The Little Calumet River: from Explorers to Industry
By Jennifer Young
Since the 1926 construction of Burns Harbor, officials have divided the Little Calumet into an East and West arm. The Eastern arm flows from LaPorte County through Burns Harbor, Chesterton, and Portage. The Western arm flows through or borders Indiana towns such as Gary, Munster, and Hammond and Illinois towns such as Calumet City, Lansing, Dolton, Riverdale, and Blue Island.
The arms of the Little Calumet are part of the wider Calumet River System , a formation of waterways explored by Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette in 1673 (their exploration led to settlement and the birth of Chicago). The health of the Little Calumet has much to do with Chicago’s pattern of settlement—where the working and immigrant classes lived, where industries took root. It would be a mistake to lay the blame for the Little Calumet’s high pollution levels on the steel mills, for instance. Prior to the 1930s, sewage clogged the river, so much so that only carp were known to survive there.
But industry made its own contribution, beginning with sawmills and grist mills found the Calumet River System a convenient place to dump waste. Other industries such as foundries and steel mills followed suit. In time, the Little Calumet River, in particular, became bogged down by layers of sediment containing sewage, petroleum, heavy metals, farm runoff, and chemicals for a decidedly toxic soup of unhealthy water.
That isn’t to say that there have not been attempts to clean up the Little Calumet and adjoining streams. Around the time of Prohibition, there was a considerable attempt to remove and prevent waste from entering the river. Towns like Calumet City and Hammond became popular with bootleggers; speakeasies sprouted up near the river. Even in modern times, small-time marinas attracted crowds of boaters with their bars and riverfront events.
Industrial dumping escalated during the ensuing decades, but as manufacturing and industries like steel and the railroads began to decline from the late 70s into the 80s, the movement to clean up the river and nearby land preserves like Beaubien Woods drew support. With its lack of barge traffic, the Little Calumet offers considerable recreational opportunities for boating and canoeing. And, of course, the contaminants found in the Little Calumet do make their way into Lake Michigan, so maintaining an overall clean waterway system is important for the entire region.
The key to promoting the health of the Little Calumet is to remove the toxic sediments that still exist there and tamp down on the underground leaks and stormwater runoff that still continues to pollute the river. The legacy of industrialization and urbanization , for that matter, have left their marks on the entire Calumet River System, so different a series of waterways that once lapped at the feet of those first French explorers.
The name Calumet may come from the Potawatomi word gekelemuk, which means “body of deep still water.” When the Potawatomi and Illini tribes traversed the region, they would have known an abundance of beaver, blue heron, and yellow trout lily thriving in the area, not to mention a wide range of fish. There would have been no “mercury fish consumption warnings” in their time.
In 2019, an ammonia and cyanide spill contaminated the waters of the Little Calumet River, killing untold numbers of fish, adding another layer of toxic sediment to its long-suffering waters. After more than a century of abuse, it’s unclear how many centuries of better stewardship may be needed to clean up this once-pristine Midwestern watershed.