The Fox River of Illinois is a beautiful stream. It rises in southern Wisconsin northwest of Milwaukee and then flows generally south for 202 miles to its mouth on the Illinois River at Ottawa. The Fox River’s watershed drains some of the richest agricultural land in the world, and that made it a prime area for the pioneers who moved west in the 1830s looking for land to farm.
But the Fox was never known as a reliably navigable stream. While it drained lots of prairie wetlands, in most summers, even during the colonial era in Illinois, the Fox was so low as to prohibit its navigation, even by canoes.
In a letter back to headquarters in Canada on Jan. 2, 1699, Catholic missionary Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme described part of his journey from Quebec to the Mississippi River to establish a mission to the Illinois Indians in which the party he was with had hoped to use the Fox—then known by it’s Algonquian name Pestekouy, meaning buffalo—as a shortcut to the Illinois:
On the eleventh of October we started early in the morning from the fort of Milouakik, and at an early hour we reached Kipikaoui, about eight leagues farther. Here we separated from Monsieur de Vincenne’s party, which continued on its route to the Miamis. Some savages had led us to hope that we could ascend this river [the Root River] and after a portage of about two leagues might descend by another river called Pesioui [Fox River], which falls into the River of the Illinois about 25 or 30 leagues from Chikagou, and that we should thereby avoid all the portages that had to be made by the Chikagou route. We passed by this river [Root] which is about ten leagues in length to the portage and flows through agreeable prairies, but as there was no water in it we judged that there would not be any in the Peschoui either, and that instead of shortening our journey we should have been obliged to go over forty leagues of portage roads; this compelled us to take the route by way of Chikagou which is distant about twenty leagues.
Not that the Root-Fox portage was never used, however. It is prominent on maps drawn of the southern Lake Michigan region in the early 1800s, suggesting that it was used, at least during periods of high water. But any suggestion that the Fox was a regular route for either Native American canoes or those of the fur trade voyageurs is not substantiated by the historical record. Had the route been at all viable, it would have been much more favorable than the Chicago portage, which could be as long as 60 miles, depending on waterflow conditions.
The settlers, instead of using the Fox as a transportation route, made use of its fall in order to grind their grain and saw the wood they needed for homes, farm buildings, stores, and other purposes. As a result, dams dotted the river early on to create the waterpower the new settlements needed. So even if our pioneer ancestors had wished to use the Fox as a transportation route, they’d have been disappointed. And except for one example, the navigation of the Fox from its upper waters to the Illinois River never came to pass. But, as happens quite often, there’s that one remarkable exception.
By 1840, the Fox had been dammed at many locations, but that didn’t stop an adventurer living in the riverfront community of St. Charles, Ill. from dreaming of taking a steamboat trip down it. And so we come to the story of the steamer St. Charles Experiment and its builder and captain, Joseph Keiser. Here, I’m going to let the editor of the Illinois Free Trader at Ottawa take up the story, as told in the paper’s Oct. 2, 1840 edition:
Fox River Navigation — Arrival
of the Bark “St. Charles Experiment.”
On Tuesday evening last Mr. Joseph P. Keiser and lady arrived at our steamboat landing in a beautiful bark, six tons burthen, from St. Charles, Kane county, Illinois. Mr. K. left St. Charles on the 18th inst.. amid the smiling countenances of a large collection of citizens of that place who had assembled to witness his departure on this hazardous and novel enterprise. He descended Fox River without much trouble, notwithstanding the low stage of the water at present and the dam at Green’s mill, &c, might be considered by some as presenting insurmountable barriers.
The “Experiment,” we believe, is the first craft that has ever descended this beautiful stream this distance, save, perhaps, the frail bark of the Indian in days gone by. The distance from St. Charles to this place is about eighty miles by water, passing through a section of country which, in point of fertility, is not surpassed by any tract of country in the Union, and to the enterprise and exertions of Mr. Keiser belongs the honor of first undertaking and accomplishing the navigation of Fox River, which winds its meandering course through it.
The object of Mr. K’s enterprise is somewhat of a novelty. His design is to travel by water to the river St. Lawrence, in Lower Canada, by the following route: From St. Charles down Fox River to its mouth at Ottawa; thence down the Illinois to its mouth; thence down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Ohio; thence up the Ohio river to Beaver, Pa.; thence by way of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Canal to Akron, O.; thence on the Ohio Canal to Cleveland; thence on lake Erie to Buffalo, N.Y.; thence on the Welland Canal to Lake Ontario; and thence to the river St. Lawrence.
This route will doubtless prove arduous to our friend, but he is in fine spirits and considers his worst difficulties ended by having successfully descended Fox River at the present stage of the water. He has our best wishes for a safe and pleasant journey, hoping that he may be able to inform us of his safe arrival at his distant destination.
So down the Fox went Mr. and Mrs. Keiseer, somehow getting the Experiment across the low dams, probably close to a dozen, eventually getting to Ottawa with their “bark.” Of course, in this case the Experiment was not your usual bark—a three-masted sailing vessel with square sails on the fore and main masts and fore-and-aft sails on the mizzen. In this case, “bark” was used in more the generic sense of a vessel of any type, and which was in fairly common usage in the 19th Century.
But technical discussions aside, it sure would be interesting to find out whatever happened to Mr. and Mrs. Keiser on their proposed trip to the St. Lawrence River from St. Charles, Illinois. Did they make it? Did they quit part way through? And what did the Experiment look like, anyway?
So far, I’ve not had the opportunity to check out any of the newspapers farther along the Experiment’s route on the Illinois, Mississippi, and Ohio rivers. Maybe someday, I’ll be able to scratch this historical itch. In the meantime, could all you history-obsessed folks out in Internet Land keep an eye out for the St. Charles Experiment for me?