In the scope of things, the Chicago River is a tiny geographical feature. Yet, in map after map at the beginning of this book, it’s shown, greatly out of scale. And not only the river itself, but also the six-mile stretch of land between this river and another one, the DesPlaines.And about last Saturday I was studying an 1897 map of Chicago railroads and noticed the original channel of the South Branch of the Chicago River met the Drainage Canal near Central Avenue and 39th street and that also made me think about the portage.
The space of land was called Mud Lake although it was rarely anything like a lake. When it was, canoeists — Indians and, later, white traders — could paddle from one river to the other. Most of the year, though, it was a boggy mire or just plain dry, and travelers had to get out and carry their river craft (and any goods they were transporting) overland until they reached the other waterway.
First of all, the meaning of "the portage" depends on which city your are in. In Fort Wayne, IN, it means a crossing between the St. Mary and Wabash rivers. But in the Chicago area, it means a crossing between the South Branch of the Chicago River and the Des Plaines River. In both cases, a canal was dug so that cargo could remain in boats while it crossed the watershed divide between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The canals were the Wabash and Erie and the Illinois and Michigan. Also, in both cases the canals became obsolete and the right of ways were used by another mode of transportation---the Nickel Plate Railroad (New York, Chicago and St. Louis or NYC&St.L) (reporting mark NKP) through Fort Wayne and Interstate 55 through Chicago.