In the Morgan Shoal, local educators and naturalists see a valuable resource

A view to the northeast along the Chicago lakefront at 49th Street near Morgan Shoal and Pebble Beach Monday morning.  Marc Monaghan
A view to the northeast along the Chicago lakefront at 49th Street near Morgan Shoal and Pebble Beach Monday morning.

-Marc Monaghan

Staff Writer

While the Chicago Park District has plans to redo much of the lakefront from 45th to 51st streets, some Hyde Parkers want to take extra steps to protect the natural resources that are a little harder to see.

Greg Lane swims in the lake every day even through the winter. He would like to see the Morgan Shoal designated a protected natural resource.

“The lake is the single largest and most extraordinary natural resource we have and it can play an extraordinary role in balancing the life of urban dweller,” Lane said.

He wants to see the Morgan Shoal, a 300-400 million year old bedrock outcropping just off the lakeshore at 49th Street, protected from development and motorized boats.

The outcropping interacts with the lakeshore in a fundamentally different way than the rest of Chicago’s lakefront does. That’s why visitors to Pebble Beach can dig up fossils dating back hundreds of millions of years.

The shallowest part of the shoal, which sits more than 100 yards off the shore and roughly 6 feet beneath the surface of the water, acts as a unique resource for plants and marine life.

“It’s the bedrock that is underneath this entire region but this is the only way that it’s exposed naturally. You can see it in quarries but this is just right there. You can swim out and walk on it,” Lane said.

The Morgan Shoal is the best place to see the bedrock foundation that Chicago is built on, said Mark Westneat, a professor in the department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago.

“That same rock, the Morgan Shoal, is the limestone rock that comes right up to the surface. That’s the limestone normally 50 to 100 feet underground and that enables all the Chicago skyscrapers to stand,” Westneat said. “They drill down that same level of limestone.”

The best view is underwater

The best way to see the shoal is to swim out there.

“As you swim out there the lake bottom falls out from under you and at about 200 yards, it starts to come back up until the rock of the shoal itself is visible,” Lane said. “It transports you to a different place, it takes an effort of will to remember that you’re in the city of Chicago. It’s teeming with fish, it’s teeming with plant life and there’s this underwater environment.”

Except on days when rough weather kicks up debris from the lake floor, the water at Morgan Shoal is much clearer than at other parts of the lake. Invasive and native mussels thrive on the shoal and filter particles that surround them.

“You feel like you’re flying over the Grand Canyon. There are ridges and ravines and canyons and cliffs. The rock is just ever changing,” Lane said. “Under there you can see the striations and marks of the glaciers that moved over the bedrock 15, 14 thousand years ago and created the lake itself. That’s a powerful thing to see and a tangible way of understanding the geological history of our region.”

Occasionally endangered

While there are not currently any plans to threaten the integrity of the Morgan Shoal, there have been in the not-so-distant past. Previous proposals for the lakefront, dating back as far as the 1800s but as recently as 10 years ago, would have paved over the shoal to extend park amenities out into the lake.

To date, none have come to fruition.

Tool for education

The Morgan Shoal offers an easy and accessible opportunity to study to regional ecology, but The Ancona School, 4770 S. Dorchester Ave., has been using it as a teaching tool for years.

Balaz Dibusz works at Ancona and is helping to develop a curriculum around the shoal.

“[The students] call it Ancona Beach,” Dibusz said. “Sometime in May they do a day that involves a few hours down there. And they talk about the flora and fauna and enjoy some time getting out there.”

Students look for fossils and are able to identify them using information they learned from a previous geology lesson.

“Lake Michigan is primarily a silty, sandy bottom. It’s not a great habitat for any species. So this is a relatively, very rich habitat” Dibusz said. “They learn about the fish that are special to this area, they’ve been to the location. But we really want them to get into the water and count the birds and determine how the ecosystem as a whole is determined by the shoal.”

Ancient and modern history

Besides its ecological merit, the shoal also offers a look into the region’s more modern history. Students at Ancona have used the wreck of the Silver Spray — its boiler is occasionally seen from the shore when the water is low — for their history fair projects.

Sunk over three days in 1914, the Silver Spray was a 109-foot passenger steamer ship that ran aground on the shoal. The ship was headed to the University of Chicago to bring 200 students on a tour of Gary, Indiana’s steel mills. The seven-man crew, including the captain, stayed aboard the ship as it listed into Lake Michigan.

Eventually strong waves broke the vessel apart while people sat on the beach watching.

Dibusz said Ancona is developing a curriculum to help better educate students about the Silver Spray and its connections to local history.

Challenges to preservation

Lane said he would like to see the Morgan Shoal as protected, and as used, as San Francisco Bay.

“It’s an active harbor and there are multiple swimmers’ groups that assert the right of people to swim any time they want,” Lane said. “They’re in water that is by just about every objective measure more dangerous than here and yet you don’t have this nanny state telling people they can’t swim.”

Protecting the Morgan Shoal, whether as a nature preserve, sanctuary or underwater park, has bureaucratic hurdles in the way. The state of Illinois, the Chicago Park District, City of Chicago and maybe a few federal agencies would all have to work together to protect the shoal.

“There’s really nobody who is fighting the idea,” Lane said. “There’s no one against it, so you have to invent it as you go along.”