First Survey, 1837
By various Acts of Congress and under the supervision of the the U.S. Suveyor's Office, the massive job of surveying the expanding United States began in the the late 18th Century. This survey plat of the as-yet-unnamed Orland Township wasn't filed with the U.S. Land Office in St. Louis until 1844, although the actual survey was done in 1837. Only a tiny part of the township (mostly in the northernmost sections) is shown as subdivided for private ownership.
An area in the lower center of this antique plat (Section 28 and the north half of Section 33) is the future site of Orland Grassland. The first surveyors designated the space as "prairie," which would have included some wetlands and thickets.
To view this remarkable 1837 plat up close, visit
Mostly Farmland, 1938
The aerial photo on right, made on November 14, 1938, shows Orland Grassland as it was then. For reference, the thickest vertical line—about two-thirds of the way from the left edge of the photo, is LaGrange Road.
Neat squares and rectangles of plowed fields are plain to see. Scattered here and there are clusters of dark dots: these are farmhouses and other buildings, some with trees growing nearby.
This photo and many others taken from planes flying high above Orland Township, can be viewed on the website of the Prairie Research Institute of the University of Illinois. The site, titled "Illinois Geospatial Data Clearinghouse" is found at clearinghouse.isgs.illinois.edu. Look for a data file titled "Illinois Historical Aerial Photographs, 1937-1947."
The map at left was created in 2002 as part of a comprehensive site analysis by the Conservation Design Forum. It shows the contours of the land and the ponds that existed before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removed or disabled drain tiles installed during the site's use as farmland.
Thanks to the old agricultural drainage system, only three ponds of the grassland's original ponds remained when this map was made. The drain tiles conducted rainwater off the site into local streams and ditches, defeating the site's natural hydology (water system) and contributing to flooding and siltation downstream.
Orland Grassland's elevation above mean sea level ranges from 699 to 775 feet. This gently rising and falling topography is one of the primary amenities of the grassland, as it fosters a variety of ecosystems, from prairie to wetlands, and enables panoramic views across the sweeping landscape.
Most of the property lies within the Des Plaines River Watershed and drains westerly into Marley Creek. A small portion of the site lies within the Calumet River Watershed and drains eastward into Tinley and Midlothian Creeks.
The map on right was created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers whose large-scale grassland restoration project got underway in 2007.
The "remnants" marked in white designate areas found to contain the plant and insect species of highest conservative value. These areas are accorded the highest priority for continuing stewardship.
As the map shows, after years of effort by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Openlands, and many dedicated volunteers, the natural hydology of the site had begun to emerge. Compared to the topographic map, above, this map is considerably "wetter."
As springs, ponds, and wetlands re-formed, Orland Grassland once again began to function as a huge "sponge," storing rainwater and releasing it slowly through seepage and transpiration (the process by which plants release water into the atmosphere). Such land is an irreplacable guard against flooding.
Download the trail map here.
An artist's rendering of Orland Grassland as it is today points to landmarks such as "Wood Duck Pond," and the "Northwest Savanna."
The solid line tracking the perimeter is the five-mile paved running, biking, and skateboarding trail installed by the FPCC in 2014. The dotted lines indicate four primitive mowed trails, designed for nature appreciation. The trail system is designed to enable visitors to tour the grassland and savor its natural beauty without harming the site.
FPCC staff and Orland Grassland Volunteers continue their work in the hope that visits to the grassland inspire public support for the grassland and for other conservation and restoration projects.
Orland Grassland stewardship will continue for many decades. The "big push" by the Army Corps of engineers and Openlands wrapped up in 2014. It was just the beginning.
Volunteers, in partnership with FPCC staff, continue to clear invasive plants like buckthorn and honeysuckle. They also collect and sow seeds to help more native plants take hold. Finally, periodic controlled burns are necessary to keep the grassland healthy. Native plants have adapted to and depend on regular fire.