In the late 1980s, the City of Palos Heights acquired the Gun Club lands, along with leased property held by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District as part of that organization’s River Edge Renaissance, and work on the nature preserve began in earnest. To finance the project, businesses and residences built adjacent to the preserve were part of a TIF district. Soon, the burnt-out junk cars, canal-dredged boulders, and other unsightly debris gave way to a man-made lake, waterfall, hiking trails, and gardens. The city hired naturalist Bill Banks, a Palos Heights native, to oversee development and maintenance of the preserve. Simpson named the preserve for his late mother: Lake Katherine.
Though the development sought to rid the city of a long-standing wasteland, not everyone approved. Some residents questioned the city’s authority to acquire the land and finance such a project, and Simpson, a professional realtor long before he became mayor, drew some controversy by dealing in real estate property within the development. Investigations by both Cook County and the State’s Attorney found no improprieties, however, and as the development took shape, more land along the Cal-Sag was added to the preserve. Ultimately, Simpson and architect John Ryan were honored by First Lady Barbara Bush during a ceremony at the White House, as Lake Katherine was one of 20 recipients of the 1992 American Association of Nurserymen national landscape contest.
Simpson, who died in 1993, considered Lake Katherine to be the greatest part of his mayoral legacy. Today, the preserve is home to many species of plants and wildlife, including 500 trees native to Illinois which were planted by children of Palos Heights. On-site are various gardens and trails, and organizations such as the Palos Heights Women’s Club continue to fundraise and add features to the preserve. An environmental learning center serves as a small zoo, much to the delight of old and young visitors alike. Even the stone arch from the original Dist. 128 Palos Heights School has found a home there, a reminder of the city’s extraordinary civic heritage. By 2014, Lake Katherine will be one of the recreational lynchpins of the 26-mile Cal-Sag Trail from Lemont to Burnham.
By Bruce A. Sullivan, Public Services Librarian
From the Palos Heights Public Library Local History Collection