The good news is that the Fox River has somewhat, if far from entirely, recovered from the grievous things done to it in the name of progress during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Right now, the river is pretty much a raging torrent, carrying the runoff from well over 6” of precipitation that has fallen on the Fox River Valley since June 1—with more on the way. The high water helps flush poisons, old and new, out of the streambed, which encourages the spawning of gamefish so sought-after by local anglers. From muskies to walleyes to fighting smallmouth bass, the Fox now boasts an increasingly healthy fishery.
It wasn’t always so, of course. The pioneers who arrived along the river’s banks in the early 19th Century started indiscriminately used it as a handy sewer as soon as they got here, dumping everything in from their own human waste to the byproducts of industries large and small, in to watch it drift downstream. The most noxious producers of waste products were the coal gas manufacturing plants, the largest at Aurora owned by what became Western United Gas & Electric. There, coal was cooked to release gas used for cooking and heating Fox Valley homes while the byproducts, laced with crazily lethal carcinogens, were dumped in the river.
The result was the elimination of most desirable gamefish, which left the river mostly to the German carp. Many area residents were convinced the carp had driven the other species out by clouding and otherwise fouling the water, but, in fact, the carp were among the only fish tough enough to survive until the federal government started getting serious about cleaning up the nation’s streams in the 1970s.
There are still parts of the river—in the dead-end channel on the east side of the Ashland Avenue dam at Montgomery, for instance—where nothing other than what pioneering fisheries biologists S.A. Forbes and R.E. Richardson described as “filth enduring species” like carp can be found. That’s because those areas, especially in summer, suffer from oxygen depletion and lack of sufficient current to cleanse the channel of pollutants.
But in the free-flowing stretches of the river, particularly the portion from the dam in Montgomery to just above the dam at Yorkville, and from there to Dayton, the river is relatively healthy and the numbers of Forbes’ and Richardson’s “filth enduring species” are far lower.
As I noted above, carp, while generally disdained by anglers, did not cause the river’s problems. But they are certainly a powerful sign that serious problems still exist, because carp can thrive where other fish simply can’t live.
At that same time, of course, we must keep in mind that carp are not native to the Fox River. Rather, they were shipped here from Europe at fair expense and stocked in the river as part of a U.S. Government project to encourage a commercial inland fishery on the Illinois River and its tributaries.
“Sufficient attention has not been paid in the United States to the introduction of the European carp as a food-fish,” a U.S. Fish Commission report for 1872-1873 contended.
But attention was soon more than sufficient and the commission began carp imports in the late 1870s. The fish were so prized that the first shipments from Europe were placed in the reflecting pools at the Washington Monument to recover from the trip and lazily pass the winter before they were released in western rivers.
The first batch, 40 carp, was stocked in the Fox River in Kendall County in 1882. In 1883, 20 more were stocked in Kendall County. After that, the program accelerated, with 1,000 stocked at Aurora during a single day on Jan. 2, 1886.
Illinois in general and the Fox River in particular got so much attention partly because the one-time superintendent of the U.S. Fish Commission was Dr. S.P. Bartlett of Quincy. Bartlett was a staunch carp booster who wrote in 1900 that “…it is today the universal opinion of every responsible fish dealer on the Illinois River that the carp was the best gift ever made by the United States Fish Commission to the people of the State.”
Which was saying something, because among some of the other species the fish commission stocked in the Fox River were Atlantic Salmon, Chinook Salmon, and Rainbow Trout. Unfortunately, the salmon and trout didn’t take. Even more unfortunately, the carp did.
Bartlett complained that people kept blaming him for introducing carp to Illinois rivers. But he contended, lots of people liked the carp, pointing to a letter he received form M.D. Hurley, president of the Illinois Fishermen’s Association. According to Hurley: “I have heard it said that the carp are driving the fine fish out of the river. This is also far from the truth, as the carp lives in harmony with all kinds of fine fish. The only fish that does not seem to like the carp is the buffalo, and that is because carp are too lively for them and they cannot stand the jumping about of the carp.”
Bartlett’s cheerleading aside, by the early 1900s, carp had become an increasingly contentious issue in Illinois and elsewhere. Bartlett complained in 1902 that “This cry against the carp is a great big humbug—it is an outrage—they are a good fish if you know how to cook them.” Although he added with refreshing honesty, “But not so good if you don’t know how.”
Shot back W.E. Meehan, commissioner of fisheries for Pennsylvania and someone who didn’t like carp (or, apparently, those people, who turned out to be Italians) one bit: “Possibly the carp is fit for food. Personally, I do not like his looks as a fish and I do not like the looks of the people I have seen buying him in the market. I believe he is a cheap food for a cheap people…I do not think we can make good people out of cheap food.”
And so the arguments went. In the end it was found the introduction of carp, along with many more boneheaded species introductions, have had serious and negative impacts on the nation’s environment. Oddly enough, we still haven’t learned that lesson—witness those annoying Asian ladybugs, Dutch elm disease, and a host of other calamities we’ve brought on ourselves.
But one thing you can give the lowly carp credit for: They’re wonderful living gauges of stream quality. When you see them and no other fish swimming in a river or creek you know that stretch of water is in big environmental trouble.