Wooded Island tour, in memoriam of the great oak, 2003

This page is brought to you by Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, its website hydepark.org and Parks Committee, in cooperation with Jackson Park Advisory Council.

To Jackson Park home (bulletins and links to more background pages)
To Wooded Island and natural areas evaluation, prospect 2007.
To Wooded Island restoration template 2008
The Old Oak. Historic Jackson Park. Jackson Park Timeline. Jackson Park Lagoons History and Rehabilitation. Osaka Garden home. Bob-o-link Meadow. Columbian Exposition.

See Doug Anderson's "Wooded Island: In Memoriam" in www.hydeparkhistory.org. This article is published in Hyde Park History, the publication of the Hyde Park Historical Society, 2003 No's. 2-3.

To Photo Gallery of the tour. To aerial view centered on Wooded Island, 1938

Note, Anderson is now sure that the burr oak at the Lincoln Park Zoo Primate House is older than that felled by the storm on Wooded Island.

Highlights of Doug Anderson's tour Lost Wooded Island, October 18, 2003.

Please note that although want our material to be factually accurate and so will be updating the following article, this is not a "guide" to Wooded Island but impressions of what is there, written by a non-expert who took this very special tour given by Doug Anderson.

This tour was organized by the Hyde Park Historical Society. Society members should watch for Doug's essay "In Memoriam" in the fall issue of HPHS News and Notes. We're pleased that over 40 attended.

By Gary Ossewaarde

Note: Doug Anderson's family returned to Chicago in 1943. As a nine-year-old, he quickly discovered Wooded Island and a giant old oak in the middle of the island that he would climb and where he would pretend he was Tarzan or Boy. In high school, he was introduced by his biology teacher to the prolific bird life on the Island and in the oak tree. In 1974 he began leading bird walks that have continued until the present. He has led a great many other tours for the Chicago Architecture Foundation and others that have included Jackson Park and Wooded Island. He was instrumental in placing Jackson Park on the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1970s and having the whole Island named in 1977 a Nature Sanctuary in honor of his deceased friend Paul H. Douglas, U.S. Senator, lover of Wooded Island, and father of the Indiana Dunes National Park. Doug's career was in juvenile court and social work. He is on the board of the Hyde Park Historical Society and Chicago Audubon, sits on the Mayor's Wildlife and Fishing committees, and is a leading member of the Nature Committee of Jackson Park Advisory Council.

Recommended by Anderson for reading: The Urban Tree by Arthur Plotnick.


Anderson told how F.L. Olmsted found Jackson Park a rather desolate stretch of sand ridges and watery swales that averaged a foot below the level of the lake. Olmsted brought in 200,000 cubic yards of dirt, scraped down ridges, and planted hundreds of thousands of trees, shrubs, low plants, and aquatic plants, many on Wooded Island. Olmsted and the Fair designers respected the scattered stands of ancient oaks and other trees, keeping the buildings away from these stands where possible, while bringing in many new species of trees, including black willows, to stabilize the edge of Wooded Island and other lagoon shores. Until that time, The Island was a peninsular sand ridge with an oak savannah. Olmsted intended the Island to be a quiet nature respite, but Daniel Burnham agreed to allow the Japanese government to build at its expense a Phoenix temple (Ho-o-den) and a small Japanese garden.

Anderson described the July 5, 2003 storm with 88-mph winds as a horizontal tornado that cut a swath from 59th to 63rd Streets, concentrating its worst fury on Wooded Island but not sparing trees north and south. Furious as the storm was, nothing could prepare for the devastation observed. Over 75 trees were ripped up on the island and over 25 more had to be cut down and removed. Total lost in the park was 336. The most grievous loss was the 273-year-old oak in the middle of the island. (Bur oaks can live to 500+ years.) This tree was Doug's favorite when he was a boy of nine. It had a low bow that allowed easy climbing.

Before going onto the island, Anderson showed us the spot east of the Darrow Bridge where a massive Green ash was taken down by the storm, showing that trees outside the main path were not necessarily spared. This ash was aged to 1853 (the year Paul Cornell founded Hyde Park), using a method developed at Morton Arboretum. (White ash, long popular with many baseball players, including Sammy Sosa for a quarter of his bats, no longer grows on the island.) Anderson pointed out the pre-Fair bur oak grove northeastward of the Bridge. These have been aged to 190-207 years of age. (Foreign pavilions for the Fair were built south of this grove, in the current parking area and Music Court.) Anderson also noted that lakeshore, including what later became the park, was avoided by Native Americans except for hunting expeditions, in part because of the lake's storms. However, the area was a popular trapping spot starting with the French.

Bur oak is one of six oak species in the park, and the most common in the park and in Illinois (which nevertheless has the White oak as the state tree). Why so abundant? Their thick bark enables them to withstand fires. Nonetheless, the builders of Chicago balloon-frame houses used white pine--also common--not oak.

Approaching the North Bridge onto Wooded Island, Anderson showed the only Black walnut left in the park. Walnuts have long been targets of poachers. We could see one reason why: its bore reaches far and straight into the sky before branching. Walnuts are among the first trees to lose their leaves in fall.

Osaka Garden. The Austrian pine at the entrance of the current garden, planted by Olmsted for the Fair was given a lean or tilt by the storm. (The park district wanted to remove it a few years ago because of "asymmetry.") The World's Fair Japanese pavilion's main building, Ho-o-den, stood west of the present garden, occupying most of the current lawn between the roads to the west and even west of the west road. It and the later pavilion from the Century of Progress burned, Anderson said, starting after Pearl Harbor and culminating in 1946.

In the garden, two trees including a silver maple were knocked down, blocking the south path and taking out part of the fence. Anderson noted that some trees such as Silver maples are brittle and extremely vulnerable to storm damage. (The fence and gate were built without nails at great expense- $400,000.)

The Japanese government put in several cherry trees, in part because they turned an auspicious red, as did many of the other plants in the Garden. (Elsewhere the park has chokecherries.) Anderson pointed out a fine, really old catalpa, ("Catalpa" is a Native American, possibly Iroquois, word). This one is the only Southern catalpa on the island. It has the large, really big, leaves and flowers. Others in the park are Northern catalpa. At the base of this tree, near what used to be a stand of flowers, Anderson chose to scatter in 1976 the ashes of former U.S. Senator Paul H. Douglas, at Douglas' request. The next year, 1977, Anderson was instrumental in having the entire Island named the Paul H. Douglas Nature Sanctuary. Anderson also pointed out reddish jewelweed, which attracts hummingbirds. In 1981, during the major modern Garden construction, four Red maples were planted (again, the auspicious color).

Another cause of damage in the park and garden , from about 1999 though 2001, was beavers. They destroyed 250 or so trees, mainly on the island and Bob-o-link woods and meadow. 16 beavers were removed during control measures. Anderson credited the work of Ross Petersen and team for physically protecting over 200 trees until removal was mobilized and completed. Anderson pointed to vandalism as another problem, noting that this has been restrained at the tea house by using Douglas pine, which is naturally fire resistant, and painting over graffiti as fast as it happens. In that area is a fine Pagoda dogwood planted by the Japanese and a White mulberry- key to the silkworm industry in Japan- it's all the silkworms eat. (An attempt to introduce a silk industry based on White mulberries in the South in the colonial period failed. White mulberries are very invasive--those in the park came from one or more planted by Olmsted--but the fruit is eaten by many bird species. The park district tries by spurts to remove them.

The lawn outside the Garden and between road sections- where the Ho-o-den stood- was denuded of trees by the storm. The most impressive was the last Horse chestnut on the island, thought to be planted by Olmsted. It had its top sheared off 25 feet from the ground. Horse chestnut flowers are frequented by hummingbirds. This tree's homeland is Asia Minor. Other trees lost there include the last White ash on the island and tulip trees.

The heart of the island

Anderson showed a copy of a 1938 areal photograph of the island, from Park District Archives. He argued that the Island was then very wooded although the Rose Garden was very open. In the storm c. 100 trees on the island were lost in immediate damage or needed to be removed due to damage; the total park storm loss was 336. The roads were strewn with them. The whole park census showed only 680 trees before the storm Replanting will start next spring and continue in the fall. Ross Petersen remarked that replanting will and should take 3-5 years. Even during the recent planting for biodiversity it was hard to find enough saplings, Petersen noted. During the tour, Anderson pointed to newly landed saplings now dead due to lack of or insufficient watering.

We next came upon a massive bur oak aged to 204 years. It was sheared of many of its branches. It had survived a lighting strike many years ago. Will it survive after this storm's assault? We passed by young buckthorn trees. This species is extremely invasive and aggressive and continuing efforts are made to control it. But, as with White mulberries, they are useful to wildlife: over 70 species eat the buckthorn's fruit. They are among the last to lose their leaves, which is perhaps one of the reasons (beside the thorns) they have been popular in (now disappearing) English hedgerows.

The Eastern wahoo, along with the catalpa, is one of the few trees whose popular name comes from Native Americans- in this case Dakota. Its straight wood was prized for arrows. This rarity was accidentally removed in the Wooded Island replanting project of 1999-2001.

We knew we were at the epicenter of the storm microburst when we passed a succession of tree trunks, the leaves now turned brown with death. And we arrived at the lost 273-year-old bur oak, possibly the oldest in the city. It was sprawled over a third of the width of the island at that point, Anderson said, as would be expected of a tree that stood 65 feet high and 90 feet wide, with a circumferential girth of 3-and-a-half feet! The tree in life spread more horizontally than vertically. The loss to birds is enormous. And can one imagine the millions, maybe billions of acorns it dropped to feed all kinds of wildlife during its maturity since age 25? It will be left as a memorial to itself and the other lost trees. Maybe in 25-50 years the decaying trunk or its roots will make it a "nurse tree" for new oaks. It's wood value would be $50,000. The tree was healthy before the storm and could have lived another two and a quarter centuries.

An American linden (basswood) trunk, stripped bare, will also be left, as a nesting snag. Linden blossoms attract bees. We passed another, intact, linden, with five huge trunks radiating from the ground. Lindens are very insect resistant and stately.

The Rose Garden. This formal garden continued to be replanted until the 1950s when it was allowed to fall apart. In more recent years it oscillated between being an overgrown meadow of invasives and being the subject of various experiments/attempts at one or another particular type of habitat. The most recent plantings of 20 species will have to be tended and in few years may be established as a much more varied flora and habitat. We noted that some of the fence was knocked sideways by storm-felled trees. Anderson said there used to be some willows here, as around the lagoon edge, planted mainly by Olmsted's sons in 1905, but they reached their normal life span and were gone by the end of the 1990's.

To the southeast is a huge sycamore. Sycamore is one of the tallest trees in eastern North America (to 150'), tulip being its rival. Its heartwood tends to rot, making it a perfect home for chimney swifts and other birds. Nearby was a tall White oak and near it had stood a box elder, an invasive maple relative, taken out four years ago. There are five kinds of maple on the island, excluding cousins box elder and sycamore. Norway is most common on the island. There are no Sugar maples, but there is a Black maple at this point, a close relative of the Sugar but whose leaves do not turn red.

Now we reached the lovely South Bridge over the lagoon. Here, on the northeast corner, had stood a handsome American elm (shown by Anderson from an early 1900's picture). All 27 elms were gone by the end of the 1970's due to Dutch elm disease. In this sector we found more new saplings dead from lack of water- and these are expensive!

We turned north through a mixed meadow and woodlot to see a 220-year-old bur oak with its top sheared by the storm. It was one of 4, perhaps five, oaks standing in enough of a line to suggest that they grew from an even more ancient bur oak "nurse log." Anderson said that he would not see the effects of forest and oak succession on the island, but the younger members of the group will see its start, and succession will surely come to the island if we let it.

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Vi Uretz's feature in the Herald, December 24, 2003: Mothers find miracle on Wooded Island

One of a monthly series of features by the Hyde Park Historical Society.

“Oh, we can't go there," my friend said. "It's too dangerous. We might get mugged." My friend was new to Hyde Park and had heard of the dangers. The children looked at us expectantly. They had been promised a day's outing on Wooded Island—a favorite place of mine—an island made for the World's Fair of 1893.

When I was a student at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, Hal Haydon used to take his watercolor painting class there. We painted pictures of the lagoon, the boats and the ancient willows and oak trees. Hal Haydon—he's the one who designed all those stained glass windows for Rockefeller Chapel and then got someone to teach us Hyde Park volunteers how to cut the glass and make the windows. For several decades Doug Anderson has led people on bird walks on Wooded Island. One time a young professor, a refugee from Russia, climbed a willow tree over the lagoon and sang Russian folk songs.

"Oh, come on," I said. "Let's go. It's going to be o. k. Who's going to attack two young mothers and their children?" So we set off.

“It was a beautiful day on the island. Spring breezes tossed the leaves of the willows and oak trees , planted at the time of the Columbian Exposition [sic]. Wild grasses and flowers greeted us as we crossed over the arched bridge to the island. Birds sang of the beauty of the day.

We hiked along the quiet path to a grassy plot far from the rushing traffic on the nearby highway. We spread our picnic and enjoyed a quiet lunch. Then the four children frolicked in the sunshine. My friend was facing the willows that leaned over the lagoon in a deep thicket of bushes,—a favorite place of fishermen. "It is beautiful here," my friend finally said.

“Suddenly a look of terror spread over her face. I turned to see what had frightened her. An ancient man was coming slowly out of the bushes. He wore a ragged dark coat distinguished by its large decorated brass buttons dangling, one missing. He carried a bucket, a fish knife, a pole an a few fish on a line. "He won't hurt us," I assured her.

He came closer. He smiled at the children. "Would you like to see what I have in my bucket?" he asked. The children were timid. "Don't be afraid," he said. He dumped out several small crabs. "Thought your kids might like to play with my left-over bait."

Relieved, my friend said, "Sure, Thanks." The baby was afraid of the crabs. So the man reached into his pocket. "Here," he said, handing the baby a large brass button. His sister began to cry seeing that her little brother had been given a shiny button to play with.

Suddenly the old man pulled out his long knife. My friend froze in horror. The old man calmly turned the knife toward himself, cut a second button from his coat and gave it to the crying child. She stopped crying.

The old man walked quietly away.

Post Script. I wrote that story many years ago. If that old man is still around, I want to thank him for restoring my faith in the kindness of human nature.

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'Birdman' celebrates 30th year of Wooded Isle tours

Editor: 55 attended Doug's April 3, 2004 30th anniversary walk through Wooded Island and Bob-o-link Meadow.

Editor's note: some of the ages and years given are incorrect. Anderson was born May 1, 1934.

Hyde Park Herald, March 31, 2004. By Jeremy Adragna

When former 5th Ward Alderman Leon Despres called on bird watcher Doug Anderson in 1974 to help clean up a crime wave on Hyde Park's Wooded Island, the nature lover jumped at the chance.

At the time Hyde Park's nature preserves were prime real estate for young criminals looking to mug bird watchers and afternoon strollers out alone. the Chicago Park District even began cutting back much of the preserve's overgrowth to make it less inviting to crooks.

So Anderson, a juvenile probation officer by trade, decided to bring those nature lovers together to make the park safe again by touring the preserves in packs.

"It was filled with questionable characters,"Despres, 95, recalled. "People, especially women, were afraid to go there. It reclaimed the Wooded Island for the sojourner population."

This week Anderson will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the popular tour. Although today Anderson calls Wooded Island a "bird lover's paradise" se says in the 1950s the preserve's dense woods made the island seem more like a jungle.

Sixty-three-year-old Anderson's love of nature did not come from Despres' push or even the Wooded Island itself. In fact, growing up in Woodlawn and Hyde Park Anderson says he was never interested in birds; at 9 years old, he just wanted to climb Wooded Island's trees like Tarzan.

Born in Decatur, Ill. in the 1940's, Anderson and his family moved often to different cities throughout the U.S. because his father, also named Douglas Anderson, was a labor organizer. Anderson said when his family finally landed in Woodlawn in 1943 he found a friend in an aged burr oak tree on Wooded Island.

Later as a student at Hyde Park High School, Anderson was re-introduced to the preserve by Helen Peebles, his biology teacher, whom he credits for sparking his love of the outdoors. "She loved birds," Anderson said. "She was a bird watcher ...and she taught us quite a bit about them. It was my introduction."

Later in 1958, after attending Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, Anderson returned to Hyde Park and took a job as a juvenile probation officer--a job he said could easily burn out even dedicated employees. To relieve the stress of a heavy caseload, Anderson says he began walking through Wooded Island regularly on weekends. On April 3, 1974, at Despres' urging, Anderson organized the first bird-watching tour.

"He was alderman at the time," Anderson said of Despres. "He encouraged me to being the tour and was even there for the first one."

Anderson, Despres, his wife Marian and more than 10 other Hyde Parkers, all bent on taking back the preserves, were the first of many to walk the island together.

Since beginning the tours, Anderson says he can not remember a single occurrence of a bird watcher being attacked. "They were an enhancement of the quality of life here," said Despres. "He does not just look into the types of species...he gives you the story of the environment and the relationship between the plants and the birds."

Anderson is now known as Hyde Park's "Birdman." He will celebrate 30 years as Hyde Park's live-in nature guide through Wooded Island this week at a tour through the preserve April 3 starting, a he always has , at the Darrow Bridge behind the Museum of Science and Industry at 8 a.m. The tour continues every Wednesday at 7 a.m. and Saturday at 8 am. through Winter.

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