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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2 Comments

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

2 responses to “Watching from my window as the Fox rolls by…

  1. Bert

    And NOW I know why you advised this Park District director to post signs warning people not to drink from the crystal clear spring in the newly acquired Troy Park property. (yes , it did test like a sewer)

    • RAM

      Took a walk over there yesterday. The springs are still trickling out and look delicious, clear and pure. Which they’re definitely not…pure, that is.

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