When the glaciers receded, they left a marshy valley between two moraines. The Potawatomi knew the area as the Chewab Skokie, the great wet prairie, and it was described as teeming with wildlife. When Euro-American settlers arrived, they began to systematically drain the marsh to exploit its fertile soil for agriculture, effectively destroying it.
Faced with a ruined marsh that troubled neighbors with spring floods and fall peat fires, the Forest Preserve District decided to turn the site into a series of lagoons for flood control, recreation, and scenic beauty. The lagoons were dug by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) - almost entirely by hand - between 1933 and 1942.
In light of its history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Skokie Lagoons are what ecologists politely call a "highly disturbed" area. The peat is gone, and much of the soil on the site is clay dug from what is now the lagoon bottom. In much of the land area of the preserve, oak woodlands took hold, only to be overrun by invasive plants such as European buckthorn and garlic mustard. The two remnant prairie areas that avoided disturbance by both the CCC and the construction of the Edens Expressway face incursions of Canada thistle and takeover by woody plants.
However, all is not lost. The Lagoons provide a quiet retreat in the middle of a densely populated area and are enjoyed by hundreds of bicyclists, paddlers, and fishermen each week. The preserve provides excellent bird habitat. Volunteers from the Chicago Audubon Society and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County Volunteers have been working for almost twenty years to remove invasive plants and plant native species. The work is particularly rewarding when we see native plants sprouting where once there was only an impenetrable thicket of buckthorn. Come out for a workday and see what it's all about!
Backyard Nature Center, a local community organization, has prepared two Skokie Lagoons Resource Packets with more information on several areas of the Lagoons.