by Joseph D. Kubal, Ruth D. Nelson and Maria R. Traska
Most Route 66 roadies are familiar with the purposefully rusted Cor-Ten steel sculpture of French explorers Père Jacques Marquette, Louis Jolliet (aka Joliet*) and a Native American guide that stands just west of 48th Street and Harlem Avenue, surrounded by a forest preserve near Lyons, IL and only a few blocks from Route 66/Joliet Road. The Chicago Portage National Historic Site is located at the periphery of the famous Chicago Portage, a nine-mile long scrap of swampy land bordering Mud Lake that was the only thing separating the Great Lakes and the Chicago River from the Mississippi River system and the Gulf of Mexico via the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers. A canal through that area – an idea first conceived by Jolliet on the expedition with Marquette – would link the East Coast with the Gulf of Mexico, cutting through the heart of the continent. Its economic and political value was literally incalculable.
Not far away, on the other side of the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal and Interstate 55, is another memorial to Père Marquette in Summit, IL. Located in Summit Park at 5810 S. Archer Ave. is a large group of boulders that form a stone monument or cairn dedicated to the French priest and explorer. Often overlooked on the busy road, which was once was an old Indian trail, the monument stands at the edge of the park and out of the view of passing vehicles.
The monument was relocated here in 1968 from its original historic site on a sandy ridge southwest of the spot known as Point aux Chenes, or Point of Oaks – the latter being literally the summit from which the village got its name. The promontory once overlooked the exaggerated eastward curve of the Des Plaines River, before construction of the Sanitary & Ship Canal more than two centuries later required that a straighter diversion channel be dug west of the curve (that permanently changed the path of the Des Plaines near Lyons, thereby also creating Prescott Island).
But let’s not get ahead of the story.
Marquette’s first trip through Chicago, 1673
Father Marquette, a Roman Catholic Jesuit missionary and himself a geographer and cartographer, first ventured into the Mississippi Valley in 1673 with fellow explorer Jolliet. They set off from St. Ignace near the Mackinac Straits to find the elusive Mississippi River and traveled down the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers before they encountered the Great Water, as it was known to the natives. Having paddled down as far as present-day Arkansas and returning from this circuitous trip, they were guided by local Illini to a shortcut back to Lake Michigan (known to the French as Lac des Illinois) via the Illinois River, then the Des Plaines River. Marquette must have been miserable at the time, as he had developed dysentery during the return trip, so a shortcut was no doubt welcome.
Previously unaware of this route to the Chicago Portage, Marquette and Jolliet paddled northeast through the great tallgrass prairie to the vicinity of Lyons and Summit, where the Des Plaines made an enormous curve east and north and a tiny tributary later called Portage Creek led them to Mud Lake. There, they had to either paddle through mud the consistency of wet cement or portage around the bog, carrying their canoes over a minor continental divide that separates the Illinois/Mississippi basin from the Great Lakes basin. Given the choice, they portaged. From the eastern end, they took a meandering stream (the Chicago River and its South Branch) to the shore of Lake Michigan, then moved north along the lakeshore until they reached the mission of St. Francis Xavier at present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin. At the mission, the travelers parted ways: Marquette remained to report to his Jesuit superiors, while Jolliet returned to Quebec to report their findings to the new governor, the Comte de Frontenac.
Marquette had promised the Native Americans along the Illinois River that he would return to them some day. He had hoped to establish another mission among the native inhabitants of the wide prairie. During the winter of 1674-75, he kept that promise and got to Kaskaskia, where he founded the mission. The plan was to go down to the River of the Portage (aka the Chicago River) in the autumn and camp on its banks through the winter, so as to be ready to return to Kaskaskia as soon as possible when the thaw and spring freshets came – high water would make traveling down the shallow Des Plaines easier. Why Marquette chose to do this, however, risking more illness in the cold after it had taken him nearly a year to recover from the dysentery, nobody knows; but it was a decision that would kill him, and Marquette realized that too late. Then again, the priest was all too willing to be a martyr.
Marquette’s second trip, 1674-75
Leaving the mission at Green Bay on October 25, 1674, Marquette and two companions (he was accompanied by two voyageurs, one of whom who had been with him on the expedition with Jolliet) traveled down the lakefront. They encountered fierce snow, heavy winds, massive waves, and ice floes on the way south that forced them ashore several times. After weeks of punishing weather and delays, Marquette’s dysentery returned and he could hardly sit up in the canoe. By December 4, the travelers reached the then mouth of the Chicago River (near what is today the intersection of Madison Street and Michigan Avenue), where they camped for a week and killed game for food. Then on December 11, they traveled six miles inland along the more sheltered South Branch and built a makeshift cabin on the north bank near what is now Damen Avenue and the Sanitary & Ship Canal, where they spent the worst of the winter – until the ravages of spring arrived.
There are those who suggest that Marquette occupied an abandoned cabin on the South Branch that someone else – either Indians or French trappers – had built, but this assertion is disproven by the narrative written by Fr. Claude Dablon, S.J., Marquette’s immediate superior and to whom he had reported after the expedition with Jolliet. Dablon, who not only had Marquette’s original journal and had copies made that were sent to Jesuit houses in Quebec and France, also had the reports of all the voyageurs who had traveled with Marquette – including verbal reports from the two men who accompanied Father Marquette on his second trip in late 1674, Pierre Porteret and Jacques La Castor. Dablon plainly states that “During a month of navigation on the Lake of the Illinois [Lake Michigan], he [Marquette] was tolerably well; but, as soon as the snow began to fall, he was again seized with his bloody flux, which compelled him to halt in the river [that] leads to the Illinois [i.e., on the Chicago River’s South Branch at Damen]. It was there that they constructed a cabin in which to pass the winter [emphasis added], amid such inconveniences that, his malady increasing more and more, he saw clearly that God was granting to him the favor which he had so many times besought from Him; and he even told his two companions very plainly that he would certainly die of that malady and during that voyage.”
When the thaw came, it was brutal. On the night of March 30th, 1675, the floods on the South Branch were so bad that Marquette’s party had to climb up into the trees to avoid being swept away by the rising water; in the morning, the men set off further up the South Branch toward Mud Lake until they found significantly higher ground upon which to camp. That ground was on the ridge at Point of Oaks. With the floodwaters so high, they evidently didn’t need to portage around Mud Lake but were able to paddle through the area. However, the weather was so bad that they were stuck at that third winter campsite for several days. Eventually, they were able to continue southwest on the flooded Des Plaines River and past the oxbow and rapids between there and the Romeoville bend.
An inscription on the Summit cairn’s original plaque explained the reason for the monument near Point of Oaks: “On March 31, 1675, Fr. Marquette was flooded out of his winter quarters at Robey St. (now Damen Avenue), Chicago, and next day camped at this point, which is located by a comparison of his Journal with the original Engineers’ levels and surveys of the Country.” This plaque no longer exists, having been stolen and replaced twice – the first time before 1920, when it was replaced by Robert Somerville of the Chicago & Alton Railroad at his own expense, the second time at some point after 1924.
Marquette and his party relocated their campsite to the Point of Oaks area, near the southwestern tip of the portage in what is now suburban Summit. This is just northeast of the present day intersection of Center and 54th Street, not far from a Metra/Amtrak train platform near which the memorial cairn was later erected. From here, they traveled down past the Des Plaines rapids and the confluence with the Kankakee River to the Illinois River and Kaskaskia, arriving during Holy Week. There, the missionary founded the promised mission, preached and said Easter Mass, and realized he was at last dying, thus hastening his return to St. Ignace even though the natives begged him to stay and be cared for there. At that point, Marquette was so feeble that he had to be carried everywhere, including into the canoe. He died on the way back, near the mouth of the river named for him at present-day Ludington, Michigan.
The memorial cairn is built
In 1895, a monument championed by Ossian Guthrie was erected at the Point of Oaks landing site by the Chicago & Alton Railroad Company, on grounds that the railway then owned. This was done at the urging of Guthrie, then chief engineer of the I&M Canal Bridgeport Pumping Works, and Edward G. Mason, president of the Chicago Historical Society, with the approval of Somerville, who was general agent of the C&A’s passenger department. According to author Robert Kott (2009), “Originally located across from the old Chicago and Alton Railroad station, this monument commemorates one of three spots researched over a lifetime by Guthrie: the 1673 portage route, the 1674 Damen Avenue (Robey Street) Marquette cabin site, and the  temporary Marquette encampment.” Guthrie decided on these sites by studying Marquette’s journal, the interviews conducted after 1847 regarding the area’s original topography, and fieldwork and surveys ordered by the commissioners of the Chicago Drainage Canal, as the Sanitary & Ship Canal was then known. As of 2016, the original monument’s foundation still stands near the train station.
Later in 1895, the C&A Railroad published a tourist booklet about notable sites along the newly dug Chicago Drainage Canal that riders on the Summit line could see from the train. One of the sites mentioned was the recently constructed Marquette memorial, a photo of which was featured on the booklet’s cover. Page 7 of the booklet notes that “This monument consists of granite boulders of various kinds brought from the Lake Superior region by the glacial stream and deposited in this valley. The monument is, therefore, of great geological as well as historical interest.” Another photo shows two large boulders; an accompanying explanation notes that “the smaller boulder is of granite, weighing 7 or 8 tons, smoothed and scored by glacial action (also somewhat affected by water), and now forms the capstone of the Alton’s Marquette Monument at Summit” (Chicago & Alton Railroad, 1895).
On May 31, 1937, the village of Summit held a celebration at the memorial site to honor Marquette’s 300th birthday anniversary. Led by master of ceremonies Henry C. Wahl and village president E.H. Wilson, attendees gathered “to pay honor and homage” to and “in contemplation of the example thus afforded” by the great French explorer. In honor of the occasion, the Père Marquette Memorial Association of Ludington, Michigan sent a letter in advance to the mayor of Summit, along with a “small chest of consecrated sand taken from the revered spot where, on May 18, 1675, Père Marquette died.” The association’s pageant committee requested that the sand be sprinkled on the Summit memorial during the tricentennial celebration. It is presumed that this request was carried out.
(Note: Marquette died at and was initially laid to rest near Ludington. However, two years after his death, a hunting party of local Christian tribesmen found his remains. They washed and dried the bones, and, singing their funeral chants in a procession of nearly 30 canoes, returned them in a birch box to St. Ignace, where they were reburied by the Jesuits beneath the mission’s church – and were apparently forgotten for many years after the mission burned down. Marquette’s grave at St. Ignace was rediscovered on the former mission site in 1877, but by that time only a few bones remained. According to historian Donald L. Miller, “the rest were believed to have been taken by Indians who considered him a forest spirit. His remaining relics are at Marquette University, under the care of his order. And this gentle missionary who dreamed of the glory of martyrdom in the wilderness became, in time, the closest thing to a patron saint that gritty Chicago would ever have.” In 1920, Chicago mayor William Dever officially declared December 4th to be Marquette Day in Chicago.)
The Marquette cairn is moved
Flash forward to 1968. The C&A had by now become part of the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad, and the company wanted to develop the Summit site where the Marquette monument stood. The 11,000-pound cairn was moved to its present location on June 8th that year at a cost of $2,000. It was rededicated a month later during the village’s July 14th Marquette Days celebration (on Bastille Day; how very French). In attendance were many state and local dignitaries and officials, including Illinois Secretary of State Paul Powell. In 1973, the village of Summit celebrated another tercentenary – the anniversary of the Marquette-Joliet expedition.
In its initial location near the train station, the Marquette monument was maintained by the railroad, even though the first two plaques were stolen. At the time, it was thought that they were most likely sold for their metal content; but without knowing precisely when the thefts occurred – for example, whether one or both of the thefts took place during the Great Depression or a major recession – it’s difficult to judge whether the thefts were simple vandalism or something more. The current plaque reads:
Father Marquette landed here
This monument is constructed of boulders brought by glaciers from
the Lake Superior region and deposited in this valley, having traversed
the route later followed by the earl[y] French explorers
Erected by the Chicago & Alton Railroad Co.
It’s curious that LaSalle is mentioned at all on the most recent plaque, let alone named first – considering that his travels through the area occurred nine years the Marquette-Jolliet expedition – whereas Jacques Marquette is mentioned last, even though the cairn is his monument. Did those who approved the third plaque’s wording realize that they were effectively demoting Father Marquette to an also-ran on his own memorial? Moreover, this third plaque doesn’t even bother to explain why Marquette landed at Point of Oaks in the first place. One is tempted to wonder whether the third plaque was a rushed replacement for its predecessor, ordered by someone whose interest in Marquette didn’t equal that of Ossian Guthrie.
History buffs will appreciate knowing that engineer Guthrie (1826-1908), considered the “Father of Chicago’s Drainage System,” was the grandson of Dr. Samuel Guthrie, the discoverer of chloroform. In 1885, the younger Guthrie found a granite boulder in southwest suburban Worth, IL that was later used as a monument to his famous relative. Apparently, Ossian Guthrie was a real geology buff and saw no point in wasting a good boulder.
The stone currently sits on the east side of a small park and helipad on Harrison Street, across from both Rush Medical Center and the former Cook County Hospital; the park sits just east of Route 66/Ogden Avenue in the Illinois Medical District. That same vest-pocket park includes a monument to scientist Louis Pasteur, the inventor of vaccination and pasteurization. However, the Guthrie memorial was previously located in Grant Park – as was the Pasteur monument – next to the Art Institute of Chicago and near the starting point of Route 66 at Michigan Avenue and Jackson Boulevard. It’s interesting that the boulder remains near the route today, on a different stretch of the Mother Road but still within the city.
As fascinated as he was by geology, Ossian Guthrie was an even greater admirer of Father Marquette and during his lifetime collected a large amount of research about the Jesuit missionary. In his will, Guthrie bequeathed all his research and papers regarding Marquette to the City of Chicago.
For more information about the monument and other memorials to Marquette, we suggest reading Ruth D. Nelson’s book, Searching for Marquette: A Pilgrimage in Art, listed below.
Joseph D. Kubal is a Naperville, IL-based geographer, data analyst, and amateur historian. The information in this article has been excerpted in part from the upcoming book, The Curious Traveler’s Guide: Route 66 in Metro Chicago, by Maria R. Traska, Joseph D. Kubal and Keith Yearman.
Ruth D. Nelson is a suburban Chicago-based art historian, author of the 2013 book Searching for Marquette: A Pilgrimage in Art, and adjunct faculty at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.
(The late) Maria R. Traska is a Chicago-based journalist, author, historian, blogger, editor of the Route 66 blog CuriousTraveler66.com, and editor and co-author of the upcoming book, The Curious Traveler’s Guide: Route 66 in Metro Chicago, by Maria R. Traska, Joseph D. Kubal and Keith Yearman.
Brennan, Edward P., “The Only Monument to Father Marquette in Illinois,” Illinois Catholic Historical
Review, July 1924, vol. 7, Chicago: 1924
Chicago & Alton Railroad, A Guide to the Chicago Drainage Canal with Geological and Historical Notes to Accompany the Tourist via the Chicago & Alton Railroad, Chicago: Rand McNally and Company, 1895
Dablon, Claude, S.J., excerpts from “Account of the Second Voyage and the Death of Father Jacques Marquette,” reprinted in Illinois Catholic Historical Review, October 1924, vol. 7, Chicago: 1924
“Death Calls Ossian Guthrie,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 26, 1908: 5
Early Chicago, Inc., “Marquette Boulder Monument,” Early Chicago website at http://www.earlychicago.com/monuments.php?letter=M (accessed October 28, 2015)
Kott, Robert, Summit, Chicago, Charleston, SC, Portsmouth, NH and San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2009
Kubal, Joseph D, ”A Continental Divide in Illinois?,” Route 66 Magazine, Fall 2014, vol 14-4: 14
MacLaren, Agnes E., Letter from the Père Marquette Memorial Association to the Village of Summit, IL, Ludington, MI: May 13, 1937
Miller, Donald L., City Of The Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, New York: Simon
& Schuster Inc., 1996
Nelson, Ruth D., Searching for Marquette: A Pilgrimage in Art, Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2013
Thompson, Joseph J., “Two Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary History of Illinois,” Illinois Catholic Historical
Review, October 1924, vol. 7, Chicago: 1924