I’ve lived along or on the banks of the Fox River for most of the years since I was eight years old. And one of the things those of us who grew up on the river know is that it can quickly become dangerous, and therefore demands respect—especially during this time of year.
Far too many of those who live in the Fox River Valley and nearby areas take the Fox for granted. It’s “only the Fox,” I hear far too often. And while it is generally a fairly placid, shallow, well-behaved stream, it can quickly and often unexpectedly become a danger to the unwary.
When the settlers arrived, they knew the river posed its greatest danger during the spring ice breakup when heavy rains and melting ice created a raging torrent that bore no resemblance to what it was like the rest of the year. And they also knew that sudden storms at any time of the year could also turn the Fox into a dangerous antagonist.
The valley’s early residents called those floods “freshets.” Major 19th Century freshets were recorded in 1840, 1857, and 1868. It was the consensus of the old-timers that the 1857 event was by far the worst. Oswego resident J.H. Sutherland wrote in the Oswego Herald in 1907 that the February 1857 spring freshet was still clear in his mind: “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.”
Twenty years after the flood, the Rev. E.W. Hicks’ account of the flood in his 1877 history of Kendall County still rang with the fear the flood caused among the Fox Valley’s residents: “The spring of 1857 opened with the most destructive freshet ever known on Fox river, caused by a heavy rain on February 6th, which melted the snow and broke up the ice and set the entire winter’s crop free. All the bridges from Batavia to Ottawa were swept away, and the river was covered with boards, boxes, furniture, chickens, and debris of all kinds. At Oswego, Parker’s saw mill was taken at a loss of three thousand dollars, and Rowley & English’s lumber yard suffered a loss of one thousand dollars. At Millington half the village was flooded; water was waist deep on Vine street, in front of Watters’ store, two blocks from the river. The freshet extended throughout the country, and in other places many lives were lost. Houses were undermined and carried away while the inmates were still asleep, and they knew nothing of their danger until the hungry waters swallowed them up. Such another freshet has not been known in this country; yet each winter the materials for such another accumulates, and it is a striking exemplification of the goodness of the providence of God that these materials are dispersed gradually, and rarely allowed to go out with the terrible and fatal rush of 1857.”
The Freshet of 1868, Fox Valley residents agreed, was close to, but did not surpass, the 1857 flood. Nevertheless, it did considerable damage here in Kendall County. According to the Kendall County Record’s March 12, 1868 edition: “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.”
The river’s freshets were destructive, but most people knew enough to stay out of the river while they were happening. At least most did. Sometimes, however, people just didn’t pay attention and were in danger of paying with their lives. A good example of daring the river to do its worst—and luckily surviving—was recounted by silent film star William S. Hart.
As Hart put it in the first two sentences of his 1926 autobiography, My Life East and West, “I was born in Newburgh, New York. My first recollection is of Oswego, Illinois.”
Hart’s father was the miller at the Parker & Sons gristmill on the west bank of the Fox just above Oswego. In the spring of 1870, the ice was just going out of the Fox River, with huge, thick floes of ice rushing down the stream and across Parker’s dam. At the sawmill across the river at the east end of the dam, the sawyers needed supplies from the Hart family at the gristmill. The supplies were loaded aboard a rickety rowboat and Nicholas, William’s father prepared to set off to deliver the supplies. Like kids anywhere, six year-old William and his sister begged to go along for the boat ride. Astonishingly, their parents agreed.
Off the party went, the plan being for Hart’s father to row upstream along the west bank to Bullhead Bend—opposite today’s Violet Patch Park—before turning across the current to land at the sawmill on the east side of the river. As Nicholas battled the current and the ice floes battered the flimsy rowboat, the family dog—Ring—suddenly decided to swim out and join the fun. They managed to get dog hauled aboard, but by that time the boat was dangerously close to the dam. Had it gone over, the roller wave at the base of the dam would certainly have drowned all three Harts. But through a truly Herculean effort, Nicholas somehow managed to make the east bank, and get everyone ashore, although the boat was badly damaged in the process by the ice floes.
Then there was the March 1879 adventure of teenagers Etta McKinney and Hattie Mullen who went down to the flooded river by the Oswego bridge with friends and found a rowboat tied up along the bank. The two thought it would be great fun to float downstream, Etta promising she “knew how to make the boat go.” But once underway, Etta found she couldn’t control the boat in the flooded river and couldn’t get back to shore, either. Meanwhile their friends ran for help shouting the two girls had probably drowned by then. Etta managed to get close enough to shore that Hattie sensibly jumped out and waded ashore. But Etta couldn’t gather the courage to jump, and instead continued downstream, “industriously singing Sunday school hymns,” to keep up her courage, according to the newspaper account. Eventually adult help arrived, got the boat to shore, and rescued Etta. When she was finally safely ashore, and despite her lusty hymn singing, Eta (who was apparently what my dad used to call “a real pistol”) maintained she hadn’t been frightened a bit and that “it was the best boat ride she ever had.”
Not everyone was so lucky, though. A month later, young Ed Moore was swept over the Yorkville dam, bounced around badly on the river bottom in the roller wave and nearly drowned. In January 1880, George Wormley, a relative of the Wormleys who lived on the west side of the river, and his friend George Pollard were rowing their boat across the river just above Oswego when they struck a sandbar just below the Oswego dam, overturning the boat and drowning Wormley.
In April 1896, ten year-old Willie Stein fell in the flooded river at Montgomery while fishing and drowned, and in June 1908 Israel Blume and Louis Spink drowned at Yorkville when their rowboat went over the dam and they were caught in the roller wave at the dam’s base.
In most of the cases of people drowning in the river, in the 19th and 20th centuries, and right up to the present century, the deaths can be attributed to people being unacquainted with the river and not taking the stream, especially when flooded, seriously. After all, it’s only the familiar old Fox.
Those of us who grew up on the river know some of its secrets: Where the occasional deep holes are, places where the currents can play havoc with boats and canoes, and where dangerous rocks and bars endanger those using the river. But for the occasional canoeist, kayaker, or angler the Fox can present problems that can sometimes turn dangerous—or even fatal.