When the first settlers arrived in the Fox Valley, they found tallgrass prairies dotted with open groves of mixed hardwood trees. The prairie, however, was not a simple grass monoculture.
In their descriptions, the settlers divided prairie into wet prairie and dry prairie, with dry prairie the most desirable for farming, but not always the most prevalent. Drier, higher prairie was quickly claimed by the first settlers, and later arrivals were forced to settle land with fens, sloughs, and marshes. Bristol Township was notorious among early pioneers for having a lot more than its share of wetlands, and was derisively referred to as “Slough Grass,” “Pond Lilly,” and “Bull Rush” by the pioneers.
While wetlands may have been viewed with sarcasm, they were no laughing matter in those early days. Although rich in wildlife, wetlands tended to come with a dismaying number of sicknesses for early residents. Outbreaks of ague—malaria—and other diseases were blamed on “miasmas” that supposedly emanated from wetlands. Not until the germ theory of disease was discovered and gained acceptance many decades later did people realize insects that favored wet habitats spread sickness, not mysterious invisible swamp vapors.
Since there was no effective chemical insect control available, that knowledge probably wouldn’t have saved the wetlands, because draining them had the desired effect by eliminating mosquitoes. As the area’s extensive wetlands were drained, malaria was virtually eradicated. And just as importantly for those early farmers, formerly wet prairie became productive farmland.
Drainage work on the thousands of acres of wetland really started as soon as the settlers arrived. Initial efforts were fairly simple and labor intensive as ditches were dug from wetlands to the nearest streams.
In 1854, the mole ditcher was invented, a sort of subterranean plow that created a small underground tunnel. It took a lot of oxen and muscle power, but a mole ditcher could drain about a half mile of wetland a day. But while the machine worked well in clay soils, drain tunnels pushed through more friable soils tended to quickly collapse, not only blocking the flow but also creating dangerous holes in fields into which men and animals frequently stepped.
The other major technique was to build underground drain pipes of wooden boards or stone, but that was expensive in both labor and capital.
Then in the 1860s, clay tile began to look like the best bet to drain wetlands. Tile plants in Joliet and Chicago began advertising in The Prairie Farmer magazine and drainage efforts accelerated and quickly expanded. Even more ambitious drainage projects became possible thanks to laws passed by the General Assembly in the 1870s allowing landowners to combine into drainage districts, financed by property taxes levied on affected landowners.
The move towards draining ever more land led to entrepreneurs starting to manufacture their own field tile using locally-available clays. In April 1879, Kendall County Record Editor John Marshall noted: “Samples of the [drainage] tile made at Millington can be seen at Willett & Welch’s implement room in Yorkville. Farmers should examine it.”
The new clay drainage tile technology allowed even the largest wetlands, such as the Great Wabasia Swamp, which covered 367 acres in northern Oswego and southern Aurora townships, to be drained by the 1890s.
By Jan. 1, 1884, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, farmers had laid the astonishing total of 800 miles of drainage tile throughout Kendall County alone.
Then in August that same year, the Record noted that tile making had come to Yorkville: “Joseph Tarbox is getting out a first quality of tile with his new machine, and has at his yard a general assortment of all sizes; and he will not be undersold by anyone. Address, Yorkville, Ill. Tile and brick yard on the north side, near the fairgrounds.”
On Nov. 17, 1897, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent could report that: “Mr. Job Wampah is hauling large size tile–12-inch–from Plainfield so as to close up an open ditch across part of his farm. Land is nearly all drained out in this part of the country. What a difference between now and 25 years ago when ponds and swales were on every farm. When politicians tell of the great change that came over the country in ‘73, they should not forget to state that farmers began tiling about that time.”
From 1905 to 1910, $60,000 (a small fortune in those days) was spent in Bristol Township alone to tile and drain a total of 3,200 acres of wetlands.
Water drained by the county’s vast tile systems had to have someplace to go, so creeks were modified for fast drainage by channelizing—straightening and deepening them—to speed run-off to either the Fox River or AuSable Creek. As a result, rainwater that was once stockpiled in the county’s numerous wetlands and allowed to run off slowly was encourage to quickly flow away. The increased velocity of stormwater and spring melt runoff is often destructive in the short term as raging waters create severe erosion and other damage.
Fast runoff from its watershed combined with destruction of wetland has also had a drastic long-term effect on the Fox River. By the early years of the 20th Century, according to C.W. Rolfe, writing in The Fishes of Illinois published in 1908, the volume of the Fox River’s flow at its low water rate in late summer was half of its estimated low water flow in the 1830s. Tiling, ditching, and draining did not stop, of course, something that continued to plague the river during the next century. A measurement taken by the U.S. Geological Survey on the Fox River in 1975 north of Aurora showed that its low water flow rate had further declined by about 15 percent from Rolfe’s time.
Another cause for concern reported in the mid-1970s was the discovery that between 1905 and 1971 two “indicator” species of small fish that require access to wetlands to spawn, the Blacknose Shiner and the Iowa Darter, had completely disappeared from the Fox River system, both casualties of wetland destruction.
The destruction of wetlands has caused the county’s streams to resemble aquatic yo-yos, their levels bouncing up and down during successive wet and dry periods, sometimes within a matter of days of each other. In addition, the descendants of the very farmers who drained the wetlands have been adversely affected as ground water levels, once maintained by extensive wetlands, declined over the decades.
Most of the county’s wetlands did not totally and completely disappear, however, as unfortunate homeowners living in developments built on former marsh and swamp land often discover following rain storms or fast snow melt. Even with drainage patterns changed by the engineering of new subdivisions, commercial developments, and roads, the land tends to revert to its natural state during high water periods—and for a lot of county land, the natural state was that wet prairie noted above. In fact, old survey maps and historical accounts of the county’s early days suggest residents of more than one new development may have cause for continuing concern as many of them found out during the huge Flood of 1996 that resurrected a number of ancient marshes and sloughs following 17” of rain.
At least one solution for the intermittent flooding that plagues the area has gradually become apparent during the past few decades: Restore some of the area’s wetlands. Just as they did 160 years ago, wetlands can be used to slow flood waters to decrease the water’s damaging velocity and store the runoff for slower release, which reduces or even prevents flood damage. Side benefits—although naturalists would class them as major benefits—are that wetlands cleanse the streams they empty into by filtering polluted run-off from roads and parking lots. They also enrich the area’s wildlife diversity by attracting birds and other animals and creating spawning grounds for fish. And unlike the pioneers, we know how to deal with disease carrying insects that might be attracted to wetlands through sound ecological management.
When you get right down to it, there’s nothing like persuading Mother Nature to use her own tricks to help solve problems we’ve caused ourselves.