This area was formally home to Lake Michigan’s great ancestor—Lake Chicago. Few people realize that thousands of years ago, a glacially formed, prehistoric lake much larger than any of our Great Lakes covered much of Illinois and northern Indiana, including all of the present-day city of Chicago.
Ready for a little geography lesson? The lake was formed by the Wisconsin Glacier, a historical glacier that was responsible for altering much of North America’s topography. As the glacier retreated from the Midwest due to the warming of the Earth’s crust, its waters found other outlets in Niagara Falls and the Ohio River, and the levels of Lake Chicago began to drop dramatically. The resulting swampland retained many prehistoric elements of the glacier’s presence (as well as fossilized evidence of the sea that existed before the glacier, but that’s a whole other history lesson). Nevertheless, due to its marshy nature, the area remained barren for some time after much of the rest of Illinois had been settled.
During the 19th century many travelers passed through the swampy area that was to someday become Calumet Heights. The location, a sparsely populated portion of the incorporated Township of Hyde Park, seemed ripe with potential to the Calumet and Chicago Canal & Dock Company, who acquired the property in the 1870s. But since they had no idea what to do with it, the region remained largely desolate until 1881, when the New York, Chicago & St. Louis railroad lines built yards along the western edge of the area. As has been evident throughout American history, with trains come people, and it didn’t take long for a small settlement to sprout along the side of the tracks here, too. Shortly thereafter, ground was broken in a quarry near 92nd Street, and still more settlers arrived on the scene to lay claim to the new work load.
When a portion of the area was purchased by Samual E. Gross—then widely considered to be the P. T. Barnum of subdivided working class communities—it was apparent that something huge was on the horizon for the long-overlooked settlement just southeast of Chicago. The year was 1887, and by 1890 the new subdivision—aptly named Calumet Heights after the nearby Calumet River and the ridge of Niagara limestone quarried in the vicinity—was folded into the city of Chicago as part of the annexation of the Hyde Park Township.
Despite the sparkling new moniker and official Chicago neighborhood designation, it would take three more decades for Calumet Heights realize its full residential potential. In 1920, the neighborhood was home to just over three thousand inhabitants, most of them foreign-born. By the end of that decade, the population surged with the influx of many Italians, Irish, Poles, and Yugoslavians seeking a better economic situation for their families. Subsequently, Calumet Heights experienced a housing boom during which many of the residential homes still standing today were built. The construction was steady and swift, until the Great Depression in 1929 brought most building projects to a stand-still.
Thankfully, the post-WWII era ushered in a renewed interest in housing development to the area. Residential developments that had been on hold for years were completed and a shopping area was established in the neighborhood. Even the 92nd Street quarry was filled in to supply additional ground for constructing more new homes. By 1960, there were nearly 20,000 residents in Calumet Heights. It was during the coming decades that the demographics of the south side Chicago neighborhood shifted dramatically. A 1960 census report shows that over 99 percent of residents were white (mostly first or second generation European immigrants), but the census report of 1990 saw that number drop to just 3.9 percent, with African Americans checking in at over 92 percent. Backtracking back to the 1960s, many Chicago families were interested in moving up. The white, upper-middle-class Calumet Heights families started moving into bigger houses in nearby suburbs, while the lower-middle class African-American families began moving from other south side neighborhoods to the idyllic Calumet Heights community. This change was gradual and organic until 1968, when a nationwide string of race riots in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King hit Chicago close to home in the city’s west side riots. After this, African American families that could afford it fled to safer environs in Chicago, like Calumet Heights, and the white families that could afford to fled the city altogether.
Today, Calumet Heights is very true to its middle-class roots, and is still a picturesque family-oriented neighborhood. Still predominantly African-American, the area is diversifying again with a recent boom in Latin-American families.