The Portage Path: Returning to Our History

Author: Gina Costa

The Snite Museum of Art commissioned artist Kay Westhues to document some aspect of the local area as part of South Bend’s 150th anniversary.  She selected the St. Joseph River to Kankakee River portage.  This four-to five-mile-walking trail was the only overland segment of an ancient water route between the Great Lakes region and the Gulf of Mexico.  Native Americans first utilized the portage and then French explorers and fur traders used it to travel from Detroit to New Orleans.  While now largely forgotten, the portage was a primary reason why a city grew at the “south bend” of the St. Joseph River.

Artist Kay Westhues describes her project, “as there was no actual trail to photograph, I decided to suggest the idea of a pathway in each of the images.  They were taken in the approximate area of the original route, and I did not try to conceal the human-made changes that have taken place along it.  The St. Joseph River and some of its branches still reflect the pastoral beauty once acclaimed in descriptions of the area by eighteenth-century writers; other tributaries have been channeled underground.  The 500,000-acre Grand Kankakee Marsh was drained in the nineteenth century, turning the Kankakee River into a large drainage ditch; an ethanol plant now makes use of its headwaters”the_portage_path.pdf