Three definitive phases mark the history of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. The first deals with the actual formation of the District. The second is the acquisition period when the District’s holdings were rapidly enlarged. The third and present period is the development stage when land use policies and educational programs are being fine tuned.


This article examines the early development of the District. It portrays the perseverance and fortitude of several prominent citizens who possessed the vision to preserve valuable aspects of our natural heritage. The facts presented here were originally compiled in 1949 by William P. Hayes in his masters thesis for DePaul University entitled Development of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.


In 1869, Dr. John H. Rauch formally suggested the formation of a Chicago Park District. His comments included the following:

With all her characteristic business energy and forethought, Chicago has so far neglected to secure ample grounds for park purposes; but the time has now arrived when it becomes necessary to act, and act in a manner that will not leave her far behind as compared with other cities in the arts which embellish and render cities attractive as places of abode; in other words, we want not alone a place for business, but also one in which we can live.1

This is the first time the need for the protection of ample open space was recognized in the Chicago area. As a result, the City of Chicago established Garfield, Humbolt, Douglas, Jackson, and Washington Parks. With the formation of these parks, Chicago was second only to Boston in park development.


The Chicago World’s Fair of 1892/3 seemed to reawaken civic pride and a sense of beauty in area residents. Unfortunately, no new parks had been established since 1869. Chicago ranked thirtieth in the United States in regard to recreation and parks by 1899. The need for more park space was paramount, and the need to preserve natural areas was beginning to be recognized.

FPDCC Archives at UIC

The FPDCC collection contains materials documenting the history of the district, the people who founded it, some of its day-to-day operations, and its planning, construction, and development. It includes correspondence, memoranda, reports, financial records, legal files, construction plans and blueprints, minutes of meetings of the Board of Forest Preserve Commissioners and of advisory bodies, and photographic prints, negatives, and glass “lantern slides.”

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The Municipal Science Club (later renamed the Special Park Commission) headed by the prominent Chicago Architects, Jens Jensen and Dwight H. Perkins, who later became the first president of the Chicago Regional Planning Commission, initiated a study of recreational facilities and the remaining natural areas in Cook County. In 1904, they concluded:

Instead of acquiring space only, the opportunity exists for preserving country naturally beautiful. The bluffs and beaches along the Lake Shore, the Skokie, the North Chicago river valley, the Des Plaines Valley, Salt Creek, Flag Creek, Mt. Forest, the Sag Valley, Palos Heights, Blue Island Ridge, the Calumet River and Lake (c) all of these should be preserved for the benefit of the public in both the city and its suburbs, and for their own sake and scientific value, which, if ever lost, cannot be restored for generations.

Another reason for acquiring these outer areas is the necessity of providing for future generations, which will extend to the borders of Cook County and intervening areas. 2

This report was remarkable in several respects. It identified the need for a public agency to acquire and preserve lands in their natural state at a time when public lands were still being dispersed by the federal government. It foretold that future development in Cook County would extend all the way to the borders of the county, and beyond, at a time when many of the areas described in this report, such as the Sag valley and Mount Forest, were considered, by many, to be so remote from the city of Chicago that the public would not be able to conveniently reach these areas to use them.


Another forceful influence in the movement to develop the outer areas of Cook County was the work of Henry Foreman, President of the Board of Commissioners of Cook County. In 1903, at the recommendations of Mr. Foreman, the Board established the Outer Belt Park Commission whose purpose was to oversee:

…the creation and establishment of an outer belt line of parks and boulevards, encircling the city of Chicago and embracing the Calumet and Des Plaines Rivers and the Skokie Marsh. 3

The difference in philosophy of the two concepts is important. In one case the preservation of natural communities is proposed, the other proposal suggests the development of scenic highways through natural areas.


The Outer Belt Park Commission initiated studies of the park systems of other cities such as New York, Philadelphia and especially Boston, which had an extensive metropolitan park system. The commission’s most important conclusion was that speed was of the essence to avoid the increased costs of rapidly rising land values. As a result, a hastily written law was passed by the Illinois State Legislature in 1905. Designated the Forest Preserve Act of 1905 it nonetheless called for the creation of highways for pleasure driving only through scenic corridors in the then more rural areas of Cook County. This was a long way from the proposal to preserve natural lands.


The new law was poorly worded and did not take into account all of the required details of land acquisition, development, and governance. Governor Deneen, acting on the advice of the attorney general, declared the Forest Preserve Act of 1905 to be inoperative.


Groundwork was laid immediately for a new law that would correct the problems of the 1905 Act. In 1908 State Representative Albert Keeney introduced a new bill to form a Forest Preserve District and Outer Belt Park Commission of Illinois. Public support was high due to the continued efforts of Dwight Perkins and the Saturday Afternoon Walking Club. This group lead hikes in areas to be possibly included in a new forest preserve district. Also in 1909 Daniel Burnham, in his Plan of Chicago, urged the preservation of forest lands surrounding Chicago.


The Forest Preserve District Association containing prominent members from many Chicago Civic Groups including Dwight Perkins, was formed in 1911. This and other groups actively campaigned for passage of a new Forest Preserve District Act, to include preservation of natural areas instead of constructing parks and boulevards.


Hopes were high when the legislature passed the Forest Preserve District Act of 1911, but plans were dashed when the new law was declared unconstitutional a short time later. All efforts seemed to be of no avail and most groups lost interest after this second defeat. Only the Forest Preserve District Association remained active.


Through the continued efforts of Dwight Perkins and the Forest Preserve District Association, a third law providing for the preservation of forests and natural lands was passed by the State Legislature in 1913. This act abandoned the concept of parks and boulevards and authorized the formation of a Forest Preserve district:

To acquire … and hold lands … containing one or more natural forests or lands connecting such forests or parts thereof, for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora, fauna and scenic beauties within such district, and to restore, restock, protect, and preserve the natural forests and said lands together with their flora and fauna, as nearly as may be, in their natural state and condition, for the purpose of the education, pleasure, and recreation of the public. 4

The comprehensive Forest Preserve District Act of 1913 was well conceived and written. On November 3, 1914, under the new law, the residents of Cook County voted in favor of establishing a forest preserve district whose boundaries would be analogous to the boundaries of Cook County. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County was established on November 30, 1914 and the first meeting of the Board of Forest Preserve Commissioners was February 11, 1915.


Due to the many problems brought about by the earlier versions of the Forest Preserve Act, the Cook County Board took no action until a lengthy battle to determine the legality of the 1914 Act was completed. This effort was spearheaded by Dwight Perkins and the Forest Preserve District Association. On April 20, 1916 the Illinois Supreme Court, in an extensive opinion, ruled that the Forest Preserve District Act of 1913 was indeed constitutional.


The Cook County Board of Commissioners, who also acted as the Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners, began the next phase in the history of the District. The next phase was to acquire land. On June 25, 1916 the first lands were obtained. This was a 500 acre component of what is now known as Deer Grove. By 1922, the District’s land holdings had grown to 21,516 acres obtained at an average cost of $443 per acre.


It should be noted today that, of those areas recommended for preservation by the Municipal Science Club in 1899, many are indeed contained within the present day District. An attempt of this magnitude to preserve natural lands, if begun at any later time, would have met with much less success. All of us who enjoy our Cook County Forest Preserves owe so much to the farsighted individuals and groups who worked so hard to form the foundation of our present system of preserves.


  1. John H. Rauch, M.D., Public Parks, City of Chicago (Chicago, 1869), page 31.
  2. Dwight H. Perkins, The Metropolitan Park System, Report of the Special Commission to the City of Chicago – 1904 (Chicago, 1905), page 63.
  3. Perkins, The Metropolitan Park System, page 136.
  4. From the Statute of the State of Illinois allowing for the establishment of Forest Preserve Districts, 1911.

Edited by Ralph C. Thornton, Naturalist

Visit two of the treasures of the Forest Preserves of Cook County