Old Plank Road Prairie, Dewey Helmick and Hickory Creek Barrens

Susan and I recently enjoyed an Illinois Nature Preserve-alooza while getting a good workout. Pedaling our bikes along the Old Plank Road Trail, we cruised through Old Plank Road Prairie and Dewey Helmick Nature Preserves. The third site was the Butterfield Creek Headwaters Land and Water Reserve. A few weeks later, we returned to the trail and took the spur to Hickory Creek Barrens Nature Preserve.

The Old Plank Road Trail derives its name from the plank road that was authorized in 1849 but never built. In 1855, the right of way became the corridor through which ran the Joliet and Northern Indiana Railroad, leased to the Michigan Central Railroad. The line ran both freight and rail for nearly a century, but was abandoned in the early 1970s.

It took more than 20 years to acquire the right of way, raise funds and overcome certain local opposition, but in 1997 the first segment of the Old Plank Road Trail was opened to the public. At the ribbon cutting in 1997, Dewey Helmick, a former village trustee for Park Forest, remarked, “We salute all those people who love to walk, run, ride and skate and admire nature in safety and serenity.”

That same year, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission named one of the two new nature preserves in his honor. Dewey Helmick Nature Preserve and Old Plank Road Nature Preserve are prototypical railroad prairies. They survived because they remained relatively untouched since the rails were laid more than a century and a half ago — aside from periodic fires set by sparks from passing trains. But that was a good thing, since prairies are dependent upon fire to keep their soils healthy and to keep invasive trees and shrubs from encroaching.

Directly across from Dewey Helmick lies the Butterfield Creek Headwaters Land and Water Reserve. At 83+ acres, it is more than six times the size of the two nature preserves combined, and is popular for the many cormorants and herons that populate its small island. Land and Water Reserves afford a sort of second tier level of protection by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

 

The Old Plank Road Trail runs for 22 miles from Chicago Heights to Joliet. A little west of Frankfort, a short spur leads to Hickory Creek Reserve. At more than 2,000 acres, it is the Forest Preserve District of Will County’s largest preserve. More than a quarter of it — 575 acres — was dedicated in 1998 as the Hickory Creek Barrens Nature Preserve.

Like the plank road that was never built, neither was a planned regional stormwater reservoir along Hickory Creek. Instead, the accidental openspace, if you will, allowed for the eventual permanent preservation of an exceptional kind of natural area community — a barrens.

Early Illinois land surveys, conducted largely between 1804 and 1843, were not consistent in their terminology. Different surveyors in different parts of the state used “barrens,” “openings” and “savannas” interchangeably. But a modern understanding of  barrens is that it is a specific type of dry forest with open canopies, with understories of grasses and other prairie plants.

Biking through the preserve is fun both for the beauty of the recovering landscape, as well as for the steep up and down hills.

Among the joys of biking the entire Old Plank Road Trail is its rich mix of woodlands, prairies, dedicated nature preserves and well tended backyard gardens. Next time you’re on the trail, make sure to stop by Frankfort Prairie Park, as well. It’s an outstanding example of green infrastructure, using a complex of wetland and prairie — filled with native grasses and flowers — to help store and filter stormwater, and also provide a beautiful place to take a walk, catch a fish and watch some butterflies. Leaps and bounds better than a conventional detention basin for the adjacent residential community. Kudos Village of Frankfort.