Debate never really banked over Baker’s Lake bog fires
Glenview, IL, USA — The fires on Baker’s Lake were extinguished decades ago, but the debate about how they started still smolders.
Most people today who pass by the 130-acre lake just off Route 14 at Hillside Avenue don’t know the stench-filled history of Baker’s Lake or that it wasn’t always a water-filled basin.
About 15,000 years ago, a glacier reached from Canada to western Illinois and covered what is now Barrington. When the last glaciers receded, they left a shallow basin that eventually filled with foliage and swamp grasses which decayed and piled up in layers until what is now known as Baker’s Lake became a peat bog.
In the 1850s, as Barrington and Illinois were being settled, the bog served as a cattle field. In 1854, the northwest extension of the Chicago and Fond Du Lac Railroad, later known as the Chicago and North Western, was completed.
But sometime in 1925, the peat bog began to burn, making the east side of Barrington one of the most unsavory places — at least by smelling standards — to pass by for years.
“It smelled to high heaven,” said Mildred Etters Chabrian, who grew up in a home on the western edge of the bog.
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with the smell of peat burning, but there was a terrible smell of peat. Just like a volcano, ashes fell all over the area.”
While it’s generally accepted historically that Baker’s Lake had caught fire on several different occasions between 1925 and 1935, accounts on just how and when the former peat bog ignited vary.
“The conclusion most people came to is it probably burned several different times from several different sources,” said Baker’s Lake aficionado Pasty Mortimer, a member of the Citizens for Conservation.
Actually, the first theory about how the fire started came from Barrington historian William Klingenberg, who said the first fire took place in 1925 and was attributed to a farmer burning thistles on the edge of the slough.
Charlie Dahir, whose father bought the marsh land from Spencer Otis in 1918, claimed he started a fire in 1934 to create a lake to fulfill his deceased father’s earlier wishes.
Chabrian grew up along the western banks of Baker’s Lake, where she lived with her parents, Kate and George, and two sisters and six brothers from 1924 to 1947. They and most locals originally called it Etters’ Slough.
“It caught on fire, and they never did determine exactly what it was that started it,” Chabrian said.
But Chabrian and others believe sparks from coal-burning trains were the culprits. The trains used to park along the tracks at the northeastern edge of the lake near Hillside Avenue, which is where the fire started in about 1929, Chabrian said.
“It was during the Depression. Everything went wrong then,” she said.
The fires burned for years. Chabrian vividly recalls the fires were still burning during the Chicago World’s Fair, which was held 1933-34.
Jim Baker, who was renovating a home on the eastern side of the lake in 1936, according to Barrington resident and historian George Van Hagen, seized the opportunity to stop the fires. He and a young man named Romeo Capulli came across a drainage pipe they could see was draining the bog.
In an interview done before he died Oct. 8, 2004, lifelong Barrington-area resident Herb Walbaum said he had partnered up with Capulli in their own contracting business. Baker hired Capulli and Walbaum, who founded Barrington Realty in 1950, to do the masonry work on the home that summer.
Walbaum recalls Capulli and Baker were walking along the property in search of a good place to install a sewer for the house. They stumbled upon the drain tile that led waters eastward out of the slough, underneath what are now the Union Pacific railroad tracks into Flint Creek and eventually to the Fox River.
Walbaum said Baker, who was brash enough to have literally ridden a horse through Bert’s Bank Tavern (now Wolf Camera) and shout certain expletives, made an “executive decision” and ordered Capulli to get some cement and plug up the tile. So, Capulli took a couple wheelbarrows full of cement and did the job.
“I didn’t see him do it, but I know he did it,” Walbaum said. “I don’t know if they even said, ‘We’ll see what happens’ or a damn thing.”
Other accounts have it that someone dynamited the tile under the railroad tracks to dam up the waters, Van Hagen said.
“It’s what happens in a frontier community where people take matters into their own hands,” he said.
A lake is born
Eventually the dammed-up waters rose, a lake was born, and the fires were quenched.
“This was a godsend to many people who lived near it,” Walbaum said, referring to the stink.
Chabrian said her family was not aware that the slough, which had essentially burned itself into a basin, was going to become a lake.
“It was all just kind of a playground for us,” she said. “And even when it was burning way down, the ashes were still burning on top.”
The new body of water presented more recreational opportunities, including boating, ice skating and fishing for the Etterses and the families who used to bunk in the nearby campgrounds during the summer.
Chabrian’s brothers built boats, using leftover road tar to waterproof the vessels. She and her brother, Roy, had also created a raft with their father’s leftover lumber and empty gas tanks from the junkyard.
“We all do have fond memories of the lake,” she said. “In those days kids didn’t have toys to play with, but we always had an imagination.”
The land on the eastern edge of Barrington was deeded to Zebina Edgarton in 1847. He in turn sold it to Edward Castle, who farmed the land with his son, Lester.
Castle negotiated with the Illinois and Wisconsin Railroad to build a tunnel beneath the tracks in 1854 so his cattle could walk back and forth from pastures on either side of the railroad. Hillside Road was previously called Castle Road.
In 1911, Spencer Otis Sr. purchased most of the Castle farm south of the railroad tracks. He added a large house and built the famous round barn that burned down in the fall of 1997 on the eastern edge of the lake. Otis sold the property in 1918 to the Dahir family, which continued to farm the land.
Charlie Dahir sold the property to Arnold Schwinn, of Schwinn Bicycle fame, sometime between 1934 and 1936. Schwinn gave the property to his daughter, who married Baker, for whom the lake was incidentally named.
John McArthur was the next land owner, and he used it for storage until he sold the land and buildings to the Cook County Forest Preserve District in the early 1970s. The lake was dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve in 1984 due to the natural development and quality of a heron rookery.
In 1990, the Cook County Forest Preserve District built a far better-engineered dam to control the water levels of the lake, which is 130 acres. The size of the entire forest preserve property is 330 acres.
Today, Baker’s Lake is mostly recognized for the artificial heron rookery sitting on an island near the center of the lake. The Cook County Forest Preserve District and Citizens for Conservation built it 2000.
Black-crowned night herons began nesting there in the 1970s and along with great egrets, great blue herons and double-crested cormorants now inhabit 377 nests, Mortimer said.