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Fore! Caddyshack Along the Canal

Daniel J. Kelley 30 April 2012 5 Comments

For more than century, golfers have been taking divots, driving errant shots out of bounds and splashing poorly struck drives into the waters of the sanitary canal. In recent times, golfers have also had to contend with bicyclists, dog walkers and joggers who seem oblivious to the fact that they are strolling on a golf course and, sometimes, interrupting play.

It must have been quite a shock to members of the original Evanston Golf Club to learn that the Sanitary District planned to build a canal directly through the middle of their golf course. The announcement, which appeared in print on July 21, 1904, stated that the North Shore Channel would start at the North Branch of the Chicago River, near Albany and Foster Avenues in Chicago, and wind its way North to Wilmette Harbor. The Evanston Golf Club had relocated from Greenleaf Street to an area along Central Street, West of Sheridan Road, in 1903. The final route of the long contemplated public works project was announced a year later.

It was noted in “The Chicago Tribune” that the proposed canal would divided the golf course in half and separate the Western portion of the remaining land from its hillside clubhouse on the Eastern most side. “The best golfer in the club could not hope to “carry” the new drainage canal on his longest “drive,” and all the niblicks in the clubhouse lockers would not get him out of the dirt heaps and rocks that will be thrown up by the ditch diggers.” An estimated $25,000.00 (a sum in equal to $598,000.00 in modern US currency) in golf course improvements to the Central Street location appeared to have been made in vain.

That was a long time ago. Robert R. McCormick, the future publisher of the “World’s Greatest Newspaper” was the President of the Sanitary District when the big dig was in full swing. McCormick was a political protégé of Chicago Mayor Fred Busse. There were viable Republican political organizations in Chicago, Evanston and Cook County during this era. In the Wilmette portion of the golf course, players still pass over steel bridges erected by McCormick and his colleagues over a hundred years ago when the Chicago Cubs were a championship caliber baseball team based on the West Side of the city.

Throughout Chicagoland, one of the abiding mysteries is why so many suburban country clubs are named for communities far removed from the actual addresses of the golf courses? For Evanston, the case is now closed: the former Evanston Golf Club eventually moved West about two decades after the canal was constructed and made its new home in what is now Skokie. Some of the other former Evanston golfers migrated to another course which derived its name from the move West to obtain “more land.” The club that they founded is known as “Westmoreland” now. Other North Shore residents would struggle with improvised Evanston golfing layouts until after the Great War ended.

It would remain for Peter N. Jans, a talented golf professional, who returned home to Evanston, where he served as an alderman (decades later, one of his sons would briefly hold office as Evanston’s mayor) to lead a campaign to renovate the remainder of the abandoned course into an exceedingly narrow set of links that would parallel the canal banks. Jans envisioned an affordable public course where the boys and caddies could play the game. The bulk of the property belonging to the Sanitary District was leased back to the golf course association. Later, the City of Evanston and the Village of Wilmette were added to the lease with the golf course association as subtenants. A nine hole course was up and running in 1919 with plans for expansion to a full eighteen holes in the future.

Todd Sloan, who also designed golf courses in Racine, Wisconsin, is credited with being the golf architect who laid out the original eighteen hole course in 1922. Residential development in Evanston and Wilmette has tightened the edges of the course since the Twenties. Successful golf courses usually spur residential developments, which in turn drive up real estate tax assessments and cause many urban golf courses to be subdivided or to be taken over by park districts. As a tax exempt organization, the Evanston community golf course has been spared this fate thus far.

During the Twenties, the course proved to be exceptionally popular: according to a period magazine article, some 60,000 rounds were played on the small golf course in 1924. A community clubhouse was added to the location a few years afterwards. Evanston Post 42 of the American Legion has been the principal tenant of the building for most of its existence.

Bad hops and unhelpful bounces are a given on a course that was constructed upon hard pan and clay that was graded after the canal was excavated. Drainage and soil conditions vary throughout the course. Most the greens could be politely described as postage stamp sized, so accuracy is at a premium. The difference between a good round of eighteen and a poor one depends upon how well you can chip and putt and if the ball bounced favorably on a given morning or afternoon. Keeping the same golf ball in bounds for an entire round is an accomplishment.

The course has enjoyed periods of prosperity coupled with years of neglect. It has waxed and waned with the passage of time. Extended good years have been followed by many bad ones. Serious mismanagement has occurred in the past four or five years. An effort to obtain a sizeable financial contribution by selling the naming rights to the golf course fizzled and produced nothing, but acrimony. The not for profit corporation that was developed to superintend the golf course has been poorly mismanaged by ambitious schemers and petty thieves alike.

Today, there are rumors of restaurants and fast food snack shops, classrooms and conference centers, parking lots, miniature golf courses, and so much more. No one has discussed the practicality of operating a riverboat casino aboard a barge moored on the canal, but give them time. Opposition has arisen to such proposals that were cultivated in secrecy without meaningful community input.

The original vision of Peter N. Jans is still worth fighting for. Today, that fight proceeds from the fairways into the Chancery Division of the Circuit Court.



Daniel J. Kelley is a contributor to “The Chicago Daily Observer.” He is also a legal consultant to the parties seeking to maintain the historical character of the Evanston Wilmette Community Golf Course.


  • Houghton Grandmal said:

    I’m not sure “winds its way north” is the appropriate verb for the channel. It’s a pretty straight shot until the final turn into the lake near the Bahai Temple, n’est-ce-pas??

  • Houghton Grandmal said:

    Okay, there’s two doglegs, but “winds” it does not.

  • Anonymous said:

    Don’t overlook the fact that are two bends in the channel to be found in the Chicago portion of the canal as well. The junction with the North Branch of the Chicago River is unusual to say the least as there is a waterfall.

  • Houghton Grandmal said:

    Calling the drop of the North Branch into the Channel a “Waterfall” is, well, being generous. Well, yes, and there’s a hill between the Desplaines River and the Chicago River, all of 8 feet of it, if you follow Higgins Road out of Jefferson Park–on foot. In a car you’d never notice the rise. And that ridge continues on into Park Ridge, almost a mountain, by Chicago standards.

    Bends in the channel in the Chicago portion? If one looks very, very, very closely, perhaps. As the crow flies it’s pretty darn straight.

  • Dan Kelley said:

    Somehow, I think that Houghton missed the point of column.

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