No power, but no flood—this time at least

We’ve been getting a bit of rain lately around these parts, although the Fox River has entered its usual mid-summer shallow season.

On Sunday evening, another of the spotty thunder storms we’ve been experiencing this summer rolled through, accompanied by lots of lightning, one of which struck uncomfortably near the Matile Manse, after which the lights well and truly went out.

When I say this was a spotty t-storm, I’m not understating it a bit. It never did rain from that bit of thundercloud at my son’s house, which is about a mile and a half south of us.

So there we sat with no cable TV and no Internet, which wasn’t all that big a loss since we’d both been reading anyway, although my wife was reading a dead tree book, so she needed a bit of light. Me, I was reading on my iPad’s Kindle app, so I was good. But we decided to take a ride to see what we could see and determined that it was only the seven or eight houses at our end of North Adams that had no power. Drove to Panera to charge our phones and have some over-priced soup, and then home, shortly after which the ComEd boys and girls did their thing and the power came back on.

While we did indeed lose power, at least we weren’t afflicted with a flood like the one that hit our area just 20 years ago this month. The Flood of ’96 was the most serious one the area had experienced in many decades—if ever.

Our corner of the Fox Valley got around 17” of rain the night of July 17-18, 1996, and it caused a rolling series of local disasters as the flood water drained and tried to get to the Fox River. As a result, roads that were open and passable the morning of July 18, were closed to flooding by that evening, stranding more than one person somewhere he didn’t want to be.

Our penchant for draining wetlands and turning them into either farm fields or residential or commercial subdivisions really came back to bit us during the Flood of ’96. Blackberry Creek, trying to carry a volume of runoff it was never meant to, and whose course was restricted by bridges on several county roads and state highways, spread out and flooded roads and businesses and complete housing developments, especially on Aurora’s far west side and in Bristol Township here in Kendall County. Because there was no straight route for all that water to go, it spread out, seeking a way to get to the river, flooding a huge area.

1996 7-18 Car off road in flood

This Ford Taurus station wagon encountered a washed-out culvert on Douglas Road just south of Collins Road the night of July 17-18 1996. I took the photo, which won the Spot News Photo award from the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, on July 18.

Meanwhile, here in the Oswego area, normally small streams turned into raging torrents. Waubonsie Creek, taking in a huge volume of runoff, nearly took out the railroad bridge here in Oswego and did take out the venerable 1880s box truss bridge just south of the Matile Manse on North Adams Street. The whole bridge structure was picked up and washed downstream. Meanwhile, the railroad folks brought in carloads of large diameter rocks to shore up the rail bridge’s upstream piers and abutments. It worked, but it was a near-run thing.

The Fox River, generally low and sluggish stream in mid-July, also became a raging torrent, coming up out of its banks to levels not seen for many a year. At that time, my sister was living across the street from us right on the river. None of the floods any of us had ever experienced had driven the river so far out of its banks. That morning, my sister awoke to see her lawn furniture beginning to float away from her backyard. But she was a former farm girl, and so grabbed a rope, made a lasso out of it, and proceeded to lasso the lawn chairs as they floated past on the flood tide—much to the amazement of her husband, who had grown up in an apartment building on Chicago’s South Side and had only seen such things in cowboy movies.

No one was killed, but some were injured, including one fellow who had been driving on Douglas Road out east of Oswego when he encountered a culvert that was no longer there, the entire road having been washed out when the tiny stream that usually carried only field tile drainage a few miles to Waubonsie Creek turned into an angry, rushing torrent. It was dark, and the guy’s Ford Taurus station wagon fell right into the chasam that had formerly been the road crossing the trickle.

As floods went, this one was a real doozy. As somebody interested in history and in the effects we have on our environment, it was a real eye-opener as well. When I correlated subdivisions that flooded but that had never flooded before with the Little White School Museum’s collection of 1830s survey maps, invariably there were wetlands or marshy areas drawn in where those modern housing developments are located today. Mother Nature really does have a way of getting her own back, sometimes despite modern engineering’s best efforts.

As I noted above, residents of the Fox Valley have been trying to eliminate wetlands ever since the first settlers arrived, and they’ve been really good at it, too. But those old wet areas served a couple valuable purposes that the powers that be are only recently paying attention to. First of all, wetlands tend to blot up stormwater runoff, slowing it’s velocity and releasing it at slower rates. Without those wetlands, water runs off quickly and at speed, and fast-moving water is extremely destructive. Wetlands, because they temporarily hold stormwater, help recharge ground water aquifers. And they also filter stormwater so that all the debris and harmful things that build up on streets, sidewalks, and parking lots don’t get washed directly into water courses.

Not, of course that we didn’t have some pretty spectacular floods before 1996, of course. Back in the 19th Century, there were three major floods that really stuck in peoples’ minds. Back in that day, they called them “freshets,” and they made pretty big impressions.

Fox River freshets were recorded in 1840, 1857, and 1868.

The 1840 freshet caused the least amount of damage, primarily because there just weren’t a whole lot of property to damage at that early date. The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, noted of the 1840 flood: “The year was ushered in by one of the largest spring freshets known. Fox River flooded all the lowlands along its course, and at Millington two acres of splendid logs were carried away. Only two such freshets have been known since, in 1857 and 1868. But the last two have had bridges instead of saw logs to exert their brief power on.”

1857 Aurora freshet

The 1857 freshet left a big impression with folks living along the Fox River that year. Above, Galena Boulevard deadends at the Fox River since the bridges to Stolp Island have been washed out, as have several buildings on the island.

J .H. Sutherland wrote in the Oswego Herald in 1907 that the 1857 spring freshet was still clear in his mind, recalling that he’d gone to bed when it was still raining.

“When I arose next morning at about seven o’clock, lo! and behold, the river was a raging torrent. A lumber yard owned by a Mr. Rowley was floating downstream, and was all lost during the day; the bridge was washed away, a sawmill at the east end of the mill dam also floated downstream, the flour mill was seriously damaged, and the mill dam was washed out.”

The memorable freshet of 1868, caused when a rainstorm caused the ice on the Fox River to suddenly break up, damaged the Oswego bridge but did not wash it out. Fortunately, the year before, the old wooden structure had been replaced by a new iron arch bridge. But other communities were not so lucky.

The March 12, 1868 Kendall County Record reported that: “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.”

Despite the rain we’ve been getting here in northern Illinois, at least we’ve had nothing so far approaching the Flood of ’96, for which we can all be thankful. But it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on Mother Nature in case she decides to mess with us again, just for old times sake.

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Filed under Aurora, Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History

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