For some, vacant lots are eyesores.
For Robert Betz, growing up in Chicago, vacant lots were patches of wilderness in a too-ordered city. He imagined them as the vast prairies he had read about, but never seen.
On July 6, 1959, Betz, by then a biochemist in his mid-30s, finally saw his first real prairie when he visited what is now the Santa Fe Prairie Nature Preserve in Hodgkins with botanist Floyd Swink.
“The plant variety astounded me,” Betz said. “That first visit with Floyd Swink made me decide to dedicate the next 35 years of my life to prairies.”
The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway had purchased this undeveloped land along its railroad in 1886. The railroad, of course, hoped to someday sell the land for a profit to developers.
Years went by and the little patch of prairie remained largely untouched. In 1946, Swink carried out a botanical survey of the property, which then encompassed 40-50 acres. By the late 1960s, the growth of the Chicago metro area finally made the land attractive to industrial developers. Betz began a campaign to save the prairie that would last for three decades.
In 1976, a state inventory of natural areas in Illinois found that the prairie had shrunk to 11 acres as a result of the railroad dumping fill onto the land to raise the grade of its tracks above flood levels. But Betz and others, such as Stan Johnson, chairman of the I&M Canal Civic Center Authority, still thought the prairie was worth saving.
In July 1997, 38 years after Betz first set eyes on it, Johnson finally persuaded the railroad to donate the prairie to the canal authority. The railway even threw in a caboose.
End of the line?
The caboose now serves as a visitors center for the preserve.
“When we got it, it was a wreck,” preserve volunteer Don Kinnally told me on a recent visit. “It had been sitting already four or five years vacant in the Corwith Yards in Chicago. Every window was gone and the inside was torn up. Down at that end there’s a booth that pulls down to a bed. There were two more here, but they were just broke to pieces. We only had enough pieces to make one good one.”
So the caboose lives on as part historical railroad relic, part prairie education center, and part warming shelter for Kinnally and the other volunteers on those cold winter weekends, when the preserve remains open even if the prairie is covered in a blanket of snow.
“This is one of the newest cabooses,” Kinnally noted. “It was built in '81, then it was taken out of service in '92, so now it’s been parked here longer than it was actually in service.”
Truth be told, the caboose doesn’t make for a very good visitors center. It’s cramped, with one narrow passage down the center, and little usable space for exhibits. Kinnally has done his best to make it work, showing me a rack of Illinois Department of Natural Resources posters.
One of the posters shows different species of snakes that can be found in Illinois, including the Northern banded water snake.
“We’ve got one of them living in this pond for three years now,” Kinnally said, gesturing to the small pond behind the caboose. “It’s about 34 or 35 inches long.”
According to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the Northern water snake is generally 24-42 inches long, but can exceed 4 feet. They have thick bodies and come in a variety of color patterns, often with reddish-brown bands on a light grey to brown background.
“Once she’s mated, she turns black,” Kinnally continued, “because she gives live birth to anywhere from 12-18 snakes. She gets kind of immobile as she gets more and more into [the pregnancy]. So her defense is she takes on the color of the bottom of the pond or whatever body of water she’s in.”
Kinnally said the snake’s regular color returns within two weeks after the baby snakes are born.
“You might see the little ones out here a couple days and then they’re gone,” he said.
Kinnally suspects they may make their way to the Des Plaines River, no more than a stone‘s throw from the pond. The mother snake takes no part in their upbringing after birth. The little ones immediately are on their own.
The snake is not venomous.
“They can scrape your skin, but they’re not real teeth," he said. "What they are is like barbs in their mouth.”
Flora and fauna galore
Kinnally said a family of muskrats also calls the pond home and has a tunnel underneath a deck where visitors can observe the abundant plant and animal life here. I didn’t see the snake or the muskrats on my visit, but I did spot a turtle sunning itself on some rocks and a couple of frogs hiding along the edge of the pond.
Insects, including beetles, grasshoppers, moths, and butterflies love the 225 different plant species that grow on the prairie. There’s even a plant here called butterfly weed. Visitors can walk down a grass pathway through much of the prairie. This time of year, many of the prairie grasses have grown to over six feet in height, so it’s almost like walking through a tunnel at times. A large variety of wildflowers bloom here throughout the growing season, with yellow seemingly the preferred color for fall.
The Santa Fe Prairie is known as a mesic, or wet prairie. It rests on a gravel bar left here by retreating glaciers 15,000 years ago. It’s usually pretty dry in the fall, however. Kinnally observed that the pond behind the caboose usually has dried up by now.
The Santa Fe Prairie Nature Preserve is literally a hidden treasure. It’s small compared to its large industrial neighbors like the massive Wonder Bread plant and the immense UPS package sorting facility. It can be difficult to find, I discovered, as I spent a great deal of time driving through the scenic village of Hodgkins before stumbling on it.
To reach the prairie from Burr Ridge, take 79th Street east. Turn left at Willow Springs Road and right on 75th Street. The street will make a slight right turn and run parallel to Interstate 294 until you have no option but to go under the interstate by turning left onto Santa Fe Drive. Follow Santa Fe Drive until you see a sign for River Road, which directs you over the railroad tracks on Leon Cook Drive. You’ll be able to see the prairie and caboose from the top of the overpass.
The caboose is only open on weekends from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., but the preserve itself is also open on weekdays.