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History and Nature Connect Us: Exploring the African American Heritage Water Trail

A refuge on the Underground Railroad. The birthplace of Environmental Justice. A landmark in the Civil Rights Movement. These — along with more than two centuries of African American history and progress — exist among the waters and watershed of the Little Calumet River, which flows through some of Chicago’s southside neighborhoods and suburbs and into northwest Indiana.

The previously untold stories of this area are now being shared through the African American Heritage Water Trail, officially established in 2020. The trail has sparked rejuvenated enthusiasm among many to explore and share the area’s deep cultural history, restore industrialized and polluted river ecosystems and increase outdoor recreation opportunities.

A group of kayakers paddling toward a bridge.

Courtesy Tiara Coats

Development of the African American Heritage Water Trail was kickstarted by input from several community members and local organizations and carried forward by Openlands, whose goals are rooted in expanding equal access to nature.

Local nonprofit Chicago Adventure Therapy (CAT) was one of the first organizations to begin sharing stories of the African American Heritage Water Trail. Staff invite community members of all ages to explore it via kayak, and train local youth to give tours of the trail. Shedd’s Conservation Action team enjoyed a paddle with CAT guides on the trail in 2023 to learn about the region’s history and how communities are building connections along the Little Calumet River.

Many community members who join CAT to explore the trail are new to kayaking, or often to water sports all together, but are eager to learn about the sites of African American historical significance just a few paddles ahead. 

“People aren’t talking about it as much as they should be. There is a lack of knowledge of the history there, which comes from a lack of access to routes along the trail,” said Fred Williams, CAT Program Staff. “Older generations in the Black community here are familiar with the area, but not of its history like the stop on the Underground Railroad or the toxic donut at Altgeld Gardens. It’s a huge shock to people but a pleasure for them to hear.” 

A group of young people posing in front of kayaks.

Courtesy Tiara Coats

One noteworthy location on the African American Heritage Water Trail is Ton Farm, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad for freedom seekers headed north to Detroit or Canada. Thousands of people escaping slavery before the Civil War crossed the Little Calumet River on the Dolton Ferry and Bridge near the farm.

Sitting on part of the former Ton Farm property is Chicago’s Finest Marina, the oldest Black-owned marina in Chicagoland. Built in the 1950s, it became one of the only places where Black boat owners could dock their boats without discrimination. 

Further, Hazel Johnson, considered “the Mother of the Environmental Justice movement,” in the 1970s demanded the government take action to clean polluted air, water and land that were affecting the health of residents of her neighborhood, Altgeld Gardens, another stop on the trail. She helped prove that low-income minority residents were disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution and went on to influence federal law and inspire people worldwide to fight for environmental justice.  

A group of kayaks paddling toward a bridge.

Courtesy Tiara Coats

“Black history is so important; Our history has been erased and overshadowed,” Williams said. “It’s crucial that this information is spread, and people acknowledge that we have roots here. Williams said it’s impactful when all participants, but especially youth, understand the progress that our society has made thus far for BIPOC communities. “It’s cool to know that we stuck through the adversity. It has led to something positive; it all had a ripple effect.” 

Tia Coats, CAT Development Coordinator, added that it’s important to tell these stories because “...it’s a part of African American History and a great part of U.S. history. It’s in the palm of our hands in our own city.” 

Both Coats and Williams were once participants in CAT programming and explained the importance of BIPOC representation and stories and how youth can see and be inspired by other people who look like them, confidently spending time outdoors and on the water.

A group of young people posing in front of a van.

Courtesy Tiara Coats

A young woman smiling and using a laptop while holding up a peace hand sign.

Courtesy Tiara Coats

Beyond sharing the historical and cultural importance of the Little Calumet River, CAT shows its program participants that nature can be a safe space. Many of the people CAT works with have experienced gun violence, homelessness, grief, mental health struggles and more, and staff share with them that nature can help them heal.

“I’ve seen change in people’s hearts out on the water,” Williams said. Coats added, “The river offers a clean, safe and peaceful environment to explore. Being in nature and in the outdoors is very therapeutic.” 

In 2024, the staff at CAT are thrilled to do more guiding on the Little Calumet River, as well as host the other programs they offer like hiking, biking, camping, climbing and more. They aspire to continue building relationships and community spaces throughout Chicago and the Calumet Region.

“The work we’re doing is blossoming,” Williams said. “What I love about CAT the most is we’ve become this nucleus that brings people from all around the city.” 

Broadly, plans are in the works with the Forest Preserves of Cook County for improvements to ramps and boat launches that will allow CAT and community members to more easily get on the water. To learn more about Chicago Adventure Therapy or schedule a tour on the African American Heritage Water Trail, visit their website at chicagoadventuretherapy.org.