Monthly Archives: August 2018

New marker a Kendall County link to Illinois statehood bicentennial…

For years I wondered what that historical marker on U.S. Route 34 between Yorkville and Plano was, but never bothered to stop and read it. Because, I guess I’m like everybody else: history that’s too close, too local, isn’t as interesting as that in other, far away places.

1816 NW Territory map by Melish

Although it rather oddly moves Lake Michigan a hundred or so miles east, John Melish’s 1816 map showing the Northwest Territory does illustrate Illinois’ originally proposed northern boundary, even  with the bottom of Lake Michigan.

And then it was too late to read it because it disappeared during one of the seemingly unending construction projects along that stretch of road.

But thanks to Linda Fellers, a resident of Crystal Lake of all places, and to the cooperation of the Illinois State Historical Society and the City of Yorkville, the marker has been replaced, this time relocated to a site on Van Emmon Road, avoiding Route 34 construction for all time.

And that gets us to how Fellers’ project to restore the missing marker is a nice compliment to our celebration of Illinois’ bicentennial this year, especially here in Kendall County. Because if the story recounted on the marker had not taken place, I’d be writing this piece in the state of Wisconsin.

The Ordinance of 1787—the Northwest Ordinance—was created to govern the region north and west of the Ohio River, and to eventually bring the region into the Union. The ordinance stipulated the territory was to be divided into not less than three, nor more than five territories that were, after they’d met minimum requirements, to then be admitted to the Union as states with all the privileges and responsibilities as the nation’s original 13 states.

1818 Daniel Pope Cook

Daniel Pope Cook, the young activist editor of the Illinois Intelligencer, Illinois Territory’s most popular newspaper, was a strong  advocate of Illinois statehood.

Illinois became a separate territory in 1809, boasting a population of about 10,000 mostly centered in the southern third of the modern state. But the territory was growing fast, and growth really accelerated after the War of 1812. By 1817, pressure for statehood was growing as many citizens grew increasingly dissatisfied with the absolute veto power over the territorial legislature wielded by the federally appointed territorial governor.

That year, a strong bid for statehood was begun by Daniel Pope Cook (for whom Cook County is named), the fire-eating 20-year-old editor of The Western Intelligencer, one of and the best known of Illinois Territory’s few newspapers. Beginning his campaign with an editorial in the Nov. 20, 1817 Intelligencer, Cook kept up a steady drumbeat of support and agitation for statehood. By Dec. 6 of that year, the territorial house of representatives had adopted a resolution to Congress asking to be admitted as a state.

Though the Northwest Ordinance required that a territory contain at least 60,000 people before admission as a state, Cook’s uncle, Nathaniel Pope, the territorial delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, successfully lobbied to get the minimum decreased to 40,000. As further insurance, Pope worked hard in Congress to assure any census would be managed by an Illinois resident and not a U.S. marshal as required by law.

1818 Nathaniel Pope

Nathaniel Pope, Illinois Territory’s representative in Congress and Cook’s uncle, spearheaded statehood efforts in Washington, D.C. He was the father of Civil War General John Pope.

But even more importantly for Illinois’ future, Pope also lobbied to move the state’s northern boundary north to include 41 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. As originally laid out, the state’s northern boundary would have been set at 41 degrees, 38 minutes north latitude, which would have put it even with the foot or bottom of Lake Michigan. That would have been on a line that would have placed modern Kendall County’s three northern townships—Little Rock, Bristol, and Oswego—in Wisconsin.

Rep. Pope, however, had to take many political and economic issues into account as the statehood issue moved forward. Missouri was admitted to the Union in 1817 as a slave state, so the pressure was on to admit Illinois as a free state. But that was problematical since the vast majority of the state’s population were emigrants from Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and other southern slave states. So Pope, and Cook, were determined to make sure that eventually a majority of the population was anti-slavery.

Construction on the Erie Canal began in 1817, and those with a bit of foresight could see that when completed, the canal would create a commercial and passenger highway from New York City all the way to the muddy little settlement of Chicago near the foot of Lake Michigan. That would likely result in a tide of settlement from the generally anti-slavery former Middle Colonies and New England directly to northern Illinois. But with the original northern boundary set where it was, all that future northern, anti-slavery growth would end up in Wisconsin Territory, not Illinois.

2018 N Illinois

The red line was the original northern boundary of Illinois proposed in statehood legislation in Washington, D.C. With Cook’s strong backing, Pope lobbied successfully to have the state line moved 61 miles north. That not only secured an economically priceless expanse of Lake Michigan shoreline, but also assured a strong anti-slavery population base in northern Illinois.

Further, the existing boundary line cut Illinois off from the water highway that was the Great Lakes. And in an era when roads were either deplorable or simply didn’t exist, water transportation was vital if a state was to thrive economically.

As a result, Pope worked hard—and successfully—to move the new state’s northern boundary north 61 miles to a line at 42 degrees 30 minutes latitude. Pope’s amendment to the statehood legislation passed on April 18, 1818, eight months before Congress officially established the State of Illinois.

2018 Illinois northern boundaryThe boosters of Wisconsin Territory were not amused by the great land grab Pope engineered, and, in fact, unsuccessfully tried to overturn it for years. But the line remained where Pope—with the constant journalistic encouragement and boosterism of Cook—set it. As a result, Illinois gained 14 entire counties, including modern Cook and the City of Chicago that is, and has been, Illinois’ economic engine for the past two centuries—no matter how much us downstaters would like the facts to be different.

And, it turns out, that’s what that historical marker placed along Route 34 between Plano and Yorkville back on April 7, 1965 and which disappeared some years ago was all about. Thanks to Linda Fellers, though, the missing marker, with the story of why you’re reading its text in Illinois instead of Wisconsin, has been resuscitated and emplaced just off Ill. Route 47 at 102 E. Van Emmon Street at the Van Emmon Activity Center, almost exactly on that line of 41 degrees, 38 minutes north latitude.

The newly installed marker is a tangible reminder of those days when Illinois statehood was in flux and under discussion, and is especially relevant now as we look forward to celebrating Illinois 200th birthday on Statehood Day this coming Dec. 3.

 

 

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Filed under Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Newspapers, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

The struggle of getting from here to there has proven long and expensive…

Got word last week that the NaAuSay Township Highway Commissioner plans to pave the last remaining gravel road in the township with a tar-and-chip surface, thus ending a hard-fought transportation era out that direction.

It’s interesting that gravel roads are now considered old technology, when our farming great-grandparents would have done just about anything to have had access to a gravel road back in the 1890s.

Roads here in northern Illinois when the first pioneer farmers began arriving in the late 1820s weren’t much to look at. And I mean that literally. The roads of that era weren’t actually ‘roads,’ but were rather mere tracks and traces across the prairie originally created by bison and other animals that were then adopted by the region’s Native People. It wasn’t for nothing that a synonym for “trail” back in those days was “trace,” because often that’s about all there was, a trace.

Kinzie, JulietteFor instance, in March 1831, Juliette Kinzie described a trip she and her Indian trader husband, John, took from Prairie du Chien in modern Wisconsin to Chicago. Because it was so early in the year, the tribes were still in their winter camps, so the normal route, which was basically a straight line from Prairie du Chien to Chicago, was impractical. That’s because all the Indian villages where the party would depend on for food and shelter would be vacant for at least another month. So the plan was to head south to John Dixon’s ferry across the Rock River—modern Dickson, Illinois—and then strike the Great Sauk Trail, the region’s major road used by the Sauk, Fox, and other tribes to make their annual trek to Fort Malden in Canada to trade with the British. The Kinzies made sure they had an experienced guide to help them on their route, with the plan to take the Sauk Trail to the former Fox River Mission in modern Mission Township, LaSalle County, where they’d cross the Fox River and then head northeast to John Naper’s settlement on the DuPage River and then on to Chicago.

But the Kinzies’ experienced guide missed the Great Sauk Trail—the major trail in the region, remember—forcing the party to blunder around before striking the Fox River just south of modern Oswego, where they crossed and then headed to Naper’s settlement—modern Naperville.

There were, of course, other trails and traces used by Native People and pioneers alike, of course, and they became the template on which the region’s first roads were laid. Those roads took the courses of least resistance on their way across the prairie, avoiding the numerous sloughs and other wetlands, generally sticking to high ground, and aiming at the best fords across both the Fox River and its numerous tributaries.

1838 Old Galena Road red road

The original stagecoach mail road to Galena (highlighted in red) crossed the Fox River at Montgomery, then bent southwesterly to the ford across Blackberry Creek, before bending northwesterly on its way to Dickson and Galena. It’s a good illustration of a road that pays no attention to township or section lines. Interestingly enough, it still follows this same route 180 years after this map was drawn.

After northern Illinois was officially surveyed by the U.S. Government and the land divided into sections of one squire mile, or 640 acres, and townships were formed from 36 of those sections, it was found the old trail and road system cut inconveniently across those neat boundary lines. As a result, some of those old roads were vacated and their rights-of-way were moved to follow section lines to avoid bisecting farms and towns alike at odd angles. When you fly over the Midwest, you’ll clearly see the survey grid outlined in road rights-of-way. But you’ll also see some roads that still cut across country at varying angles. And when you see them, you’ll be looking at remnants of those old pioneer trails. Here in Kendall County, U.S. Route 34 from Oswego east to Naperville is one of those old trails, as is Ill. Routes 71 from Oswego to Ottawa and 126 from Yorkville to Plainfield, not to mention the best example, Chicago Road, northeast from Lisbon Road through Plattville to Peterson Road, a bonafide old stagecoach and wagon route.

But well after the settlement era ended, the area’s road system continued to mostly consist of dirt roads. Even most streets in town were dirt tracks. And that increasingly caused serious economic problems.

Mail carrier Ebinger

Mr. Ebinger, one of Oswego’s rural mail carriers near the turn of the 20th Century, pauses in town after making his run on his mail route’s muddy roads. (Little White School Museum collection)

As the Kendall County Record reported on April 21, 1881: “The roads out in the country are almost impassable. The mud goes to the wheel hubs.”

The bad roads had both negative economic and sociological effects on county residents. During certain parts of the year, bad roads almost completely isolated farmsteads in some parts of the county. That not only prevented farmers from marketing their livestock and grain, but also cut merchants off from the business farmers gave them.

As the Joliet News reported in March 1890: “The farmers of Will and Kendall counties are just now realizing what public road economy means. Only those living on gravel roads have been in Joliet since before Christmas. Hay, butter, eggs, poultry, and onions have been commanding good prices in this market, and just a few farmers could avail themselves of this condition. The buyer and seller might as well be a thousand miles apart.”

Until 1913, Illinois townships were responsible for financing road construction and for their maintenance outside municipal limits. As noted above, the system barely worked while most travel was by horse-drawn vehicles. By the time the 20th Century dawned and growing numbers of autos and (as they were called at the time) auto trucks, traveled roads, the system was breaking down.

The financing method put unfair burdens on sparsely populated townships. Road mileage might be the same as in heavily populated townships, but more taxpayers helped shoulder the burden.

1910 (abt) Main St car NB B&W

About 1910, an auto drives north on dusty Main Street, Oswego. Dirt-surfaced roads were the rule in town as well as in the country of that era. (Little White School Museum collection)

Then in 1911, a new state law allowed collection of motor license fees, with the money earmarked for road construction and maintenance. As soon as the state became involved in road financing, they began investigating better construction techniques and better road design. A major benefit of good roads, it turned out, was that it was much cheaper to drive a vehicle on a hard-surfaced road than on a dirt road.

During tests in Cleveland, Ohio, five two-ton White Motor Company trucks with full loads were driven over various road surfaces. They averaged nearly 12 miles per gallon on concrete roads, but less than 6 miles per gallon on dirt roads. Concrete also beat the asphalt roads of the era (9 miles per gallon). Brick roads were nearly as good as concrete, but were labor-intensive to build. Gravel roads, too, were much better than dirt, with a fair gravel surface allowing the trucks to average about 7 mpg, and a good gravel surface giving 9.4 mpg.

So if those driving autos as well as commercial trucks could save so much gasoline, state officials figured, part of that savings could be used to build roads with better surfaces. The calculation went as follows: Assuming the average motorist drove 8,000 miles a year, half over medium to poor roads at eight miles per gallon, over hard roads the mileage would double, saving 250 gallons of gas a year, or $57.50 a year (at the then-current price of 23 cents a gallon). So any annual fee under $57.50 would save motorists money. In the event, auto taxes were figured not to rise to more than $12 a year to fund good roads.

Lincoln Highway badge

The private Lincoln Highway Association promoted the first coast-to-coast improved highway that was marked with these red, white, and blue badges.

With the advocacy of several groups, including the Kendall County Automobile Club (formed at Plano in 1911), and spearheaded by William G. Edens (namesake of today’s Edens Expressway in Cook County), a statewide organization was formed to lobby for hard roads and to draw up specifications for them.

Edens, a born organizer, started out as a railroad brakeman and conductor who rose to organize the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. Then in 1897, he was tapped by President William McKinley to organize the post office department’s new free delivery system. Leaving government he became a successful Chicago banker, active in Chicago’s social and political scene.

Edens, with the support of Illinois Gov. Edward F. Dunne, helped organize the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, including the association’s first convention in Peoria on Sept. 27, 1912. Each member of the General Assembly was invited, and was also asked to appoint three residents of each legislative district as delegates. Also invited were the state’s agricultural, commercial, labor, banking, real estate, automobile, good roads, medical, rural letter carrier, central women’s club, highway commissioner, teacher, and lawyers’ organizations.

Attending the convention from Kendall County were George S. Faxon of Plano, representing the Illinois Postmasters’ Association; and Dr. R.A. McClelland of Yorkville, representing the Kendall County Automobile Club.

The convention’s platform urged state officials to mandate state and county cooperation in the construction of main highways and bridges, establish a “non political” state highway commission, use state funds to improve main highways connecting county seats and other principal cities, improve other roads controlled by township and county officials, use state prison inmates “when practicable” for road building, and use state automobile taxes to finance the system.

Gov. Dunne, in his 1913 message to the General Assembly, (sounding not unlike the Joliet News of 1890) contended: “The loss to farmers, because of inaccessible primary markets, and the abnormal expense of transportation due to bad roads, must be considered as a contributing cause of the high cost of living. In some Illinois counties, highways are impassable to ordinary loads for a full third of the year.”

Not that it was entirely clear sailing. Township officials opposed loss of their traditional control. But James F. Donovan of Niantic, president of the State Association of Highway Commissioners and Town Clerks, managed to persuade a majority of his group’s members to get on board.

Unsurprisingly, farmers protested the cost and wondered whether better roads would benefit them, but skillful political work at the state, county, and township level blunted their objections. Most decisively, the Illinois State Farmer’s Institute, precursor of today’s Farm Bureau, came out foursquare in favor of good roads, tipping the balance in favor of support.

Later in 1913, a bill featuring many of the good roads convention’s recommendations passed with the support of dozens of organizations. Prominent among them was the Kendall County Automobile Club.

1915 abt Rt 25 at BH

The stretch of modern Ill. Route 25 from the Kane County line south to Oswego was laid down as a concrete demonstration roadway before World War I, the first hard road in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

Locally, the biggest change following the law’s passage was creating the first county superintendent of highways. John D. Russell of Oswego, a well-known local politician and farmer, was appointed in Kendall County. Russell served as Oswego Township Road Commissioner from 1887-93. In 1896, Gov. John Peter Altgeld appointed Russell his military aide-de-camp, with the rank of colonel. He went on to serve as Oswego Township Supervisor from 1897-1907.

The new legislation made state funds available for hard roads, but there was no overall plan. A short stretch of 15-foot wide concrete roadway—today’s Ill. Route 25—snaked along the east bank of the Fox River south of Montgomery from the Kane County line past the site of what would one day become the Boulder Hill Subdivision to Oswego. Another stretch was built from Yorkville on Van Emmon Road to it’s junction with modern Ill. Route 71. But without a plan to link these isolated stretches, their economic impact was diluted. It would take another governor and more public pressure to create a viable hard road program.

In November 1916, Frank O. Lowden was elected governor and immediately pushed the good roads program begun by Gov. Dunne. “Good roads are a good investment,” Lowden told the General Assembly in January 1917, “Motor vehicles are rapidly supplanting horse-drawn vehicles. When good roads have become the rule, and not the exception as now, auto trucks will likely take the place of horses and wagons in the transportation of the products of the farm.”

Lowden, like Dunne, tapped Edens to organize the new statewide good roads effort. Active members of the association in Kendall County included George Faxon of Plano and Dr. McClelland of Yorkville.

Unfortunately, just as pressure mounted for good roads, the nation plunged into World War I. Even so, on Nov. 5, 1918, while fighting still raged in France, a statewide referendum was held on a $60 million bond issue to build thousands of miles of all-weather concrete roads in Illinois. Led by Edens’ “Pull Illinois Out of the Mud” campaign, the measure easily passed. The vote in Kendall County was an overwhelming 1,532 to 90.

The measure called for improving 800 miles of roads at state and federal expense; improving 4,800 miles of roads with the bond money to be maintained by auto and truck license fees; using joint state-county funding to improve another 11,200 miles of local roads selected by county boards with approval of the state highway commission; and improving 80,000 miles of township roads with counties providing 25 percent of the cost.

The plan called for bond issue concrete roads to pass through all 102 Illinois counties. In Kendall County, Route 18 was to be our hard road. It was to head south out of Aurora on Lincoln Avenue, along the east side of the Fox River through Montgomery to Oswego, then south to Yorkville, across the Fox River to Plano and on to Sandwich and, eventually, Princeton—the route championed for years by the Cannon Ball Trail Association.

But after the referendum passed, Gov. Len Small was elected over Lowden. And when engineers for the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings laid out Route 18’s actual right-of-way, a roar of protest went up. Instead of following the route promised during the referendum campaign, the engineers proposed running Route 18 down the west side—not the east side—of the Fox River as an extension of Aurora’s River Street, past the Montgomery sheep yards, and across the Chicago Burlington & Quincy mainline at the Wormley crossing north of Oswego. From there the route headed southwesterly, bypassing Yorkville to the north and Plano’s business district a block or two to the south on a rough airline through Sandwich and on to Princeton. It was the route today of River Street, Ill. Route 31 south to the junction with Route 34 at Oswego, and then on west. Paved spurs were to connect Route 18 with downtowns in Yorkville and Oswego.

1924 Building Route 18 at Oswego Bridge

Pouring the intersection at modern Ill. Route 31 and U.S. Route 34 in Oswego at the west end of the Oswego bridge across the Fox River in 1924. Photo by Dwight Young in the collections of the Little White School Museum.

The route, the Kendall County Record charged in December 1920, violated several of the requirements laid out in the bond issue legislation. The new route was longer and didn’t use those two sections of concrete road already laid in the county. Further, a costly viaduct over the CB& Q mainline was required at the Wormley crossing.

“In consideration of Route 18, which the state engineers have so arbitrarily placed as to miss Oswego and Yorkville entirely and to abandon a route which was built with the sanction of the state and was to be eventually taken over as Route 18, the question arises as to whether or not the law is being lived up to,” Record Publisher Hugh Marshall complained on Jan. 26, 1921.

Local consensus was that the new route was picked to cater to the meatpacking and other commercial interests of Aurora and Chicago with a direct route favored rather than one that connected local communities.

Despite the protests, state officials insisted on the new route. By the end of September 1921, all the right-of-way had been purchased. Surveying took place in 1923, with actual construction moving ahead in 1924. By late May, the 18-foot wide stretch of concrete pavement had been poured through Oswego to Plano and was curing.

1910 Rt. 25 Waubonsie Bridge

The old iron truss bridge across Waubonsie Creek on today’s Ill. Route 25 was replaced with a concrete bridge in 1924 when the concrete road from Aurora to downtown Oswego was completed. The old bridge was moved downstream to cross the creek at Pearce Cemetery. Little White School Museum collection.

Meanwhile in Oswego, state officials approved connecting the 1915 concrete section of today’s Ill. Route 25 with the Route 18 concrete spur across the Oswego Bridge. In July the state built a new concrete bridge across Waubonsie Creek, and the old iron bridge it replaced was moved to the Pearce Cemetery entrance road. The connection was finished and opened to traffic in early December 1924.

The section of modern Route 34 from Oswego to Naperville had to wait; work didn’t start until the fall of 1932. By October 1933, the road was paved along its entire length, with the exception of the intersection with the Lincoln Highway, today’s U.S. Route 30, and the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad. Not until May 1934 were plans finished to bridge the tracks and to cross under Route 30. The railroad bridge and the highway interchange were not finished until two more years had passed.

1936 34-30 overpass

The U.S. Route 30-U.S. Route 34 overpass east of Oswego under construction in the summer of 1936. (Little White School Museum collection)

With the end of the project, Route 34‘s course as we now know it was finished, and Kendall County was linked directly with Chicago and western Illinois via a system of all-weather concrete roads.

Meanwhile, out in the county’s rural areas, state and federal funds paid for a variety of road surface improvements and new bridges. And gradually, even totally rural areas like NaAuSay Township were pulled out of the mud.

But gravel roads, too, had their drawbacks, including high maintenance costs as well as draining motorists’ gas mileage and increasing vehicle maintenance costs. So township road commissioners and the county highway department began hard-surfacing rural roads, first with tar and chip and then asphalt to create smooth, all-weather surfaces. These days, Bristol and Oswego townships have no gravel roads at all, and with NaAuSay’s recent announcement, there are none left there, either. The county’s other townships all have a few gravel roads left, but they’re disappearing as the county’s population continues to grow, and its former corn and soybean fields grow increasing numbers of houses instead of crops.

Today, with traffic on Kendall County roads heavier than anyone a century ago could have conceived, we’re still trying to figure out how to maintain a transportation infrastructure that will be of the most value to all area residents.

 

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Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation

Watching from my window as the Fox rolls by…

There’s no doubt the view out the window here at the new History Central beats the view out of old History Central, although my office space has shrunk by about two-thirds.

The window in my old office looked out onto an increasingly scraggly pine tree my great grandparents planted to provide a bit of shade for the cistern and well that were formerly located in back of the house they built in 1908. My parents eliminated the old cistern a few years after we moved to the house in 1954 by filling it in with gravel and dirt.

1815 Fox portage map

This 1815 map by Rene Paul of St. Louis illustrates the old portage to the upper Fox River from the Root River in Wisconsin (see top, just to left of center)

The well was likewise eliminated about 1960 when we found it had been polluted by septic field seepage from the new Cedar Glen Subdivision up the hill from our house. All the houses there were built outside Oswego’s village limits, and so were on well and septic. The leachate from all those septic fields seeped down through the sand and gravel on which Cedar Glen is built and contaminated all the wells in my folks’ neighborhood. Most of those wells were old and were shallow, hand-dug affairs. Ours was 14 feet deep, spring fed, and always had a foot and a half of water in it, no matter how hard the pump ran. It was delicious water, clear and cold, and registered as raw sewage when the county health department had it tested.

1838 Oswego 1838

The 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township shows Levi and Darwin Gorton’s gristmill and dam just north of the new Village of Oswego.

So my brother-in-law the well-driller moved his drill rig into the backyard in the summer of 1960 and drilled a new well, with an 8” casing driven down into the bedrock and sealed with a 6” casing inside it down to the soft water aquifer at about 200 feet. The space between the two pipes was filled with hydraulic cement to assure none of the polluted surface water could infiltrate. I got to dig the trench from the well to the house for the feed pipe, a couple feet wide and 5 feet deep, one of many ditches I dug for him that summer, something that suggested to me perhaps there were easier ways to make a living.

The old well was filled with gravel and sealed with concrete, and then my parents had a multi-level concrete patio area created atop both well and cistern that remained until we did a major patio renovation a few years ago.

The old pine tree survived all those trials and tribulations, although during the past 15 years or so, it’s begun to shed branches one at a time, branches that used to be festooned with our bird feeders during the winter. From my office window I could watch the birds and the squirrels that enjoyed the cover the old pine provided, and could, in the winter, at least, get a view up the hill to Ill. Route 25. As views went, it was mostly useful for figuring out whether it was raining or snowing—similar to my friend, Zael’s, state-of-the-art weather rock. If the rock is wet it’s raining; if it isn’t, it isn’t.

1900 abt Parker Mills

By the time Irvin Haines snapped this photo of the gristmill (background to the left) and the sawmill (right), both had been out of business for a few years and the dam was in very poor condition. Our new house would be located at the far left edge of this photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

My new view looks out onto our backyard that slopes gently down to the riverbank and the channel between our island and the river’s main channel. It’s a spot on which I spent a lot of time as a kid, playing “Pop Up or Fly” or “Move-Up” with the neighborhood gang, and practicing with my bow and arrow and BB gun. The blob of concrete with a hand-forged U-bolt embedded in it that one of my long ago relatives poured on the limestone ledge making up the riverbank, and to which once I chained my river scow, is long gone, but the memories of those summers when so many hours were spent on the water are not.

Nor are the hours spent ice skating on the channel during the cold winters of the late 1950s and early 1960s when the river froze over from bank to bank. A fallen tree trunk along the riverbank offered a handy seat to change into skates for a glide downstream past the Lantz house to the Foose’s property. We’d clear a hockey rink on the ice down there for games improvised with sticks and anything solid for a puck. Also from there, a person could skate south all the way to the Route 34 bridge. Or I could skate north up the channel and carefully pick my way over a couple small riffles and patchy ice above Levi Gorton’s old dam for an early morning skate all the way north to Boulder Hill, accompanied by the echoing snaps and sharp cracks as the ice contracted in the frigid temperatures.

2018 8-8 Upstream to Gorton's dam

The view from our riverbank, upstream to the Gorton brothers’ dam site.

I’d always been fascinated with stories of the Native People that had lived here before the settlers. And it was even more interesting when I learned the French, all the way from Canada, would trade with local tribes for furs. So it was a big letdown when I finally determined the river had never been useful as a fur trade route.

The Fox varies considerably in depth depending on the season of the year. Often in the late summer, you can wade across the stretch I can see from my window without getting your shins wet. And, as it turns out, that extreme variability in depth made it unsuitable as a trade route for those hardy French voyageurs.

Click here for a map of the Fox River’s watershed

The river and its valley were carved out by a few tremendous glacial floods called torrents by geologists, and in a relatively short time, too. The sight of billions of gallons of water suddenly released as a huge glacial lake’s ice dam suddenly gave way must have been horribly spectacular as the water carved its way through the limestone and sandstone that underlay this area of northern Illinois.

2018 8-8 Donwn stream from Rising's mill

Standing on the foundation flagstones of Nathaniel Rising’s sawmill looking downstream. The river’s main channel is to the right.

The torrents left behind a slow-flowing, shallow river that varies in width considerably along its 223 mile length. In this, its middle section, the Fox is relatively wide, which means flooding is generally rare except above its low dams where the pools have filled with silt.

Three centuries ago, however, there were no dams on the Fox, but its depth still varied considerably with the season. In the autumn of 1698, Father Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme, a Jesuit missionary, was dispatched from Quebec to establish a mission among the Illinois Indians along the Mississippi and Illinois river. As St. Cosme’s party paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan they were advised of a possible shortcut. Writing back to his superiors, St. Cosme reported:

“Some savages had led us to hope that we could ascend this river and after a portage of about two leagues might descend by another river called Pesioui [today’s Fox River; “Pesioui” meant buffalo] 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 good father probably found the Chicago-DesPlaines-Illinois river route any easier. During dry conditions, the Chicago portage could extend up to 60 miles.

The Root-Fox River portage route was fairly well known, and was marked on early maps, but it was never much used because of how shallow the Fox was over most of its length. It was bad enough when the fur trade was carried in the big birch bark canoes of the early years—those canoes, as big as they were, didn’t need much water float—but it got a lot worse early in the 19th Century when transport switched to Mackinac boats, which were heavier and required much deeper water.

So the Fox was never really used for transportation, although its course did tend to dictate where roads and, later, rail lines crossed. Oswego grew up where it did, in part, because of the high-quality ford across the river just above the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Less than a mile south of where I’m writing this, a hard limestone shelf scoured smooth by the ancient torrents and centuries of flowing river water, offered an excellent crossing that appealed first to the Native People who lived in the area, then to the first pioneers, and finally for the stagecoach road that crossed the river here.

2018 8-8 Dam timbers

Submerged timber frame members from the old dam are still visible just under the water.

The force of the river’s flow also provided power to operate the machinery of gristmills and sawmills. Damming the river to create hydraulic power began as soon as the very first settlers arrive, pioneer millwrights following immediately behind them. Just a few dozen yards upstream from where I’m sitting, Merritt Clark arrived in 1836 and opened a corn mill and chair factory over on the west bank of the river. Brothers Levi and Darwin Gorton built a better dam and a true gristmill a couple years later, which they sold to Nathaniel Rising and his partner, John Robinson. Although Robinson died soon after, Rising, and Robinson’s estate under the control of Zelotus E. Bell, added a sawmill here on the east bank of the river. You can still see the giant slabs of flagstone on both sides of the river that formed the mills’ foundations. And at low water, you can still see some of the old timber frame members that were part of the dam buried in the rocks and gravel.

So the view out of my window here at History Central has gotten a lot more historic, not to mention nostalgic, now that we’ve settled into our new digs. It’s even possible, I suppose, that the view will provide a little historical inspiration going forward. We shall see…

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History