Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
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  • 400 Finding Eliza's Prairies


    Just how did Midewin determine Eliza’s route and named locations? History detectives comprised of Forest Service staff and Midewin volunteers uncovered her exact route. They pieced together clues from her 1841 book, A Summer Journey in the West. Additionally, they used two detailed sets of maps. The first from 15 years before Eliza’s trip and the second from 11 years after. Finally, written accounts from other folks that lived around this period were used. These accounts helped determine the location of various landmarks. These sources helped to reconstruct Eliza’s route from Chicago to Peru, Illinois on July 6th and 7th, 1840. Eliza didn’t have the luxury of an accurate 1840 map conveniently marked with her route. She wrote of prairies and “oak openings” which takes a lot of detective work to reveal.

    Both, the 1820’s and 1851 maps, use the Public Land Survey System. This is a grid of one square mile “sections” numbered 1 to 36, within 36 square mile “Townships.” This system is still used today in property deeds. With some computer and map magic, these old maps were incorporated into the “Geographical Information System” you may know as GIS. This software allowed historic maps to be aligned with modern maps.  It showed quite accurately where the edges of timber, prairie, and were in the 1820s, and in 1851… and where those roads and landmarks would have been on the land today! It appeared that if the edges of timber as recorded in 1822 were relatively close to the edges of timber in 1851, they would probably also match what Eliza experienced in 1840.

    Below is an example of the deductive reasoning used by Midewin’s history detectives to map out Eliza's path. Eliza provided us many data points to uncover her exact route. We know they boarded the stagecoach at 9 pm and then picked up the mail at the post office. They would have crossed the south branch of the Chicago River by using the Dearborn St Bridge. This was the closest bridge to Madison Street, which had no bridge in 1840. Then, they cut south to pick up Madison Street, the road that led west out of town.

    We know that the swampy trail, “Barry Point Road,” intersected Madison on the west side of modern California Ave. From there they would have been following whatever previous tracks to the southwest were available to the driver in the dark. From leaving Madison onto Barry Point Road it was about 4.5 to 5 miles to the actual “Barry Point,” where the road regained a dry and wooded “sand ridge” and then went on to the crossing of the Des Plaines River at Lawton’s Tavern in modern day Riverside, just north of Ogden and Joliet Street.

    When the driver lost the trace of the road Eliza noted: The hour, seen by the light of the coach lamp, proved to be twelve. From this we can infer that the coach was traveling at roughly two miles per hour. This is consistent with the speed of the coach as recorded in J.S. Buckingham’s narrative of his nighttime trip over the same route just a month before Eliza’s. One assumes the stagecoach picked up to its normal speed of 5 to 7 mph (probably closer to 5 mph at best, since they were traveling in the dark) once they gained the road atop the sand ridge.

    We know, it would have been well after midnight when they stopped to change horses at Lawton’s Tavern on the Des Plaines River. For the rest of the night, the coach would travel along what is now Joliet Road and I-55, the Stevenson Expressway. It should have been about sunrise. The time was 5:22 am our time, but in Eliza's pre-Daylight Savings Time Era it was 4:22 am. It was July 7th when they emerged from the last timber stand between Oldfield Rd. and modern Lemont Road along I-55.

    But Eliza could not have seen the sun arising from the earth where it touched the horizon was ‘kissing with golden face the meadows green’” until they were somewhere a bit past the prairie ridge atop which Lemont Road now runs (i.e., she couldn’t have been looking east to see the sun rising above the prairie until that point…looking east any earlier she would have seen the sun kissing the canopy of timber!)

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