African American Heritage Water Trail traces Black history along Little Calumet River

On an unusually warm winter day, we meet historian Lillian Holden along the banks of the Little Calumet River, a waterway that flows through hundreds of years of African American history and the African American Heritage Water Trail.

 "It is a 12-mile-long water trail that covers at least two centuries worth of history, ranging from the Underground Railroad, the Civil Rights movement, the birth of justice movement," said Holden, Openlands Education and Outreach Coordinator:

In warmer weather, Openlands conducts boat tours of the history trail.


A big piece of that history is where a marker has been placed at the corner of 134th Place and St. Lawrence. The Ton Farm was s part of the Underground Railroad. They were a Dutch immigrant family, and their house became an important stop.

Ronald Gaines is a retired CPD sergeant who owns Chicago's Finest Marina, which now sits on the site of the Ton Farm. He said slaves seeking freedom would be taken in covered wagons to Chicago, and then on to Detroit where they could escape into Canada. 

"Even though we don't think of slavery as an issue in Chicago or up north, but you had to be out of the United States to actually be free. So you had to leave the home of the free to be free," Gaines said.

Abolitionist George Dolton, who founded the village bearing his name, operated a ferry that carried the fleeing slaves across the river. 

Heading west, the historic water trail passes through Robbins, one of the oldest incorporated Black communities in the United States, and the oldest Black suburb in the Chicago area. In 1931, Robbins opened the first Black-owned airport and flight school, which trained some of the country's most famous war heroes. It was a pathway to some pilots who had flown as Tuskegee Airmen during World War Two.

Adella Bass is a community organizer who is helping restore the Little Calumet. She grew up in the Altgeld Gardens public housing project steps from the brier, and remembers when the old landfill was still in use, leaching poison into the water. Now, with the heritage water trail designation, the Little Calumet is coming back to life.

 "It's a place within a place. It separates you from the inner city life and gives you a taste of nature," Bass said.