People don't toboggan like they used to. Whether it's because a sled made of wood with an old-fashioned curled front is no longer stirring or because climbing to reach a run is tiresome when one can just hop on a snowmobile or pop in a DVD, tobogganing has become a nearly obsolete pasttime, reserved for stories of yesteryear. Surely global warming and snowless winters have played their part in cooling interest in the activity, but even if the snow does fall this season, there's no use anxiously anticipating a ride down a toboggan run. All toboggan slides in Cook County are closed indefinitely.
Slowly over the past several years, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County deemed the slides, one by one, unfit to be opened until all were finally closed last year. Without having undergone proper maintenance with time, the wear of decades of activity, days upon days of people going down one after another from morning until night, had weakened the chutes, causing the wood to buckle. The Forest Preserve, struggling in recent years to overcome a reputation of being ineffective and attempting to balance the books, couldn't and still can't find the money to repair the slides. There's also the debate of whether the management of toboggan runs is even inherent in the forest preserve mission.
"Over the past five to seven years, the economics of the issue have been discussed," says Forest Preserve District of Cook County General Superintendent Steven Bylina Jr., noting how toboggan slides across the country have closed in recent decades. "Parents today relate [the toboggan slides] to their childhood, to some to their fondest memories."
The superintendent admits that the closure of the toboggan runs is a passionate issue, and letters of complaint and public clamor have ensued since the last runs were taken down the storied slides. Not only have they secured their position in local history, they are a nostalgic reminder of wholesome winter recreation in a more simple era, a ride on which parents want to take their own children and grandchildren.
Of the toboggan runs that were once open, the ones at Bemis Woods, Dan Ryan Woods, Deer Grove and Jensen Slides, there was one that always stood apart, celebrated and feared more than all the others. The six parallel toboggan runs at Swallow Cliff in Palos Township, known to many fans as "Terror Hill," are yesterday's Great America. Ask anyone about them, and if they've not been, they've heard of them. If they've been down the chutes, you'll see a look like they're falling down them all over again, an excitement mixed with disbelief that they ever had the courage to ascend the nearly 130 limestone steps, climb onto the wooden toboggan, watch the starter lift the gate and immediately plummet almost 100 feet, sliding a total of about 1,100 feet.
"We used to wait in line," recalls 85-year-old Robert De Novo, a lifelong resident of the Palos area. He remembers the Swallow Cliff of the 1930s, when there were no lights, no gates and no starters. It was every people-packed toboggan for itself, and there were frequent, often intentional, collisions at the base of the chutes, long before the dirt troughs were mounded to prevent such impacts. De Novo even remembers when the limestone steps, which were constructed by the WPA, were log stairs. "We kids always wanted to sit up front because that's where you get the thrill, going 65 mph with the cold air hitting you in the face. When you make the first drop off, you go straight down. And let me tell you, you move. You have to scream because if you don't scream you lose your breath. You go zero to 60 mph in just a couple of seconds."
"It's a wonderful way to get a really neat adrenaline rush in a really short period of time," remembers Dr. Richard Carroll, a resident of Palos Park. "The rush is good for a minute, and then you just feel warm and glowy for five or 10 minutes, certainly enough time to get back up to the top and get down again."
The runs at Swallow Cliff were last open on a snowy day in February of 2004. Only two of the slides were deemed safe for passengers, which kept the line long for the some 6,000 people who showed up to take a trip down one of the infamous chutes. Many reportedly had to wait up to three hours for just one run. This season, even with little snowfall, the overgrown slides are a sore reminder of an attraction that used to be revered. There are still usually a few cars in the parking lot, but those belong to the people who've grown attached to the crumbling limestone stairs for the workout they command. What was once a raucous melody of screams, laughter and persuasive words of peer pressure is now just hollow air.
The geological history of the area dates back to when ice, pushed south during the last Ice Age, covered the vicinity. When the glaciers began to melt and retreat north 12,000 years ago, what they left behind was a jagged landscape of cliffs, hills, ponds and lakes. The terrain in what are now the southwest suburbs of Chicago was further sculpted by fire, started by both lightning and Native Americans who used it to drive animals out for hunting. Archeological evidence indicates that in the 18th century, the Palos Township area was occupied by not only Native Americans, but also French explorers, soldiers and traders. When the Illinois-Michigan Canal was completed in 1848, more people began to settle in the region.
The Illinois General Assembly established the Forest Preserve District in 1909, and seven years later, 288 acres were purchased for about $90 an acre to form the Palos Preserves. Now composed of more than 10,000 acres, the Palos Preserves are rich with ecological diversity. Swallow Cliff Woods, an 800-acre forest preserve at Route 83, just west of 104th Ave. in unincorporated Palos Township, is home to trails, waterways and a world-famous past.
In the 1920s, the forest preserve constructed a narrow 100-foot tall steel and wood ski jump, which stood eerily on the hill at Swallow Cliff. Built with the intention that it would become the host of renowned ski meets, prompting people to enjoy the winter outdoors, the ski jump became more famous than ever intended.
"We wish to do all we can to encourage people to use the forest preserves during the winter months," read an article from the Palos Journal in the late 1920s. "The scenery in the winter is delightful?In order to encourage people to get out into the outdoors and learn of its great charms in the winter we are staging a campaign for winter sports and for the initial drive we have selected the Palos Hills. There is now completed, right over west of Swallows' Cliff, a ski-slide, standard in every respect, and which will equal those at Cary or at Ishpeming?Palos, the Switzerland of Chicago, is the ideal place for winter sports. One does not need to go to Banff, to Norway, to Switzerland, or to Lake Placid to enjoy tobogganing and skiing?And, by the way, there is no better insurance against colds and 'flu' than indulging in these healthful sports in the crisp winter air."
"I guess somewhere along the line they said in order to bring more people, let's build a winter playground," says John Rogers, president of the Palos Historical Society. "And that's when the ski jump went in. They advertised it around the world. People came from Switzerland and Norway--they came from everywhere for these huge meets."
It wasn't uncommon for 30,000 spectators to gather to watch a ski jump event. Too treacherous for anyone except a professional or an experienced amateur to try, the ski jump was an Olympic training ground, host to anxious excitement and a number of dire injuries.
"It was a no-no, unless you were professional, to go down the ski jump," says De Novo, adding he never "had the guts" to try it. "Do you realize how tall that thing was? It looked like a big skyscraper." He recalls once watching a man ski down and upon jumping, hit a cable wire, which scalped him, bleeding him to death.
The activity at Swallow Cliff didn't die when the snow melted. During the summers, the hill at the base of the ski jump was used as a motorcycle hill climb, with prizes for whoever could get up the hill in the shortest period of time. This event garnered its own following and a large number of spectators. "People would come from all over with their motorcycles," says Rogers. "We used to watch. They'd get half way up, and the motor would die or something, and they'd come tumbling down with the motorcycle on top."
The reputation of the ski jump at Swallow Cliff traveled the world and remains to this day. Richard Carroll remembers when he told a friend from Switzerland a few years ago that he lives in Palos Park, the friend asked if the ski jump was still there. "I said, 'What do you know about that?'" Carroll recalls. "He said some of the older people in his community used to talk about it."
De Novo clearly remembers that it was 1943 when the ski jump was condemned and shut down. His mother sent him a Tribune article on the closing while he was at war. Rogers, who also never skied down the jump but was in awe of it, climbed the fence after the jump was condemned to get a final look at it. "I climbed the stairway, and as I was walking up, my foot kept going through the floorboards," Rogers recalls. "But I had to go up there because they were going to tear it down in the next six months, and I'd never been up there."
Despite the closure of the ski jump, there was still a well-loved winter wonderland at Swallow Cliff. One year after the ski jump had opened, the first wooden toboggan chute had been built. In the 1930s, more chutes were constructed as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project until there were a total of six. Other toboggan runs were being built in the area, but those at Swallow Cliff were the tallest, fastest and longest, even compared to others across the nation. The site also featured an ice rink and a log cabin warming house, where one could rent a toboggan and order hot cocoa, coffee, hot dogs and donuts.
"The community really supported the toboggan runs," says Rogers, who's still convinced that number 6 was the fastest. Over the summer, children would even go down the chutes in cardboard boxes, which packed their legs and behinds with splinters.
"Kids today don't think the way we used to think," Rogers says, eyes gleaming thinking about memories six decades old. "They don't have the excitement. We got bored with going down the toboggan slides in cardboard boxes because we felt it was too slow. So we got this steel cover that covered my mom's range in the basement, nailed two two-by-fours to the bottom of that and took my Union Hardware roller skates in half and nailed them on. We went out to Palos Park and put it on number one chute. Our experimental lad Chester went down first. He went about 90 mph down that hill, and when he got to the end, he stopped dead instantly in the mud and flipped on his stomach. We didn't know if he was dead or alive, and when we went to go pick him up, he had about four shovels of dirt underneath his shirt. He laughed it off and said who's going next?"
De Novo echoes that "kids don't toboggan today like they used to." He remembers the big thrill being the first ones to hit the slides after a big snowfall. "We kids couldn't wait until we had a heavy snow, and we could go up there and break trail," he says. "By the time you've gone down about four times, you're pretty well worn out, but you've got the snow nice and icy."
The word "toboggan" originated from the North American Algonquian term "odabaggan," which means sled. Native Americans used wooden sleds with a curled front end to transport their game and supplies across the snow and to ride on when they reached hills. There's evidence that tobogganing was used for winter recreation in as early as the 16th century, securing its place as the impetus for developing the modern roller coaster. In the late 19th century, tobogganing was introduced as a sporting event in the United States, Canada and Europe, and from there, three winter sports evolved--skeleton tobogganing, luge tobogganing and bobsledding.
Traditional wood toboggans have no runners or skis on the flat bottom, and the curved front end is intended to rise above uneven snow. Mark Hansen, owner of Hansen Boat Works in Grand Marais, Minn., hosts a toboggan-making workshop twice a year. Supposedly the best way to get a toboggan is to build one, which takes about three days, according to Hansen. There is the classic style, which is more traditional and used to go into the brush, and the sliding style, bigger and wider and used for toboggan runs. Both are made from birch, a long grain hardwood that is very flexible and can be bent into the "J" shape. Hansen also takes commissions to make toboggans.
"My toboggans are mostly old-timey craft," says Hansen, who in the 1970s learned to make them from a Native American. "They're very historically accurate." Hansen acknowledges that toboggans have become a niche market, especially the old-fashioned kinds that he makes. There used to be a two and a half mile toboggan run in his area that went straight down a hill, but it closed in the 1930s. "There doesn't seem to be a lot of momentum to bring a toboggan run back here," Hansen says. Most of the toboggans he makes these days are the classic kind, meant for pulling and camping. Over the years, he says he's only built six or seven sliding toboggans.
Though the interest and availability of tobogganing is rapidly melting like it was only a fad, there is one place that has resurrected the once-popular pastime. The Camden Snow Bowl in Camden, Maine, hosts the annual U.S. National Toboggan Championship. Now in its 16th year, the event is held this year February 3-5. Participants come from all over the country, but most are from New England. With about 400 teams made up of two, three and four people, the turnout is tremendous.
"There used to be a toboggan chute here years ago, like there used to be in a lot of small communities," says Camden Snow Bowl General Manager Jeff Kuller. "There are a few toboggan runs still in existence, but there aren't many left."
The one-chute toboggan run was rebuilt in Camden 16 years ago. "The championship was started as tongue-and-cheek," says Kuller, "but it's become quite an event." The timed race leads participants down a 400-foot wooden chute, and according to Kuller, the teams that usually win are made up of the largest people. And what do the winners get? "Notoriety, bragging rights and really cool trophies," Kuller says.
While tobogganing might be a fervent craze in Camden, in the Chicago region, it has all but died out. Even when the slides were still open, reduced snowfall in recent years further limited the days the runs could be used. Slide surfaces require four inches of snow and a constant temperature of 20 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain the ice covering.
"Why are we talking toboggan slides when there might be one snowfall that lasts a few days?" wonders Erma Tranter, president of Friends of the Parks. "Every scientific study in the last 10 years shows there is global warming. The resources should be put into things we can use all the time."
Tranter says while she doesn't believe the slides should be necessarily torn down, she does feel that the Forest Preserve District of Cook County shouldn't put any money into repairing the slides because it would be at the taxpayers' expense. Toboggan slides, along with golf courses and swimming pools, shouldn't even be part of the Forest Preserve District's mission, she says, which should be directed toward maintenance of open lands and the awareness and promotion of healthy living.
Commissioner Carl Hansen, a Republican who represents the 15th District, agrees that investing to repair the toboggan slides simply doesn't make sense. He's argued that toboggan runs should be converted into sledding hills, which would be cheaper to maintain and more safe.
"The toboggan runs should be torn down," says Hansen, who despite sounding like the killjoy of tobogganing, admits he used to enjoy the slides at Swallow Cliff, Bemis Woods and Jensen Slides. "They are not appropriate to the forest preserves."
Hansen cites a 2000 study that showed the annual revenue at the toboggan runs was $20,965, while the loss was $892,748. With 16,454 people in attendance, the net loss per visitor ended up being $51.58. "It's absolutely a misuse of taxpayers' dollars in the Forest Preserve District," the commissioner says.
If Commissioner Hansen is on one end of the spectrum, Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman, a Republican from the 17th District, is on the other. Gorman has fought tirelessly for several years to look for ways in which the slides might be preserved.
"It's been years of neglect by the Forest Preserve District and the management that was in place at the time," says Gorman, who last went down one of the runs at Swallow Cliff when she was a child. "The slides have not received the proper tender loving care that they've needed over the years, and now we are facing dilapidated slides. They obviously weren't on their list of priorities. And in turn, the taxpayers and the people who really are near and dear to the forest preserve for the slides are the big losers.
"[The issue] went from basically life support to pretty much intensive care right now," continues Gorman. "I think that the Forest Preserve District has heard our sentiments for opening the slides. Now we're starting to see a slow overhaul of the district. It's ridiculous that we cannot have a decent toboggan run. They say it's not in the forest preserve mission to maintain these sites, but our forefathers who ultimately established the forest preserve mission had established these slides."
Like many other residents of the area surrounding Swallow Cliff, Gorman enjoys exercising on the concrete and limestone stairs adjacent to the slides, once reserved only for the daring to reach the top of the runs. "It's basically a big attraction for fire departments, for track and football teams, for every single sports team," Gorman says about the crumbling and uneven stairs that have somehow found a new purpose. "It's a great way to get in shape and stay in shape. There are heart disease victims and doctors, just a wide array of people using those stairs. But those have even [become] dilapidated."
Gorman led an initiative that secured $200,000 for the repair of the stairs, which will likely be redone in the coming year. Whether or not there's a toboggan chute to go down, there will be stairs to climb.
Along with others, Gorman has suggested that while the Forest Preserve District of Cook County might not have the money to repair the slides, a private company might have the incentive to come in and repair and manage the slides. Forest preserve officials estimate the cost of reopening the facilities to be approximately $1.5 million. Having a private company assume the costs and manage the runs could even end up being profitable for the county and worthwhile, assuming the natural integrity of the landscape is preserved. After repeatedly refusing to entertain such a concept, John Stroger Jr., president of the Forest Preserve District, finally agreed to consider bids from private companies.
A bid from one company, Urban Concessions, a subsidiary of Urban Retail Properties, is currently under review. The company, which has run concessions at Chicago parks for about 10 years, is said to be considering the construction of a winter theme park on the Swallow Cliff site. Amenities would include sledding hills, an ice rink and, of course, the toboggan runs. There could even be the option of manmade snow. The company would also seek to offer more services, such as bicycle rentals, sunglasses vendors, refreshment stands and canoe and kayak rentals. Even zorbing, an activity where people roll down hills in huge inflatable balls, has been discussed as a way the toboggan runs could be used during warmer months.
"If we essentially stay with the kind of land and things we have, without a whole lot of major improvements, that would be fine," says Richard Carroll, referring to the possibility that a private company might take over the management. "Palos is an area that's a treasure that not a whole lot of people know about. We want something that's accessible to everybody, whether it's cross country skiing or walking in the woods in the summertime or toboggans in the winter."
In an increasingly litigious society, one of the major obstacles in reopening the toboggan runs is concern about liability. The Forest Preserve District says it has spent $138,000 since 1994 to settle five lawsuits from tobogganers claiming injuries suffered at Swallow Cliff. John Rogers says he has a solution, though. He suggests having a disclaimer on the back of tickets that people must buy to go down the slide. "If you don't want to abide by the disclaimer, turn your ticket in and get a refund," he says.
General Superintendent Steven Bylina Jr. says he'd like to see the slides reopen, but isn't getting his hopes up. The costs may even be prohibitive for a private company, he says. Bylina, a pragmatist, has garnered a reputation for trying to clean up the Forest Preserve bureaucracy during his brief tenure.
"My responsibility is to provide the most bang for the taxpayer's dollar," he says. "My hopes are to do the best we can do with the resources we have." Bylina adds that he's been tobogganing "a handful of times, but I'm not sure I'd engage in it as I once did." Asked why the fervor of tobogganing seems to have waned, he says he's not sure. He remembers his father talking about sliding down mounds of coals around the coal mines of Pennsylvania. "Much of that is initiated by youth," Bylina says. "As we become older and wiser, we become a little more careful."
Patricia Jones, village administrator of Palos Park, says their office has received letters upon letters asking when the slides will reopen. "To me, it's tantamount to closing a national park," says Jones, who went tobogganing as a child, but never wanted to sit up front. "It's not acceptable to close facilities. It might not be that you're a hiker, but bring your kids to Swallow Cliff, and they'll remember it forever. All the parks have adapted to modern times. Take a look at Millennium Park. It's so expensive for families to do things today, and tobogganing is such a nice way to do something outdoors."
The seasoned residents of Palos, the ones who saw the ski jump and were among the first to go down the toboggan chutes, aren't convinced that tobogganing in Cook County has taken its final run. "A lot of people are upset about the fact that they want to tear down those slides," says Rogers. "That's why I think if there was snow on the ground you'd see the long lines again. They'd come from all over." o
Published: February 01, 2006
Issue: Winter 2006