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A History of Tobogganing in Bemis Woods

As early as the 1930s, area residents were enjoying their winters on toboggans in nearby Bemis Woods. But, that all changed in 2007.

In the 1930’s, the federal government established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This was an effort to put unemployed young men to work, usually doing public works projects in parks, on highways, and in forest preserves. One such CCC camp was located in the Bemis Woods, directly north of Ogden & Howard Avenues.

The 200 young men assigned to the camp devoted most of their time to planting trees, building bridle paths (now used for bikes), and constructing small bridges, dams, and shelter houses. But, they also found time to build a wonderful toboggan slide in the Bemis Woods, a little northwest of Ogden & Woodland Avenues.  See second photo.

The slide facilities were improved somewhat over the years. They eventually consisted of a warming house and a stone structure with stairs from which tobogganers could access the ice-covered wooden chutes that went down a natural hill or moraine. That structure still stands. See third photo.

On a busy weekend, the line wait could be lengthy. But, according to those who experienced the downhill thrill, it was well worth it … sort of a combination sled ride and rollercoaster without brakes. Toboggans were of wooden construction and most held three or four people ... some as many as seven. The only safety equipment consisted of ropes located along each side of the toboggan for passengers to grab hold of. 

When their turn finally came, the daredevils would sit down on their toboggan, interlocking their legs. Then, a Forest Preserve employee at the top of the slide would signal someone in a nearby booth, who would drop the starting point barrier. The sled would then rush forward, wood against ice, the sound echoing against the slide’s wooden side rails. See fourth photo.

At the bottom of the hill, the toboggan would shoot out into an open area, surrounded by trees. Then, after travelling what seemed like a half mile, the tobogganers would get off, pick up their sled, and start climbing back up the hill on snow-covered stairs. 

You could rent a toboggan for a few dollars or bring your own, as did many residents. But, given their large size, that wasn’t easy. And, sometimes, that could even require getting the car out of a snowdrift.  See fifth photo.  Note the toboggan sticking out the back window.

In 2001, the Cook County Board began investigating the cost of rebuilding its toboggan slides, some of which were also located in the Dan Ryan Woods, Deer Grove, and Swallow Cliff in Palos. With the cost projected well into the millions, the growing problem of personal injury lawsuits, and seemingly fewer snowfalls, the future of the toboggan slides was in serious doubt.

The Bemis Woods slide was “temporarily” closed about ten years ago after vandals damaged the wooden structures. While the County scheduled the Bemis slides for repairs several times, they never happened. In 2007, Forest Preserve crews began disassembling the wooden chutes in the Bemis Woods.  See sixth photo.

Some news reports from that time period suggested that the County was going to restore the toboggan hills and make them suitable for sledding.  Sadly, that has not yet happened at Bemis Woods. See seventh photo.

Do you have a favorite memory of tobogganing at Bemis Woods?  If so, please post a comment!

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Cindy Fisher-Coyle February 13, 2013 at 04:59 PM
My father was born & raised in LaGrange and he raised our family there from the time I was born. (Does anyone still live in the area who remembers John Fisher - born 1927)? He took me to Bemis Woods to toboggan when I was little. He had been involved in building the slide with CCC as a young teen himself - what great memories he had of that time! I'm so sorry that history couldn't be preserved so that generation after generation could enjoy the slide and pass their memories down to their own children. Once history is destroyed, it's gone forever. It becomes a story on the pages of a book. I just we could work together to preserve what little we have that is original from the past, as so much is changing at breakneck speed in this state-of-the-art world. - Cindy (Fisher) Coyle, East Longmeadow, MA
Teri D. Springer February 13, 2013 at 05:48 PM
Wow, I lived just across 294 back in 1973-5 in the Spinning Wheel apartments. Used to go to Bemis a lot but somehow managed to miss the toboggan slides....Sorry they are gone. And we wonder why kids get into so much trouble yet we take away fun things for them to do.....
Jennifer Paul February 13, 2013 at 06:46 PM
Simpler entertainment is the best...if we did more things that make us smile and laugh society would be a better place. I grew up going to the Swallow Cliff slides...they now allow sledding, it starts half way down. And yes political issues ruin things but if we really wanted, we as a people can keep traditions alive. And what an amazing idea the gov had back then...create jobs that improve our living and enjoyment.
James Schuster February 13, 2013 at 07:15 PM
The Toboggan Slide also providede some great summertime fun. We used to slide down the slide on pieces of cardboard. I recall during a Cub Scout picnic one of the long line of daring scouts tried the slide on a large piece of wax paper. It proved to be a bit too dangerous and ruined the fun for all when. He he was impailed by an 8" sliver from the slide in his rear end and leg. The removal of the sliver by his mother provided the entertaiment for the troop for the next hour. Great fun!
Erik Bloecks February 16, 2013 at 03:57 PM
I have good memories going to Bemis as child. I also recall having an aching backside after several runs down the chute, but which ended the next year because my mother made a pad for the toboggan. It is shame they had to close it down. I feel bad for the children today who can not experience the fun the we had there.

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