Landmarks: Palos Preserves get overdue attention in ‘biggest project ever’ in Cook County

There are plenty of scenic elements in the Palos area Forest Preserves — oak savanna forests where one can see through the trees, wet lowlands leftover from ice age glaciation and ravines eroded over thousands of years through the rolling hilltops of the Valparaiso moraine system.

But a 19th century barkeep operating an establishment not far from the town of South Mount Forest chose to focus on something different.

The Red Gate Tavern was situated across busy Archer Avenue from a fenced farm field accessible through a painted red gate. The place was so popular it became an unofficial stop on the Joliet & Chicago Electric interurban railway in the early 1900s.

The memory of the scarlet spot amid a sea of browns and greens has long outlived the gate, farm, tavern and even the railway, though motorists continue to speed by along Archer Avenue. A few pulled in Thursday to Red Gate Woods, where Becky Collings, a senior resource ecologist with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, offered a glimpse at the cultural past of the Palos Preserves.

“Eventually the tavern was demolished and the Forest Preserves purchased this land, but the name stuck,” Collings said.

An assemblage of politicians, including Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and 18th District state Sen. Bill Cunningham, and Forest Preserves staff wore light jackets on a sunny April 25 for the official launch of a $10 million restoration project in the Palos Preserves. The effort to remove invasive shrubs and improve and repair trails will impact almost 1,100 acres, mostly west of Wolf Road.

Work began last winter in Red Gate Woods, and the Forest Preserves people wanted to show off early results. At one point on a short hike, Troy Showerman, a resource project manager, pointed out how the older trees uniformly leaned to the east, where undappled sunlight once beamed down on a formerly deforested hilltop.

It was the site of the former Palos International golf course which during World War II was acquired by the federal government and became the first site of Argonne National Laboratory.

The rough wooden barracks belied the importance of the work being done there as part of the Manhattan Project, and the world’s first nuclear pile remains buried on the site, encased in concrete.

The Palos Preserves in 2021 garnered another global plaudit when a portion was declared the world’s largest Urban Night Sky Place by the International Dark-Sky Association. At the east end, Bergman Slough was named a Land and Water Reserve in 2020 by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

The chunk of Palos that’s been targeted by the restoration project includes 1,045 acres that are uninterrupted by the noise and headlights of motor traffic, Showerman said.

“That’s unique to us,” he said. “It’s bounded by roads, but there are no roads on the inside.”

That’s not to say it’s inaccessible. The acreage contains 26 miles of trails and is one of only two in the county preserves system where people can legally use trails for mountain biking as well as horseback riding, hiking and “anything else you want to do on the trails,” Showerman said.

Those trails connect facilities offering a range of other activities, including fishing, canoeing and kayaking at Maple Lake, camping at Camp Bullfrog Lake and the nature education and entertainment offerings at Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center and Sagawau Environmental Learning Center.

“This is a very heavily used recreational site, in addition to its uniqueness from the ecology perspective,” he said.

At the same time, the area has been “very lightly managed by us,” Showerman said, leading to “a huge invasive brush problem.”

Officials decided to remedy the situation a couple of years ago. Part of that effort involved cataloging remaining populations of native shrubs, so that the good plants wouldn’t get ripped out with the invasive European honeysuckle and buckthorn understory.

Some of what they found, such as remnant populations of spicebush, “are pretty rare in the forest preserve system,” he said.

Collings said at roughly 12,000 acres, the Palos Preserves are second in size only to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie as protected areas go. But a much greater percentage of Palos contains remnant natural communities than Midewin, where much of the land was heavily used over the last two centuries.

“Arguably, we’re standing in the most important natural area in our region of Illinois,” she said.

That’s not to say the land has been untouched. Human habitation stretches back eons. Collings said the Illinois Archeological Survey discovered an agate spearhead in one of the Palos Preserves that dates back 10,000 years, and there was a documented settlement of Native Americans living nearby in the 1600s, “so there have been waves of different people living here.”

Among those waves of people were the residents of South Mount Forest.

“There was a post office, a general store, blacksmith shop,” said Bob Busch, president of the Palos Historical Society. “The township offices were in a tavern on the second story. It probably would have been incorporated down the way, except the Forest Preserves bought it all.”

Now a ghost town, South Mount Forest was a cluster of homes and businesses along Kean Avenue between 96th and 111th streets.

As the Forest Preserves of Cook County took an interest in the Palos area in the 1910s and 20s, South Mount Forest became a casualty.

“They bought ‘em all out and they all had to move,” Busch said.

One of the larger landowners resisted and filed suit in a case that made it all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court. In the end, the court decided against Patrick Caraher, but like the old red gate down the way, his name lives on in the Palos Preserves.

“When the judge decided the case in favor of the county, he granted one of Caraher’s wishes that there be a monument there,” Busch said.

A concrete-covered brick edifice probably 10-feet high was constructed in the 1920s where Kean Avenue empties onto 119th Street in Palos Park, Busch said. “It looked like a tombstone. It had Caraher’s name on it. But nobody maintained it.”

By the 1960s, the old monument was falling apart, “so the road commissioner from Palos Township found a big rock in a ditch somewhere, hauled it up there and they carved Caraher’s name in it,” he said.

While Busch indicated the monument replacement might have been carried out “out of spite,” it’s another vestige of the long intermingling of people and nature in the Palos Preserves.

One of the most popular elements of the preserves is the stairs at Swallow Cliff, which ascend a steep moraine that once was home to popular toboggan slides and before that, a ski jump. Busch said the steep ski jump quickly was deemed to dangerous after youths began falling off the structure, and it was replaced by wooden sliding chutes for toboggan rides. They were so popular that new ones were installed made of concrete which, in turn, were deemed dangerous and closed in the late 1990s and soon demolished.

Despite that, the stairs themselves remain one of the top 10 hiking destinations in Illinois, according to Forest Preserves employee Chris Slattery.

But first time visitors exploring the trail at the top of the stairs “don’t know how long it’s going to get back, or where they’re going,” Slattery said. So part of the Palos effort includes installing better signs and maps at trail heads. They’ve also identified 60 “trouble spots” where severe erosion makes unpaved trails difficult to navigate.

Eileen Figel, the interim general superintendent for the Forest Preserves of Cook County, said it’s their “biggest project ever.”

Palos is good place to enhance the connections between ecological diversity evolved over eons and millennia of human use.

But her favorite part is its size.

“This is the place in Cook County where you most feel like you got away from everything,” Figel said. “You can’t hear any cars right now. There’s almost nowhere else in the county where that happens. You hear wind. You hear birds. And I love that.”

Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at