Today, Northwestern Park is part of Des Plaines Division of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, part of the Des Plaines River Trail, and is called Northwestern Woods. It can scarcely be distinguished from other forest preserve groves. But once, it was a major recreation center in the community and one of Des Plaines' earliest attractions.
As the village emerged from the group of farms, clustering alongside the railroad, it became a destination because Des Plaines was a crucial stop for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. The Des Plaines River allowed it a place to refill its steam engines, and the railroad quickly realized its potential.
Like a good land developer, Chicago and Northwestern gained control of key real estate to establish a destination to entice people onto trains.
Benjamin Poyer's picnic grove, though a half-mile from the inhabited parts of the village, was nonetheless considered a nuisance by the town of Des Plaines, which passed an ordinance in 1883 declaring picnics and open-air dances within village limits a nuisance. Des Plaines also made it a nuisance to rent, use, or allow to be used any ground within the village for such purposes.
The village then sued Poyer for violation of the ordinance and he was fined $100. The case was appealed and re-tried all the way to the state Supreme Court in 1888. The court found in Poyer's favor, and explained that picnics and dances were not, in themselves, nuisances, although they could result in nuisances.
Despite the annoyance to local residents, the park, later acquired by the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, provided a cool country oasis for sweltering city-dwellers. Its pavilion featured dances and beer, with ample room for picnics.
Eventually, the Cook County Forest Preserve began consolidating land along the banks of the Des Plaines River, and Northwestern Park's amusements gave way to trails.
The park was also the site of one of the city's biggest tragedies, with the Fourth of July fireworks disaster in 1927 when many people were injured and several people were killed.
The river location made it the perfect spot for the village water tower, built in about 1915 across the river from the village pumping station.
While today the City of Des Plaines is exploring alternate water sources to bypass Chicago, it's unlikely we will look to the Des Plaines River for fresh drinking water any time soon.