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The Des Plaines River Valley

The Des Plaines River Valley contains major navigable rivers which are important Illinois waterways. The valley marks the continental divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River Basins. Interested persons can observe the 8,000 years old easterly channel to the north and the changed 100 year old channel at Stony Ford, Lyons, Illinois at 43rd Street and Joliet Road (old Route 66) and at the railroad tracks on 47th Street in Ottawa Trail Woods. The Chicago Portage National Historic Site marker is located on Harlem Avenue, just south of 47th Street.

Waterways at Lockport in Illinois
Photo by Elaine C. Shigley

The Des Plaines River’s source is located in the wetlands of Union Grove, Wisconsin, west of Kenosha. It flows 45 miles through Wisconsin and 105 miles through Illinois. It meets Salt Creek near Lyons, Illinois. West of Channahon, Illinois, it meets the Du Page and Kankakee Rivers to form the Illinois River, a tributary of the Mississippi River. It flows through four counties and changes from creek, to stream, to river and to a major waterway to the Mississippi River.

Native Americans used this waterway system to reach the Mississippi River. They taught French explorers the route, and the French named it the Des Plaines River. Native Americans also taught the visitors about the Chicago Portage, connecting the Des Plaines River and the Chicago River and on to Lake Michigan. During periods of extremely rainy weather, part of the Des Plaines River flowed eastward to the Chicago River through Mud Lake. This wetland between the two rivers and Mud Lake was known as the Chicago Portage.

Today’s Des Plaines River is deeper and causes flooding in urban areas along the river. The cause of this flooding is the draining and paving of wetlands for urbanization. The river has been damaged over the years but it’s recovering.

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