversed along the trail, all while paddling and taking in the sound of lapping water and bird songs, lush green trees, and fresh air, visitors are given a deeply embodied, multisensory experience of nature and history.
Each time someone visits sites along the African American Heritage Water Trail, whether a visitor or resident, they take an active role in the placemaking of the area by contributing new memories to the trail. We invite you to plan a paddle trip this summer to enjoy the beauty and history of the trail using our story map.