Signal Station

Evanston was known first as Ridgeville. People lived along the ridge because the low land was an impassable and uninhabitable marsh. Frank Hill said, "On each side of the Ridge and close to it, were two Indian trails, where the Indians traveled north and south. One was about where Ridge Avenue now is and the other in the neighborhood of Asbury Avenue, or perhaps a little west of that. These trails were so much used that the path was worn more than a foot into the ground from the constant travel."

These trails are thought to be more than eight thousand years old, possibly ten thousand years, as old as the Great Lakes themselves. In all that time whatever animals and human beings lived in the land lived upon the ridge and used it for travel. Called the Green Bay Road, it connected the northern and southern ends of Lake Michigan. The road from Chicago started on the north bank, ran in the diagonal path of Rush Street, then out Clark Street to Rose Hill and north on Ridge Avenue.

The trail forked at Rose Hill with an eastern branch following the lower ridge line along Clark Street through Rogers Park and then through Evanston on Chicago Avenue. These were the only two original roads in Evanston, running parallel north and south. There were no crossing roads from east to west, travel between the ridges meant crossing the swamp. Ridgeville pioneers wanted roads for travel and trade, for their wagons and animals.

George Washington Huntoon and Samuel Reed with Charles and Ozro Crain built a log road to connect the Clark Street ridge with the high ridge at Rose Hill. It's the diagonal road still called Ridge and still in heavy use today bearing Lake Shore Drive traffic between Bryn Mawr and Peterson. When you travel the old Indian trails today on Clark Street and Ridge Avenue notice how the ground falls away on either side. Before the area was crowded with buildings there was clear line of sight from the ridge tops across great distances of low swamp and flat prairie.

The view from downtown Chicago in 1835 went all the way to Blue Island on the south, Oak Park on the west and Rose Hill on the north. Indians used high ground as signal stations to communicate across these distances using smoke by day and fire by night. Even a small flame would be seen from far away in pre-electric darkness. One of these beacons was on the lake bluff where Bahai Temple stands today. Frank Merrill found it on his father's farm in 1869. This is how Albert Scharf describes it.

"Here among the relics of a former Indian camp, while clearing the land Mr. Merrill discovered what upon further investigation proved to be an Indian fire-place built in the shape of a concave dirk four feet in diameter, paved with small waterworn boulders which upon removal were found scorched and broken from intense heat and all covered with a layer of ashes several inches in depth. This projecting bluff was a natural place for a beacon, a fire or a column of smoke here being visible for miles up and down the shore. The immediate site is between Ridge Avenue and the lake shore at Linden Avenue one hundred feet north of an old clustered cottonwood tree."

The French called this point of land Grosse Pointe because it is the largest point of land on the western shore of Lake Michigan. There is another point at Waukegan known as Dead River Point. North of Racine is Windy Point and above Milwaukee are North Point and Fox Point. The promontories are landmarks well known to travelers on the lake. They put in at the points for cooking and sleeping and to wait out bad weather.

In 1874 the United States built the Grosse Point lighthouse using the headland as a signal station just as the Indians had done. The Indian beacon was on the ridge where it ends at the lake bluff so they could reach it by both land and water. The government light is on the lake bluff where the point projects furthest into the lake. On a clear day, the shape of the point can be easily seen from the observation deck at Sears Tower in Chicago.


Evanston Antiquity by John Epler