Monthly Archives: April 2013

Okay, so I’m breaking my own rule…

I am not an early adopter of technology.

It took me several years to get my first iPhone, for instance, and then I opted for the tried and true 4S instead of the shiny new 5. And this texting stuff? Didn’t really start doing that until last fall.

Coca-Cola's new Freestyle dispensers are probably on their way to a fast food outlet near you. It gets a thumbs up (with apologies to Roger Ebert) from me.

Coca-Cola’s new Freestyle dispensers are probably on their way to a fast food outlet near you. It gets a thumbs up (with apologies to Roger Ebert) from me.

So when I was doing my epic test of fish sandwiches throughout the greater Oswegoland area and finally made it to Burger King, I was astonished to see an odd looking Coke machine in place of the usual fast food Coke drink station. But my buddy Glenn, with whom I was eating lunch that day, was an old hand at the new machine, called a Coke Freestyle.

He quickly ran me through the drill to get the thing to dispense a drink, which turned out to be pretty easy using the touch screen on the front of the machine. The most amazing thing to me was that the thing seemed to be able to spit out (metaphorically speaking) a truly gigantic number of different Coke products, including stuff you can’t even find in the store, and which you never see at a fast food place.

I like an orange soda once in a while, but I have to watch my sugar intake these days (another of the joys of blundering farther into old age) and diet orange just isn’t available at fast food places. But diet Orange Fanta was on the Freestyle. And diet grape, too. I’ve been adverse to grape Fanta, however, since high school when I spilled a drip on my leg and got a chemical burn out of it.

Anyway, I paged through the various selections for a bit and finally decided on vanilla Coke Zero, which you can apparently buy on-line, but which I’ve never seen in an actual store. And with that, I was hooked. The BK fish sandwich was outstanding, too, by the way, and rated second in taste behind only Culver’s.

Checking on line, I found the Freestyle carries up to 126 different flavors and varieties of Coke products. And so, my usually anti-early adoption thing has been put aside for the time being. Not that I’m ready to try just any other really newfangled thing right now, you realize. But just this once, I’m willing to give the modern world a whirl.

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Filed under Food, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

Flooding, drought the new normal?

So how was YOUR week?

It was a little damp around the Matile Manse this past week, what with a sudden deluge of more than 5 inches of rain on Wednesday and into Thursday morning. All that rain led to some fairly severe localized flooding in the Oswego-Montgomery area that resulted in road closures and other irritations. Including water in the Matile Manse basement.

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This bench at Hudson Crossing Park in Oswego was given a flood debris overcoat during the community’s latest freshet on April 17-18. (Sue Matile photo)

Some roads will remain closed for weeks or even months, thanks to bridge damage caused by rampaging flood waters. And area parkland along local creeks and the Fox River will be closed for days until the water subsides, and then days more as park district crews work to clean up all the mud and debris.

We’ve had floods before, actually quite frequently during some periods, but most of the biggest ones were spring floods—called freshets by our ancestors—that resulted when the ice on the Fox River broke up.

The worst such freshet, local historians agree, was the 1857 event that scoured the river along its entire length, removing dams, mills, and bridges.

On Feb. 1, 1877, the Kendall County Record reprinted a piece from one of their exchange papers describing that flood;

The Freshet of 1857.

The Batavia News contained the following, which may interest our river readers:

A number of our citizens wishing to know the date of the last freshet, we give below the time, etc., as furnished by Mr. N.S. Young, who has kept a chronicle of events which has happened in Batavia for a number of years and which will be interesting to all.

“The great freshet of 1857 occurred on February 7th. Three very heavy rainfalls on the 5th, 6th, and 7th, upon a body of snow nearly two feet deep was the immediate cause of the rise of water in the Fox River Valley at that time. Every bridge from Elgin to Ottawa except the stone bridge at Batavia was swept away. Huge piles of ice were lodged upon both banks of the river, remaining there till far into the month of April.”

Hudson Crossing Park was mostly under water after this year's flood as the normally placid Fox River surged out of its banks.

Hudson Crossing Park was mostly under water after this year’s flood as the normally placid Fox River surged out of its banks.

Those early freshets were all driven by the break-up of ice on the river, which developed into thick sheets behind the mill dams that dotted the river. And while 1857 had the largest such event, it was far from the only serious spring flood on the Fox. Just a decade later, the Record reported on March 12, 1868 that the new iron bridge at Oswego, built just the year before, had been badly damaged by that spring’s flooding:

The Freshet of ’68.

The “breaking up” of 1868 has been unusually severe and disastrous in the destruction of property. Last year our freshet began about the 12th or 13th of February and this year it took place on Friday and Saturday, the 6th and 7th of March. It commenced raining on Thursday afternoon and continued till Saturday night, carrying off the snow into the streams and raising them rapidly. We have heard that one of the piers of the new bridge at Oswego was badly damaged by the ice, and that travel over it was impeded for some time till the beams were shored up by blocks. Post’s bridge across the river opposite Plano was carried away, piers and all. The greatest loss, however, to our county is the destruction of the new bridge at Milford [Millington], which was only finished last summer at heavy cost. Three spans of this bridge were lost, and as it was built mostly by private subscription, the damage is severely felt.

Spring flooding continued throughout the Fox Valley even after all those mills and many of their dams had passed into history. As settlement accelerated and then matured, many of the valley’s wetlands were drained to create more farmland and creeks were channelized to speed water runoff into area rivers. And as environmentalists and engineers know, it is not necessarily the volume of water that creates destruction during times of high water, it is the velocity of that water. The new emphasis on getting stormwater runoff away from agricultural fields and into rivers meant flooding events just as large as those old ice breakup driven freshets.

On March 24, 1948, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that:

A few weeks ago we mentioned that the snowstorms kept farm life from getting monotonous. Now two flood-sized rainstorms within a week have kept farmers and city folks busy. Seldom, if ever, has so much rain fallen in so short a period in this vicinity.

Water in the basements, bridges out, and roads impassable in places. Water over the highways. The railroad track washed out above Oswego so no train service, irregular mails, or none at all.

Numbers of people have had autos stuck on gravel roads with farm tractors busy day and night pulling out those unfortunate ones. Not all of the school buses were running on Monday. Some telephones are out because of the wet weather and the electric storms on March 15 and 19.

We’re still dealing with the problem of stormwater runoff velocity, although there are, here and there, efforts to recreate some of those water-slowing wetlands and to recreate some of the meanders in local streams to slow their flow. But no matter what we do, we’re still going to get floods because that’s just what Mother Nature does. And with the advent of global climate change, we’d all better be prepared for flooding and drought and other extremes to become the new normal.

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Filed under Fox River, Frustration, Kendall County, Montgomery, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

Avoiding death by starvation at the keyboard…

When it comes to blogging, there’s nothing quite as important as…food.

Oh, it certainly helps if a blogger knows what he or she is talking about. Although I’ll grant you there are an awful lot of blogs out there—including some with a thousand times the traffic of historyonthefox—written by folks who don’t seem to have a clue about what they’re famous for writing about.

But if I’ve found one blogging constant, it’s food. You’ve got to have fuel for that little furnace that lurks inside all of us so that all those brilliant insights come tumbling out as our fingers fly across the keyboard.

But eating while blogging is fraught. It’s fraught with danger for the poor keyboard from water or Diet Coke damage. It’s fraught with danger that a mispositioned sticky bun will lead to undue anger when it falls, frosting side down, on the USB hub. It’s fraught with the chance the keys will be so encrusted with the yellow cheese-like chemicals with which Cheetos are covered that the “U” will disappear completely.

So I’ve taken it upon myself to keep an eye out for foods safe to consume while blogging, not to mention other activities that require sitting at and using a computer keyboard. And the beauty is, these hints even work perfectly well with typewriters!

The TRS-80 100 replaced electric typewriters in newsrooms all over the nation in the early 1980s. But their keyboards were, if anything even more susceptible to being gummed up by Hawaiian Punch than an electric Royal typewriter.

The TRS-80 100 replaced electric typewriters in newsrooms all over the nation in the early 1980s. But their keyboards were, if anything even more susceptible to being gummed up by Hawaiian Punch than an electric Royal typewriter.

You see, I started collecting keyboard-safe foods while I was in the newspaper biz. Those late election nights required food that didn’t interfere with writing as we pounded on our electric SCM and Royal typewriters. Gradually, those were replaced with TRS-80 100s and then TRS-80 200s before we entered the Macintosh age, but eating while keyboarding was still a necessity at certain times of the year, not to mention occasionally at lunch.

Unfortunately, most homemade foods simply don’t work. Cookies are okay, depending, but cake’s a mess, and homemade sandwiches simply are not sufficiently homogenized. Pieces fall out of them and invariably end up in bad places, computerwise.

So care and good planning is required during the entire 24 hour blogging day.

Starting out early in the morning, there’s nothing like a donut and coffee while writing. In fact, come to think of it, there’s nothing like a donut and coffee at any time of the day or night. But you’ve got to watch what kind of donut. I tried them all to find out—yes, it was a long, slow slog, but someone had to do it, if for no other reason than the greater good of mankind.

So saying, sorry, Krispy-Kreme. Glazed donuts don’t work at all. Too sticky. And that goes for every other kind of raised donut-like treat including long johns, fried cinnamon rolls, bismarks, Boston crèmes, and even raised Dunkin’ Donut Munchkins. Believe me on this; I really did try them all.

Even frosted or sugared cake donuts are a bad bet.

The very best? Plain cake donuts and plain cake donut holes. Granted, you have to forgo frosting and sprinkles, but sprinkles can be (and this is the voice of experience talking) death to keyboards.

But it’s hard to find plain cake donuts at the mini-mart. About the only way you can get them is three in a box of nine with powered sugar and chocolate-covered thrown in for good measure. And what are you supposed to do with those?

The frosting-like coating on donut sticks is impervious to crumbling off, making these little honeys the favorite of donut-loving bloggers everywhere.

The frosting-like coating on donut sticks is impervious to crumbling off, making these little honeys the favorite of donut-loving bloggers everywhere.

So if the mini-mart is you only option, look for donut sticks, which are little glazed oblong cake donut-like things. Now you’re probably thinking, hey, you just said a couple paragraphs ago to abjure frosting. The beauty of donut sticks, you see, is that modern technology makes their frosting stick like glue; it just won’t come off. And it’s not sticky in the least; it’s dry as a bone, in fact. Further, you can buy a bunch of the things at once and stick them in your desk drawer to eat at your leisure, even over several months, because—and here’s the real genius behind the things—they’re already stale when you buy them!

The only other kind of mini-mart packaged donut I’ve found that works even moderately well are mini donuts completely covered with “chocolate.” The “chocolate” covering on them is more like candle wax than actual chocolate, which is a good thing because it doesn’t fall off, either. You can also pop a whole one in your mouth that you can chew at your leisure while typing. And unless you hold it tightly in your hand, the “chocolate” coating won’t melt onto your fingers. These also are usually stale right out of the package, so they’ve got a long drawer life, although wait too long and the donut component of the thing gets sort of crunchy, which has a charm all its own.

However, man cannot live by donuts alone. Really, you can’t. You need protein and salt, too. Cashews are a good choice because they include three major food groups: Oil, salt, and texture. I recommend the whole, store-brand cashews, with sea salt at Walgreens. They’re cheap and they taste pretty good, too. They’re not too greasy, and they aren’t covered with ersatz dairy products, which is why they’re better than Cheetos.

For another idea if you’re craving salt, try Pringles or other similar potato-like baked oval-shaped snack foods. These have the advantage of containing mummified potatoes, so you can swear to your spouse that, yes, you have had some vegetables during the day.

But occasionally, you just have to have meat, at least you do if you’re a former farm kid like me. Meat is a problem at the computer. It’s impossible to have a Chicago-style hot dog, for instance, because that, like a Whopper, takes two hands. Even White Castle sliders shed little bits of onion, even if you get sliders with cheese in an attempt to amalgamate the thing into a non-shedding whole. Which I did.

McDonald's cheeseburger-like menu offering is the bloggers favorite since it can be eaten with one hand and is virtually guaranteed not to shed so much as a sliver of onion.

McDonald’s cheeseburger-like menu offering is the bloggers favorite since it can be eaten with one hand and is virtually guaranteed not to shed so much as a sliver of onion.

No, the perfect meat-like sandwich to eat at the keyboard is the McDonald’s cheeseburger. With their cheeseburger, McDonalds has perfected manufacturing a unibody sandwich, a cheeseburger-like food that seems to be in a class all its own. A blogger can eat one with one hand while mousing or typing with the other and NOTHING FALLS OUT OF IT! It’s truly a remarkable achievement of food technology, without which I have no doubt journalists (and now bloggers) would frequently, and tragically, be found deceased and desiccated at their keyboards.

Some (that would include long-suffering corporate IT types who have to scrape frosting off the bottom of laser mice and empty Hawaiian Punch out of keyboards) say food and computers don’t mix. But those of us who spend far too many hours of our life working with the things know that may true. but is also beside the point.

Person’s got to eat, after all.

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Filed under Food, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events

The Weaver of Starved Rock

Starved Rock Lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. A classic example of CCC rustic lodge architecture, it features flagstone floors, huge fieldstone fireplaces, and a restaurant with absolutely terrific food.

Starved Rock Lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. A classic example of CCC rustic lodge architecture, it features flagstone floors, huge fieldstone fireplaces, and a restaurant with absolutely terrific food.

Earlier this week, to celebrate our collective birthdays, the Fletchers and Sue and I took a road trip down to Starved Rock State Park. Dinner at the lodge—which was excellent, as usual—was followed by a hike to the top of The Rock, and then a visit to the fine new visitors’ center.

For out-of-towners, Starved Rock is a towering sandstone bluff along the Illinois River near the mouth of the Fox River. It is separated from the bluffs along the shoreline by an eroded canyon, a bit of topographical happenstance that offered some prime fortification real estate during Illinois’ colonial era.

Climbing to the top of The Rock—le Rocher, as the French called it—it a lot easier these days because of well built concrete paths and sturdy stairways. At the top of The Rock, a wide wooden walkway circles the roughly acre and a half space, with benches and lookouts that tourists enjoy. From the vantage point atop The Rock, visitors can look up and down the Illinois River; watch barge tows hauling grain, coal and other bulk cargoes; and enjoy the huge variety of wildlife, from migrating pelicans to soaring bald eagles to squirrels and the occasional groundhog.

This image, from a vintage postcard, shows Starved Rock at it's summer best. The white sandstone rock soars high above the Illinois River, which washes its base.

This image, from a vintage postcard, shows Starved Rock at it’s summer best. The white sandstone rock soars high above the Illinois River, which washes its base.

I enjoyed the view and watching wildlife, and I also felt a certain amount of satisfaction sitting there watching visitors enjoy the walkway. Because I had a hand, admittedly tangential, in getting it installed back in the 1980s.

The story began on Mother’s Day, 1980, when my friend John Samuel took his family down to Starved Rock to enjoy the beautiful spring weather. As his two sons and his wife walked around the top of the rock, John sat down on a sandstone outcrop and idly scratched at the sand on the path with a twig. As he scratched, what appeared to be a small stone popped out of the ground, and John stared at it intently. Because he immediately realized it was no stone.

Let me interject here that John is an artifact collector who has an almost preternatural talent at finding things with Native American connections that no one else can. And successful searcher and identifier he is, he realized what he was looking at was a bit of human bone. A little more scratching turned up another bone and then another. Carefully covering his finds in situ with sand when no one was watching, John rejoined his family and enjoyed the rest of their afternoon at the rock, taking his secret home with him.

The next morning, he called me, reported his story, and wondered what to do about it. At the time, I was working for the Fox Valley Sentinel as a historical columnist and reporter, and I figured the thing to do was call the folks at the Illinois State Museum and tell them the whole story. Which John did.

At first, state officials were skeptical, but they agreed to meet John atop The Rock to see if something had really been found. It was a quick, eye-opening survey and the area was immediately roped off when it became clear that a body had been discovered in the middle of a walking path at one of Illinois’ most historic sites.

An archaeological team headed by Dr. Ed Jelks was quickly assembled, and a dig was conducted to safely and professionally retrieve the remains. It turned out the burial was right in the middle of the main path around the rock. The young woman whose body it was had been buried inside the walls of Fort St. Louis, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s historic post atop Starved Rock, probably in the late 1600s or early 1700s. Her body was almost touching the fort wall, and she had been buried with a bone matting hook, a tool used to weave the mats the Native People who lived around The Rock used to cover their lodges and for many other purposes. The feet of thousands of visitors who had strolled along the path in which she’d been buried had abraded away some of her bones, the ones that remained were in remarkably good shape. At that late date, some 300 years after her death, it was impossible to determine how she’d died, but that she was buried inside the fort suggested she may have been an important person or was perhaps the wife of a French soldier or trader.

From atop Starved Rock, the Illinois River dam dominates the view upstream. Northern Illinois had yet to green up when my wife, Sue, snapped this shot during our April 9 visit. The park is well worth a visit now and has been for 300 years.

From atop Starved Rock, the Illinois River dam dominates the view upstream. Northern Illinois had yet to green up when my wife, Sue, snapped this shot during our April 9 visit. The park is well worth a visit now and has been for 300 years.

The Illinois State Museum folks were excited at the find; it was one more piece in fleshing out the history of Starved Rock and Fort St. Louis. The folks at the Illinois Department of Conservation were excited because Starved Rock had been confirmed, once again, as the state’s most historic state park. John Samuel was excited because he had helped fill in one of the many blanks in our state’s rich history.

And I was excited because I had a great story to report. It turned out it was an award-winner; my first to win the Best Local Feature Story in the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association’s annual Better Newspaper Contest.

The body of the young lady, who I had dubbed “The Weaver of Starved Rock,” was given a reverential burial elsewhere in the bounds of Starved Rock State Park. And within a year, the wooden walkway had been installed atop The Rock to assure that no other graves would be disturbed by the tens of thousands of visitors who stroll around The Rock every year.

So as I sat there and watched couples and parents with children enjoy walking around The Rock and taking in the spectacular view, I figured I was justified in feeling a certain amount of satisfaction at the outcome of that great story 33 years ago.

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Filed under Fur Trade, Illinois History, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

From coal to fracking sand: The evolution of a small rail line

We’ve recently noticed a substantial increase in the size of trains traveling our small rail line. It’s not uncommon these days to see trains stretching more than 100  closed hopper cars in length pulled by three big diesel engines, and sometimes with a fourth pushing as the trains climb the gentle, steady grade past our house. “Our” rail line opened for business in 1870 as planned competition for the dominant Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad that monopolized rail transport here in the Fox Valley of Illinois. In particular, area farmers and householders were desperate for cheaper coal, a stranglehold on the shipping of which (along with lumber, livestock, and grain) was held by the CB&Q. As John Redmond Marshall commented in the Kendall County Record on May 24, 1866:

The general cry from the people of Kane and Kendall counties for cheaper fuel seems to have awakened this slumbering enterprise into new and more vigorous life.

The Oswego Depot on the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road about 1880 before it's expansion and remodeling in 1886 was similar to the small stations that dotted the rail line from Streator north to Aurora. (Little White School Museum photo)

The Oswego Depot on the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road about 1880 before it’s expansion and remodeling in 1886 was similar to the small stations that dotted the rail line from Streator north to Aurora. (Little White School Museum photo)

The Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Rail Road had been authorized by the Illinois General Assembly in 1852. But the Civil War intervened and it wasn’t until the war’s immediate aftermath that serious efforts to build the road began. By the late 1860s, the company had been invigorated and interest in creating an alternative to the CB&Q was running high. It was so high, in fact, that counties, townships, and municipalities along the route, along with individuals, purchased stock in the new rail line, hastening its construction. As construction plans moved ahead, huge levels of interest developed along the proposed route. In September 1867, eager for construction to begin, the citizens of Unionville–proposed to be the southern terminus of the new line–voted to change the name of their town to Streator, in honor of Worthy S. Streator, who financed the first coal mine in the area. With rich veins of coal underlying the entire area, all that was needed was a way to get it to market, and so enter the O.O.&F.R.V. Rail Road. By the fall of 1869, real progress was being made. Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Sept. 2 of that year that:

Surveyors of the O.O. & F.R.V.R.R. extended their operations through this village last Saturday; the survey is running on the west side lots of Adams street, diagonally crossing said street near and at the junction of Washington street, thence running on the east side of it to the Waubonsee [Creek], on the other side of which it runs partly on Water street.

By Oct. 14, construction crews had reached Oswego and were busily grading the right-of-way. But unbeknownst to the local investors in the rail line, efforts were well underway to steal the whole thing right out from underneath them. The directors of the O.O.&F.R.V. had unwisely given the line’s construction superintendent, Oliver Young, the power to “use, manage, and control” the line upon completion. After securing this broad mandate from the line’s directors, he contracted with C.H. Force & Company to actually build the rail line. In July of 1870, Force & Co., contending the new rail line didn’t have any equipment to operate after construction was finished, secretly contracted with James F. Joy, president of the CB&Q, to provide rolling stock and other equipment for the line—despite the fact the O.O.&F.R.V. actually owned two locomotives and dozens of rail cars. On Aug. 20, 1870, Force & Co. secretly leased the whole railroad (which it didn’t own—yet) to the CB&Q for 99 years. The last piece fell into place in October when Young, for “a valuable consideration” (we can only guess what it was) assigned all his interest in the rail line—remember he could “use, manage, and control” the line—to Force & Co. The upshot was that the CB&Q managed to dupe its own disgruntled customers into taxing themselves to build a rail line which the company stole from right under their noses.

The sprawling H.D. Conkey Sand & Gravel Company mine supplied gravel for three decades. Part of the mine is now the site of the Oswegoland Park District's Saa Wee Kee Park. (Little White School Museum photo)

The sprawling H.D. Conkey Sand & Gravel Company mine supplied gravel, transported on the O.O.&F.R.V.,  for three decades. Part of the mine is now the site of the Oswegoland Park District’s Saa Wee Kee Park. (Little White School Museum photo)

Not, of course, that the new railroad didn’t provide a badly needed link to the outside world for the towns up and down the Fox River. Farmers, business owners, and regular householders all rejoiced at being able to take a passenger train or enjoy the most modern telecommunications service with the line’s accompanying telegraph. As Marshall put it in the Nov. 3, 1870 Record:

On Thursday last, the 27th of October, 1870, a train of cars on the Fox River Valley Railroad entered Yorkville for the first time. It made the people of the villages feel big.

On Jan. 12, 1871, Marshall reported on the on-going business excitement in Yorkville caused by the completion of the tracks all the way from Aurora to Streator:

On Sunday night the last rail was laid between Aurora and Ottawa at the Sheridan bridge. The trains are now running from Streator to Aurora. The effect of the road on Yorkville is already seen and the town assumes a business air that seems foreign to it. The passenger house has been built south east of the Paper Mill; a temporary office has been opened by the CB&Q Co. opposite the grist mill with a gentleman from Sandwich as Station Agent. On Monday workmen from the CB&Q Co. commenced making a cattle yard and chute just above the water tank, and Lon. Halleck expected to ship hogs by it last night (Wednesday). Capt Bolster is on this work. Tuesday morning a train went over the road to Streator consisting of a passenger car and two flat cars loaded with telegraph poles We may expect regular passenger trains shortly. Helme & Dolph are to have a coal yard near their saw-mill and D.G. Johnson and Andrew Welch have one just east of the rag house. Take it all in all, Yorkville promises to be a business town of no little importance, and there are many inducements for capital to come here for investment. It will pay.

Starting with the line’s completion in 1871, it hauled hundreds of thousands of tons of grain and innumerable head of cattle and hogs to market from towns up and down its length, while bring back coal, lumber, mail, and other necessities. Some products came and went like the ice that was harvested at the mill dams at Yorkville and Oswego. Livestock shipments petered out in the 1930s, and grain shipments in the 1970s. Lumber shipments to towns up and down the line continued through the 1980s. Coal, the reason the line was built in the first place, stopped being a regular cargo in the early 1950s, finally disappearing altogether by the end of that decade. Other natural products replaced some of the losses. Gravel, for instance, began to be mined in substantial quantities between Oswego and Yorkville in the 1880s, continuing through the 1940s. And pure, white silica sand began to be mined from the exposed St. Peter formations at Wedron and Ottawa. There was plenty of the stuff; historic Starved Rock is made of it, as are a spectacular series of soaring bluffs along the southern reaches of the Fox River. It’s nickname, in fact, is Ottawa sand. Originally, the sand was mined for use in the glass factories that clustered around Ottawa, for use in molding, and by railroads to improve traction for engines.

By September of 1965 when this photo was taken, the old O.O.&F.R.V. line had already changed. No more passengers boarded at the Oswego station and coal shipments had ceased. (Little White School Museum photo)

By September of 1965 when this photo was taken, the old O.O.&F.R.V. line had already changed. No more passengers boarded at the Oswego station and coal shipments had ceased. (Little White School Museum photo)

But it’s been a long time since more than the remaining Pikington Glass Factory has been in operation, and the other traditional uses for abrasives, locomotive traction, and molding sand simply don’t require that much sand, So why the relatively sudden increase in the size of trains on the old O.O.&F.R.V. line? For the answer, we have to look west. A long way west, to the Dakotas where hydraulic fracturing–”fracking”–has created an oil boom. It turns out that Ottawa sand is the perfect thing to mix with the liquids that are used in the fracking process. Tons of it are needed; so much that the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has been forced to issue a safety warning concerning fracking workers. Turns out that silica sand can be dangerous stuff to breathe in by workers, causing the same kind of silicosis that plagues coal miners. And that doesn’t even take into account all the other dangers of fracking, including groundwater pollution and earthquakes. Born in controversy and the financial hardball of the Gilded Age, the old O.O.&F.R.V. Railroad has soldiered on into the 21st Century, hauling an evolving list of products and providing an economic boost to the towns up and down its right-of-way in spite of its legally questionable beginnings. Originally conceived to haul the primary fuel of the 1870s–coal–the line is now contributing to the extraction of another fossil fuel–oil–in ways the line’s builders could have never envisioned.

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Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego, Science stuff, Transportation

Location, location, location…

St. Louis figured it was holding all the cards. It was the Queen City on the Mississippi, a depot for grain shipment that drew commerce from all over the fast-growing Midwest. And it was considered the early gateway to the West.

But in the end, Chicago won the title as the Midwest’s metropolis. So how did the muddy, swampy village by the lake take first honors?

As it turns out, the Achilles’ heel that did St. Louis in was a combination of factors starting with the Mississippi River’s tendency to flood and the elimination of shipping grain by sacks.

A.T. Andreas included this engraving of the first shipment of grain from the port of Chicago from Newberry & Cole's early elevator in 1839 in his three-volume history of Chicago. Improvements in grain handling and marketing soon made Chicago the primary grain exporting city in the Midwest.

A.T. Andreas included this engraving of the first shipment of grain from the port of Chicago from Newberry & Cole’s early elevator in 1839 in his three-volume history of Chicago. Improvements in grain handling and marketing soon made Chicago the primary grain exporting city in the Midwest.

In the 1820s and 1830s, as Midwestern farming began producing large annual surpluses, the grain was shipped both to the Chicago market and to the St. Louis market. In those days, grain was transported in sacks. Each sack had to be loaded on the farm, then transported to a place it could be shipped either east on the lakes or south on the Midwest’s river system. When the sacks reached a port, they had to be manhandled onto boats for shipment. When they reached their destination, those sacks each had to be unloaded by hand.

Early on, St. Louis and Chicago were about even in grain handling. Even with Mississippi River flooding, flatboats and steamboats could be easily loaded by stevedores carrying grain sacks.

But then an innovated grain dealer in Buffalo, New York, devised a new way of handling grain, and it didn’t involve sacks at all. Joseph Dart created a device consisting of an endless belt with small buckets attached to it that could be lowered into the hold of a canal boat or steamboat. Using steam power, the endless belt could move the grain up out of the boat into an elevated bin that soon became known as a grain elevator.

Before long improvements were coming fast in the grain handling industry. Ira Munn, a Chicago grain dealer, came up with some big improvements in elevator design and use, primarily the idea of emptying wagonloads of loose grain into upside-down pyramid-shaped pits in the ground that were lined with either concrete or wood. Then one of Dart’s endless elevator belts could move the grain into an elevator, where it could easily be reloaded into rail cars, canal boats, or steamboats for transshipment.

1895 Grain Elevator loading whaleback

By 1895, grain shipping, handling, and marketing had reached virtually modern levels of sophistication. This stereopticon view illustrates a Great Lakes whaleback freighter being loaded at a grain elevator along the Chicago River.

Munn also devised a grain grading system, which became the heart of his system, which became the system underlying the whole Chicago Board of Trade (of course, he was also a thief, but that’s a story for another day). Because with grain graded as it arrived at the elevator, it could be mechanically directed into different bins inside the elevator. While the grain of many farmers would be intermixed, the chit the elevator operator gave each farmer entitled him to drawing the same number of bushels of the same grade grain out of the elevator whenever he wished—less storage and handling costs, of course.

The whole grain-by-the-sack system was dead by then, killed by Dart’s elevator and Munn’s new improvements. Grain was being handled by machinery, and that meant lots of trouble for St. Louis. At Chicago, the lake level was essentially static. Grain elevators could be built right along the Chicago River where streamboats could enter from the lake via the new channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the river. Elevators could load and unload them mechanically.

Meanwhile down in St. Louis, the Mississippi’s periodic floods prevented the same kind of handy grain-handling infrastructure from being built handy to the steamboats and flatboats that carried grain down to the New Orleans market.

By the time large amounts of grain began being shipped by rail, St. Louis had lost the contest of becoming the chief grain exporting city of the Midwest. And Chicago, that swampy little village by the lake had grown to become the hub of not only the grain trade, but also the lumber and meat packing trades.

Guess those real estate agents know what they’re talking about. What really counts is location, location, location.

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