Category Archives: Science stuff

How a prehistoric catastrophe created the Fox River Valley

In 1837, Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz announced his theory that an ice age had enveloped the Earth’s northern hemisphere, creating the landforms then in existence. His studies were done in his native area, Switzerland’s Jura Mountains, and, oddly enough, he was a friend, classmate, and associate of one of my distant cousins—the Matiles had lived in Switzerland’s Jura Mountain region since the 1300s.

After Agassiz, scientists began to better understand how, after the vast ice sheets melted, modern landforms were created. But until relatively recently, it was thought that geological features like our own Fox River Valley were created over eons as water and wind erosion did their work. Now, however, it’s looking more and more like many river and stream valleys were created in the blink of a geologic eye.

Midwestern waterways have always been mixed blessings, including those here in northern Illinois. While they were barriers to travel for both the Native People that lived here as well as for the pioneers who later displaced them, they were also sources of food and—for the pioneers—water power that ran the mills that were so vital to the region’s growth.

1890 abt Tied Arch Bridge

In 1867, the first iron bridge was built across the Fox River at Oswego, replacing the old 1848 timber bridge. A King’s Patent tied-arch (also called a bowstring arch) truss iron bridge, it was built by Oswego Township at a cost of $17,000. (Little White School Museum collection)

Virtually all the region’s early towns were established on some waterway or another. Sometimes those settlements grew where the region’s roads and trails crossed streams, because the pauses in traffic they caused offered an opportunity to serve—or exploit—travelers with inns, stores, blacksmith shops and the like. Many of those crossings also offered sites for the dams that provided water power to run saw mills that produced lumber for homes and other buildings, grist mills that ground flour from grain, carding and filling mills that processed raw wool, and for other useful and necessary activities.

In addition, streams provided relatively clean sources of drinking water (at least for the first settlers, until pollution made them questionable sources at best), as well as sources of food. Before the settlement era, the area’s Native American inhabitants had intensively utilized local streams for food production. It is rare but not unheard-of in Kendall County to find carefully crafted stone plummets ancient fishermen used to weight their nets, along with bone fishing hooks and fishing spearheads. Village sites are invariably on the bank of a creek or the Fox River itself—or on the shorelines of ancient lakes that dried up hundreds or thousands of years ago. In virtually all of those villages are found mussel shells, fish bones, scales, and other evidence that Native People relied on streams to produce important parts of their diets.

Like our pioneer ancestors, however, we tend to pretty much take the landscape, including the geological features of the Fox River Valley, including all its tributary creeks, for granted, as if the landscape has always looked this way. And, certainly for the past several thousand years it has, as it provided a relatively rich natural area where people ranging from paleo Indian hunters and gatherers to modern anglers, canoeists, and kayakers have found food and natural beauty.

Native People fishing with nets

Native Americans made extensive use of the Fox River and its tributaries. Fish and a variety of invertebrates were regularly harvested while the river’s floodplain provided rich land where various wild plants could be cultivated.

But like everything else, the current geography of the Fox Valley had a starting point. In our case the familiar lay of our land was created by titanic forces unleashed when the last glacial advance into northern Illinois began to retreat.

Sometime around 19,000 or so years ago, the Lake Michigan Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier had begun to melt and retreat as the Earth warmed. During the previous tens of thousands of years, glacial advances had covered almost all of northern Illinois except a small iceless island in what eventually became the far northwest corner of our state. Called the Driftless Region, that fragment of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin is today a scenic area of rocky hills, valleys, and lakes.

Geologists don’t really know what triggered these various ice ages, but the global cooling that caused them resulted in heavy snowfalls far to the north that never completely melted during the summer months. That, in turn, caused the snow cover to build up, its own weight gradually compacting it into ice. As the ice became thicker and thicker—and we’re talking hundreds and thousands of feet here, nothing like a modern Illinois or Michigan winter snowdrift—its own weight began squeezing the lowest regions out like toothpaste from a tube, causing glacial advances.

end of the glaciersThe Wisconsin Glacier was the last of these advances, and as it slowly advanced, it bulldozed and abraded the landscape right down to the bedrock, then briefly retreating before moving forward again, leaving a variety of glacial landforms behind from kames (irregularly shaped sand, gravel and till hills or mounds that accumulates in a glacial depression) to eskers (long, winding ridges of stratified sand and gravel) to moraines (an accumulation of debris ranging in size from silt-sized glacial flour to large boulders created by glacial action).

During its last advance, the glacier had built a high moraine of gravel, rocks, and ground up organic materials along its leading southern edge. Glaciers act more like a conveyor belt than a bulldozer, with the pressure of the ice above forcing material from under the glacier out under the front, creating the moraine along its foot. And as the giant ice sheet melted and retreated, water filled the area between the foot of the glacier and the moraine. It must have been a spectacular sight as the ice cold water deepened year after year, creating a huge impoundment.

1972 August Fox River bluffs near Wedron

The rampaging Fox River Torrent carved the sandstone bluffs along the Lower Fox River that are enjoyed so much by canoeists.

And then one day, the natural dam gave way, and a catastrophic flood rushed southwestward washing and grinding everything before it. The unprecedented flood may have created a cataract nearly 100 feet high as it crashed along its course, carrying huge boulders and giant chunks of ice with it, gouging and washing its way through the till previous glaciers had laid atop the primordial bedrock.

The end result of this catastrophe was the Fox River Valley we see today, which was created, geologically speaking, in a relatively short period of time by that single astonishingly destructive event geologists have named the Fox River Torrent. From the wide valley in the river’s northern reaches to the narrow stream bound by towering white sandstone bluffs in its southern course, the Fox Valley had been created in virtually a blink of a geologic eye.

Starved Rock

This image, from a vintage postcard, shows Starved Rock at it’s summer best. The white sandstone rock, carved by the Kankakee Torrent, soars high above the Illinois River, which washes its base.

Just as the unimaginable force freed by the break in the moraine created the Fox Valley, just to the east, the similar, although much larger, Kankakee Torrent gouged out the modern Illinois River Valley. When the Kankakee Torrent rampaged westerly from the Saginaw Lobe of the Wisconsin ice sheet, the leading wave was some 180 feet high, carving the valley and the river’s main channel, leaving behind the spectacular sandstone bluffs at Starved Rock State Park.

It must have been quite a sight, had anyone been around to see it. WAS there anyone here at the time? Perhaps.

The January 2015 issue of National Geographic Magazine included a fascinating article concerning the latest thinking about the arrival of the first people in North America, and it seems that it’s not impossible that some advance party of paleo hunters following the giant Ice Age mammals they relied on for food might have been on hand to witness either or both of the Fox River or Kankakee torrents. If they were around for those titanic geological events, they would have had ringside seats for some of the most catastrophic episodes of landscape formation in recent geologic history.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Science stuff

Could we be looking at a repeat of 1918’s Spanish Flu pandemic?

Kendall County was no stranger to influenza in the years before 1918. Back in those pre-World War I days, though, they called the grippe.

On Jan. 1, 1890, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported that a newly-named sickness had arrived: “There are two or three new cases of sickness, but merely of the ordinary and domestic kind–none of the new style and imported ‘La Grippe’ in town.”

Over the next decade, waves of the grippe—it’s name quickly simplified to the grip—passed through the community, and its annual presence became fairly commonplace. But the seriousness of the occasional waves seemed to be getting greater as the years passed.

In late December 1915, the Record reported from Yorkville that: “An epidemic of the grip has prevailed in this section for the past month and efforts are being made to stop the infection. Chicago is taking radical measures and every home should take precautions.”

“There is a report that a grip siege is passing over this continent and NaAuSay seems to be directly in its path as many are afflicted with the dread disease,” the Record’s NaAuSay correspondent added on Jan. 5, 1916.

1918 7-7 Camp Grant mess

A mess hall at Camp Grant was pictured on this postcard, illustrating the close quarters the soldiers undergoing training lived in. Hundreds of recruits were afflicted with the Spanish Flu there in 1918.

Scattered outbreaks of the grip continued through 1916 and 1917. Then in October of 1918 a newer, deadlier strain of respiratory illness—this time more accurately dubbed influenza—made its appearance in Kendall County. By that time, the nation was deeply involved in World War I, with hundreds of young Kendall County men heading off for basic training, most to Camp Grant near Rockford.

Little did area residents know that an extremely virulent and deadly strain of the H1N1 influenza virus had mutated into a far more aggressive and deadly variety than ever experienced before.

The nationwide outbreak started in the summer of 1918 as Navy and merchant ships brought the disease—which had, ironically, actually evolved in Kansas the year before—back to the U.S. after it began ravaging Europe. It was dubbed the Spanish Flu because the press in Spain—which was a neutral in the war—was unhindered by wartime censorship in its coverage of the disease. That meant the only news about the disease was coming from Spain and thus the name. And, in fact, the U.S. and other governments at war were mightily trying to keep the seriousness and extent of the disease as secret as they could. Unfortunately for them—and for the millions who would eventually die from it—it soon became impossible to deny what was happening.

Here in Kendall County, the first case of the new influenza was reported in the Record’s “Oswego” news column on Oct. 2, 1918: “Mr. and Mrs. Harold Russell attended the funeral of her cousin, Howard Byers of Sandwich. He had just received the commission as lieutenant when he was taken ill with Spanish influenza, living but a few days.”

That initial mention included some troubling foreshadowing. First, Byers was a healthy young man. Previous episodes of the grip had largely affected older, less healthy adults. Second, and more ominously, Byers died very quickly

Meanwhile, at the county seat of Yorkville, schools were being affected: “The epidemic of influenza struck the Yorkville high school last week and that branch of the school was closed on Thursday to reopen Monday,” the Record also reported on Oct. 2. “The teachers afflicted are Misses Hatch, Keith, and Klindworth. Superintendent Ackerman says if present conditions prevail, there is no cause for worry as to the rest of the school.”

But in reality, there was plenty of cause for worry.

The very next week, the Record reported: “The influenza has a firm grip on the country but it is gradually being shaken off, say the authorities. Advice offered to everyone is to be careful of that cold or any symptom promising the ‘flu.’ The death rate in this country has been heavy. People have been dying in large numbers in both civilian and official life. The only way to keep the country from a more serious epidemic is to use care in your health.”

Chief Gunner’s Mate A.N. Fletcher’s tombstone in the Elmwood Cemetery in Yorkville. Fletcher and his wife both died of the Spanish Flu at the Navy’s submarine base in New London, Connecticut.

That was easier said than done because the disease struck so quickly and was so deadly. That it respected no boundaries of any kind was illustrated by another story in that week’s Record when the death of Record editor H.R. Marshall’s brother-in-law, Chief Gunner’s Mate A.N. Fletcher and his wife at the submarine base hospital at New London Conn. was revealed. The official cause of their death was listed as pneumonia, but that was often an official euphemism for the flu insisted on by government officials trying to minimize the epidemic’s seriousness. At the time of his death, Chief Fletcher was instructing recruits in gunnery at the New London submarine base. His body was returned to Yorkville for burial. The Marshalls had no idea their family members had even been ill until they were notified of their deaths.

The disease was also hitting recruits at Camp Grant hard. There were so many influenza deaths, in fact, that the Army had to import morticians from around the country to process the bodies. Again, the government tried to keep a lid on exactly how bad things were, but a close reading of local news in community weeklies gave the game away.

Funeral Home

Oswego’s Croushorn Funeral Home was operated by undertake George Croushorn. (Little White School Museum collection)

For instance, on Oct. 9, the Record reported from Oswego that: “[Undertaker] George Croushorn is at Leland, where he is substituting for Jake Thorson who has been called to Camp Grant to care for the bodies of pneumonia victims,” adding the significant news that “Otto Schuman of Fairbury, Nebraska, spent an hour in Oswego Tuesday. Mr. Schuman was born in Oswego and in early years moved to Nebraska. Owing to scarcity of undertakers he was sent to Camp Grant by the government.”

Sitting at his desk in the Record office in downtown Yorkville, Marshall seemed at his wit’s end, writing on Oct. 23: “The epidemic of influenza has knocked the bottom out of all social and business affairs. Its spread had caused the stopping of all congregations for any purpose and public gatherings are claimed to be a menace to health.”

The local deaths were joined by those from all over the nation. Out in Ottumwa, Iowa, local grocer Frank Musselman (my wife’s grandfather), just 34 years of age, died on Oct. 27, 1918, one of five young Ottumwa men to die that day. All five are buried near each other on a steep hillside in the Ottumwa Cemetery.

The flu epidemic gradually burned itself out—mostly—although there were still many more more deaths to suffer.

Looking back at that pandemic of more than a century ago, it’s hard not to compare it to what seems to be developing with the current coronavirus outbreak. Although officials are not yet labeling it a pandemic, it is clearly spreading at a terrific rate throughout the world. The U.S. government again seems to be concentrating on downplaying the outbreak’s seriousness, although this time they don’t have wartime security to blame. Instead, the disease’s spread and efforts to slow it—medical officials say it cannot be stopped, only slowed—seem to be soft-pedaled for purely political reasons.

One of the main reasons we study history is so that we can learn what works and what doesn’t so that we don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Unfortunately, we no longer seem to learn from mistakes. Instead, these days the fashion seems to simply deny any mistake happened in the first place and go on our merry way.

The Spanish Flu of 1918 ended up killing tens of millions of people around the world. We now have the means to stop that from happening again. The question will be whether anyone in positions of responsibility has any idea how to make use of those means. Here’s hoping competence wins out over political expedience.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Frustration, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Quarantines may return if Novel Coronavirus spreads into the U.S.

The Novel Cronavirus outbreak in China, which seems to be rapidly spreading all over the world, is threatening to remove politics from the national headlines.

The pangolin, or scaled anteater, has been named as a possible source of the Novel Coronavirus now afflicting thousands of people all over the world.

From what I’ve read, the disease mutated enough to jump from a wild animal—possibly the scaly anteater, also called the pangolin—to humans in China, where it’s a popular dish. It then proceeded to evolve even further and more quickly to enable it to jump from human to human.

As of Saturday morning when I’m writing this, Cronavirus has popped up in 27 other nations besides China. And the first U.S. citizen, a resident of China, has died from the disease, along with more than 700 Chinese—including the doctor who first identified the new virus. More than 37,000 people have been afflicted with the disease in China, along with thousands more all over the world.

As visitors flee China, some carrying the virus with them, the disease is threatening to become a true pandemic. It appears to pose a much more serious threat than the recent outbreaks of Ebola, although as of today, more people die annually of the flu in the U.S. than have contracted the Coronavirus in China. World health experts are frantically working on vaccines for the new killer, although even if they find one, only time will tell whether that would be effective. After all, the anti-vaccination craze seems to be causing mini epidemics of once-rare childhood diseases like whooping cough and even polio.

But looking back in our own history, there are effective methods of dealing with communicable diseases—it’s just that some people might not be enthusiastic supporters.

Back in the days of our great and great-grandparents, there were a whole host of deadly diseases for which there were no cures. How did they cope? Quarantine was the main public health weapon against everything from scarlet fever, typhus, whooping cough, and smallpox among people, to virulent animal diseases like hoof and mouth disease.

Over in China, 50 million people are subject to quarantine in an effort to stop the spread of Coronavirus, and other nearby countries are rapidly following suit. Whether it will work, though, is anybody’s guess. For instance, Wuhan, the city where the virus first emerged, has a larger population than New York City, and is now under strict quarantine. It’s hard to imagine New York City living under a quarantine like that.

Here in Kendall County, one of the first references to quarantine of any kind I was able to locate appeared in the July 24, 1879 Kendall County Record. Editor and publisher John R. Marshall reported on Illinois’ reaction to the on-going Memphis, Tenn. yellow fever epidemic. “No steamers from below [downstream] are allowed to land at Cairo; the city is in strict quarantine against yellow fever,” he reported.

Quarantine signFor county residents, I found quarantine first mentioned in a March 3, 1886 Record note when correspondent Lorenzo Rank reported from Oswego: “One of Kilbourne’s little girls became affected with the scarlet fever, a very mild case, however, the early part of last week. The family are boarders at Mrs. Teller’s, and that house has been somewhat quarantined. Miss Cox, one of our teachers, who also boarded there, for the reason of precaution immediately changed her place to Mrs. Moore’s.”

One of the major problems in those years was that people really didn’t understand how highly infectious diseases spread, although by the late 1800s and early 1900s, medical advances were coming. Dread diseases like smallpox were no longer quite so fearsome because vaccination had been around for so long.

In the late 1840s, James Sheldon Barber, who had arrived in Oswego in 1843, but who was then living over in Lockport, noted in an April 1845 letter to his parents back in Smyrna, N.Y. that a smallpox epidemic was sweeping through Oswego. He wrote that he wanted to go visit friends there, but had wait until he’d been vaccinated and then assured he hadn’t actually gotten the pox. “I have been waiting to go to Oswego and partly on account of the small pox. I was vacinated [sic] one week ago Monday and worked tolerably well and I have got over it and now feel perfectly safe,” he wrote.

But as late as the 1890s, smallpox could still spook a community, as Rank reported from Oswego on Jan. 28, 1891: “Oswego has had a scare. A lady who had been making a trip to Chicago and had been suffering from a cold had some kind of a rash breaking out on her. A doctor saw her Saturday and said that whatever it was had not sufficiently developed to be sure about and a little precaution might be in order as it might turn out to be a light case of the varioloid. That was enough. In a very short time ‘We have the small pox!’ was spread all over town and then everybody advised what should be done: The school must be closed; everyone who had been in hailing distance of the patient should be quarantined; the writing and sending of letters should be stopped; some of the invitations to social doings were cancelled; money was received with apprehension; some were afraid to go to church on Sunday; all living things in town should be vaccinated, etc. By Monday, however, it was found that it was only a simple case of eruption and the scare ceased almost as fast as it began.”

People weren’t the only ones susceptible to virulent, contagious diseases fought by quarantine. A little more than a century ago, in 1914, a hoof and mouth epidemic broke out in Kendall County creating near panic. Entire herds of cows and pigs were destroyed and entire farms were quarantined.

Foot & MouthUnder the headline “Kendall County Cattle Quarantined,” the Record reported in its Nov. 11 issue: “The spread of the dreaded hoof and mouth disease that has been gaining serious proportions in Chicago and vicinity has brought it into Kendall County and up to Monday morning several herds of cattle had been quarantined. This disease has been prevalent in Europe for a number of years, has been noted in the United States but eight times and never before in Illinois. As a result of the visitation nearly all the northern counties of the state have been placed under quarantine, the Chicago stockyards closed and stringent methods have been adopted by the state veterinarian. Where a case is found in a herd of cattle they are segregated, killed, and the bodies either burned or destroyed with quick lime.”

The last major countywide human quarantine was imposed during the misnamed Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Kendall County was no stranger to influenza in the years before 1918, of course. Back in those pre-World War I days, though, they called it by the name given it by French doctors: the grippe.

On Jan. 1, 1890, Rank reported from Oswego that a newly-named sickness had arrived: “There are two or three new cases of sickness, but merely of the ordinary and domestic kind–none of the new style and imported ‘La Grippe’ in town.”

Over the next decade, waves of the grippe—it’s name quickly simplified to the grip—passed through the community, and its annual presence became fairly commonplace. But the seriousness of the occasional waves seemed to be getting greater as the years passed.

Scattered outbreaks of the grip continued through 1916 and 1917. But then in October of 1918 a newer, deadlier strain of respiratory illness—this time more accurately dubbed influenza—made its appearance in Kendall County. By that time, the nation was deeply involved in World War I, with hundreds of young Kendall County men heading off for basic training, most to Camp Grant near Rockford.

Little did area residents know that an extremely deadly strain of the H1N1 influenza virus had mutated into a far more aggressive and deadly variety than ever experienced before. The nationwide outbreak started in the summer as Navy and merchant ships brought the disease—which had, ironically, actually evolved in Kansas the year before—back to the U.S. after it began ravaging Europe. It was dubbed the Spanish Flu because the press in Spain—which was a neutral in the war—was unhindered by wartime censorship in its coverage of the disease.

In Kendall County, the first case of the new influenza was reported in the Record’s Oswego column on Oct. 2, 1918: “Mr. and Mrs. Harold Russell attended the funeral of her cousin, Howard Byers of Sandwich. He had just received the commission as lieutenant when he was taken ill with Spanish influenza, living but a few days.”

That initial mention included some troubling foreshadowing. First, Byers was a healthy young man, while previous episodes of the grip had largely affected older, less healthy adults. Second, and more ominously, Byers died very quickly

Flu noticeThe very next week, the Record reported: “The influenza has a firm grip on the country but it is gradually being shaken off, say the authorities. Advice offered to everyone is to be careful of that cold or any symptom promising the ‘flu.’ The death rate in this country has been heavy. People have been dying in large numbers in both civilian and official life. The only way to keep the country from a more serious epidemic is to use care in your health.”

The disease was also hitting all those young recruits at Camp Grant hard. There were so many influenza deaths, in fact, that the Army had to import morticians from around the country to process the bodies. Again, the government tried to keep a lid on exactly how bad things were, but a close reading of local news in community weeklies gave the game away. For instance, on Oct. 9, the Record reported from Oswego that: “[Undertaker] George Croushorn is at Leland, where he is substituting for Jake Thorson who has been called to Camp Grant to care for the bodies of pneumonia victims,” adding the significant news that “Otto Schuman of Fairbury, Nebraska, spent an hour in Oswego Tuesday. Mr. Schuman was born in Oswego and in early years moved to Nebraska. Owing to scarcity of undertakers he was sent to Camp Grant by the government.”

Sitting at his desk in the Record office, editor and publisher Hugh R. Marshall seemed at his wit’s end, writing on Oct. 23: “The epidemic of influenza has knocked the bottom out of all social and business affairs. Its spread had caused the stopping of all congregations for any purpose and public gatherings are claimed to be a menace to health.”

Indeed, the “Oswego” column in the Record’s Oct. 16, 1918 edition reported: “Owing to the quarantine placed recently on public gatherings the lecture that was to have been given in the Presbyterian church is not to be given. Owing to prevailing illness, the Red Cross rooms will not be open this week; also the 19th Century Club will not hold their regular meeting.”

Quarantine continued to be a major public health tool to fight scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and polio right up through the middle of the 20th century, with Oswego first grader Dwight Foster being the last student I’ve found, so far, quarantined for scarlet fever in March 1950.

Perhaps with communicable diseases making a frequent comeback, quarantine will make one, too. And on the good side of things, perhaps seeing those red “Quarantine!” signs tacked up on their homes might cause some parents to see vaccination in a different light.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Science stuff, Technology

Coal powered Illinois’ industrial history…

When I was a lad living on a farm, I remember well my father’s morning ritual during the cold weather months of stoking up the furnace with coal. I have heard it said by those who had to contend with those old coal-fired furnaces that the sweetest sound in the world is the noise a modern gas furnace makes when it kicks on early on cold winter mornings.

Today, coal is still an economic factor in Illinois (although a fast-diminishing one), although the uses to which it is now put have drifted far from home heating and firing kitchen cookstoves. Its modern uses would no doubt astound the explorers who discovered the mineral in the Illinois of the 1600s.

Marquette & Jolliet

Cartographer Louis Jolliet and missionary Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., were the first Europeans to discover coal in what would one day become the State of Illinois.

In 1673, Marquette and Jolliet were on their way up the Illinois River to Lake Michigan when they discovered an outcrop of what they called “Charbon de Terre” near the present city of Utica. Father Hennepin also saw the deposit in 1682, noting in his diary that he had “found in Several Places Some Pit-Coal.”

These two instances were, in point of fact, the first discoveries of bituminous coal on the North American continent. Nothing was done with the coal deposits of Illinois for many years, however.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, coal’s efficiency for home heating was relatively unknown. It wasn’t until 1810 that coal was first commercially mined in Illinois along the Big Muddy River in Jackson County. Several barges of coal were shipped down the Mississippi to New Orleans that year.

As settlements moved further north in Illinois, coal continued to be found in some abundance. Coal was found near the salines (salt producing areas) in Gallatin and Vermillion Counties, and as early as 1822 coal was shipped down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers from Peoria to New Orleans.

19th Century coal mining

Coal mining has always been a dirty, dangerous business. But it helped power Illinois as one of the nation’s premier industrial states.

Like the first settlements, early coal mines bordered the state’s rivers because of the problems transporting the stuff to market. Beginning in 1823, the growing city of St. Louis used coal that was mined from the bluffs along the Illinois side of the Mississippi for heating and to fuel steam engines.

John Reynolds, an early governor of Illinois, helped promote one of the first railroads west of the Alleghenies in order to increase the production of coal. The line’s cars were horse-drawn from the mines over six miles of wooden rails to Illinoistown—modern East St. Louis—where their cargo of coal was loaded on boats and shipped down the Mississippi.

And the first macadam road in the state, from Belleville to the Illinoistown ferry, was built to accommodate heavy coal wagon traffic.

By 1840, Illinois was producing 424,000 bushels of coal regularly—measurement in tons was several years in the future. The measurement in bushels indicates that at that time, coal was shipped in burlap bags, each of which had to be filled, and then moved on and off transports, from wagons to rail cars to riverboats for shipment.

Most of the early coal came from drift or slope mines exploiting easily-reached coal seams exposed along hillsides, river bluffs, or stream banks. Shaft mines were needed to reach the rich, thick veins of coal that lay deep under the prairie soil of central Illinois. As early as 1842, shaft mining was taking place at Belleville. Strip mining had to await a more advanced and rapacious generation.

marseillesilonimcanal.jpg

Tons of coal were hauled annually through Ottawa on the Illinois & Michigan Canal, cheaper than by rail. But the canal was closed due to winter freezes for several months a year.

By 1841, coal was hauled overland to Chicago from mines in the upper Illinois River Valley. Mines on the east bank of the river were easily accessible to boats traveling on the new I&M Canal when it opened in 1848, which provided means to deliver coal to the growing city cheaper than it could be shipped via the Great Lakes from Erie, Penn.

Even before it was known that coal was a more efficient source of fueling locomotives than was wood, the Illinois Central Railroad leased coal fields in the Du Quoin area in order to procure fuel for their trains when they crossed largely wood-free prairies in the central part of the state. Other railroads soon followed their lead, and shaft mines were sunk along the Rock Island’s right-of-way in Grundy, Bureau, and Rock Island Counties. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad located and developed coal deposits in Stark and Knox Counties, and the Great Western Railroad found, to its pleasant surprise, that its right-of-way crossed a large coal bed in Vermilion County.

Here in the Fox River Valley, coal was a vital resource for homes and businesses, and the CB&Q’s monopoly on transporting it, and therefore feeling free to gouge it’s customers, led to building the independent Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Railroad linking the Vermilion coal fields in Streator with Geneva. From Ottawa north through Yorkville and Oswego on north, the tracks paralleled the course of the Fox River. But literally the minute the line was completed, the CB&Q managed to seize control of the new line and so was still able to dictate coal prices. The first railcar loads of coal on the new line arrived in Kendall County towns in January 1871, priced one-third higher than it had been promised when the line was being built.

As John R. Marshall, editor and publisher of the Kendall County Record complained in the paper’s Nov. 21, 1872 edition: The great card the defunct Fox River Valley Railroad Company played to get subscriptions on its line of road was cheap coal and good coal, but they failed us in both particulars.”

Throughout the 19th Century, continual efforts were made to secure adequate coal supplies for Kendall County’s farms and villages, even to the point of looking for it inside the county. And occasional coal seams were located. In 1887, coal was discovered by well-drillers in Fox Township, in Lisbon Township and in Oswego Township. But all the discoveries were too deep underground and the seams too thin to warrant sinking mine shafts.

Cliggitt Grain Elevator, Oswego, Dec. 2, 1911. Photo by Dwight S. Young.

The coal sheds at Oswego were located across the tracks of the CB&Q Railroad’s Fox River Branch from the Oswego Grain Company’s elevator. Oswego businessman John W. Chapman received the line’s first shipment of coal in January 1871. (Dwight Young photo in the collections of the Little White School Museum)

Since railroads, mining, and manufacturing—particularly producing iron and steel—were all interrelated, abundant coal reserves fueled Illinois’ explosive growth in the mid-1800s. Coal also helped Illinois’ farmers to become independent of wood for heating, contributing to the growth of prairie farming.

At the start of the Civil War, iron and steel production was a growing, but still not an overly important industry. With the outbreak of war, however, domestic sources of these important metals were badly needed, and during the next 25 years, the United States grew to become the world’s leading steel and iron producer.

Because of Chicago’s strategic location between the iron mines of Lake Superior and the coal fields of central Illinois, the city soon became one of the nation’s leading centers of manufacturing and transportation. That also spread to the areas nearby, particularly Joliet, where starting in 1869 the Joliet Iron & Steel Works produced pig iron and in 1873 started out producing thousands of miles of railroad rails from its rolling mill. The Joliet Iron & Steel Company owned a dam on the DesPlaines River that powered four blast furnaces that could turn out 2,000 tons of pig iron daily. The iron mill closed in 1936, and the steel mill was finally completely shuttered in the early 1980s.

Coal mining underwent many changes over the years, too, with shaft mines being gradually replaced by huge open pit mines, such as those operated by the Peabody Coal Company in Grundy County, just south of the Kendall County line.

Image result for DeKalb County Illinois wind farm

Wind farms like this one in DeKalb County have popped all over northern Illinois’ rural countryside, part of the effort to replace fossil fuels to generate electricity.

Today, coal’s use as a fuel for electrical generating plants is rapidly dying out as more efficient and less environmentally damaging ways of producing power, such as wind and solar energy are displacing it. A new study released this past May found that replacing 74 percent of coal plants nationally with wind and solar power would immediately reduce power costs, with wind power in particular at times cutting the cost almost in half. Overseas, Sweden is pledging to be coal-free by 2040 and in South America, Costa Rica plans to be carbon-neutral by 2021.

Coal isn’t just inefficient and expensive, it’s also dangerous to the environment. Burning coal spews a dismaying amount of aggressive pollutants into the atmosphere, many of which have been proven to worsen global climate change. Climate data captured in tree growth rings; ocean and lake sediments; ice cores; and other forms of data show that the effect on the world’s climate by burning coal began to show up almost as soon as coal began to power the Industrial Revolution—and that was on top of climate changes already put in place as early man began farming and otherwise changing the landscape to suit himself.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the average coal generating plant, because of the trace elements coal contains, leaks more radiation into the environment than does a nuclear power plant. So it’s a good thing coal’s on its way out as a way to produce electrical power and that renewable resources from solar and wind to hydro and thermal are quickly replacing it.

But for decades, coal not only powered the nation in general, but it also powered Illinois’ ascension as one of the nation’s industrial powerhouses. Today, the challenge is to try to deal with all of the environmental problems we created for ourselves during that era.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Business, Environment, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Transportation

Wetlands and meanders: Old problems that could be new solutions…

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.

1498380048097175455-00027285

George L. Griffin and J.H. Carper of Dallas City, Illinois invented this improved mole ditcher in 1860. Their main improvement was to make the machine cut its drainage tunnel with less effort on the horses or oxen pulling it.

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.

Channelizing Waubonsie CreekWater 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.

1996 Flood CB&Q Bridge C

The devastating Flood of 1996 turned Waubonsie Creek into a raging torrent that nearly destroyed the railroad bridge crossing it near downtown Oswego. Wetlands and creek meanders eliminated more than a century before might have mitigated some of the flooding.

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.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

Believe it or not, dandelions not only taste good, they’re good for you, too.

They come with the spring. Kids pick them to make colorful chains and rub their blooms on each other to create satisfying yellow smudges. Adults, meanwhile, roll out the heavy artillery—the power sprayers, the lawn care services—to try to do their best to eradicate them.

Yes, it won’t be long before dandelion season is in full bloom once again.

The farm my Pennsylvania German ancestors settled along the Will-DuPage County line here in northern Illinois has disappeared under an up-scale businesses and streetscapes of posh new homes, but those bright yellow flowers starting to pop up along roadsides and in median strips are a visible reminder of pioneer settlement days on the flat prairies between the Fox and DuPage rivers.

A family tradition, possibly apocryphal but maybe not, tells the story of how the Pennsylvania German families carving farms out of the prairie between the DuPage and Fox Rivers were disappointed when they discovered in their first spring on the prairie the absence of one of their favorite all-purpose plants. As a result, my settler relatives wrote home and requested family back in Lancaster County send dandelion seeds, which they did.

The rest, as they always seem to say, is history.

Each spring, lawns throughout the Fox Valley are covered with a myriad of colorful, yellow flowerets as the descendants of those fluffy Pennsylvania seeds begin their hardy life cycles. While homeowners try, with varied success, to eradicate these hardy plants, others ease towards a live and let live policy.

Dandelion C

Dandelions are native to Europe where they’ve been used medicinally for centuries, thus their scientific name, Taraxacum officianale.

“There are really few sights as spectacular as a rich green, well-watered lawn, several acres in extent, perhaps under the spreading trees of a cloistered university campus, covered with a carpet of golden dandelions,” Dr. Harold Moldenke rhapsodized in American Wild Flowers. Clearly, Dr. Moldenke is not a lawn monoculture zealot.

While dandelions may be pretty to look at for some, especially when we remember those dandelion chain necklaces of our childhood, others see them as noxious weeds that do little more than choke out expensively sodded or seeded lawns. Such unkind thoughts towards dandelions are one reason platoons of tank trucks loaded with tons of herbicides invade Fox Valley neighborhoods on a daily basis to fight the spread of those golden flowers that resemble nothing so much as acres of innocent smiley faces.

Dandelions aren’t from around here. By that I mean not even from this continent. The plant is a native of Europe, probably Greece, although its name comes from the French, dent de lion, literally “lions tooth.” Most experts agree the name refers to the plant’s toothed leaves, although one herbalist devoted several paragraphs in a scholarly book to discussing whether the name refers to the plant’s leaves, its flowerets, or its root, which may illustrate how little some herbalists have to do with their time.

The ancients knew that the dandelion’s happy face masked its real potential as a medicinal herb. Its scientific name, Taraxacum officianale, is a living historical note on how well accepted the plant was by the ancient medical establishment.

In his 1763 book, The Natural History of Vegetables, English Dr. R. Brookes reported the dandelion was “accounted an aperient, and to open the obstructions of the viscera.” He observed that dandelions were eaten as a salad, but, he added with inborn English suspicion, only by the French.

dandelion BActually, more than the French liked the sharp taste of young dandelion leaves, for that is the main reason my relatives supposedly requested a packet of seeds from their German brethren in Pennsylvania. Not only can the leaves be eaten, but the plant’s colorful flowers can be harvested and used to make a delicious golden-hued wine.

But it is as an herb the dandelion has been most touted, both by 18th Century herbalists as well as by modern natural foods enthusiasts. One herbalist suggests that applications of the dandelion’s milky juice produced in late spring and summer can remove warts. Dandelion tea, made from the plant’s dried leaves, has been used for centuries as a treatment for rheumatism, and has a reputation for keeping the kidneys free from stones if used regularly.

Roasted dandelion roots can be dried, ground into powder, and used to make a coffee substitute that is high in vitamins and minerals, but which has zero caffeine. Nobody says much about the taste, however, and that might be one reason it hasn’t caught on at Starbucks just yet.

Dandelion greens

It’s important to pick only greens from dandelions that haven’t blossomed yet, otherwise bitterness will overtake the greens’ sharp, peppery taste.

Most area residents, however, will not make dandelion tea or coffee. But it is easy enough to harvest the tender young leaves of early spring dandelions and eat them mixed with other greens in salads or by themselves, wilted with vinegar and sugar. Make sure only young leaves are harvested before the plants flower, though, or the dandelion’s astringent qualities will dominate rather than its sharp good taste. Some dandelion lovers continue to eat the plants long after their tender young stage has gone by the boards by blanching the leaves before eating them to remove some of the bitterness.

My own family tradition calls for making a warm sweet and sour sauce which is poured over dandelion leaves to create a complementary dish for potatoes and meat, usually pork chops, pork steak, or a ham slice.

The recipe:

  • One egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 1/2 cup half & half or cream
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 or 3 slices of bacon, or use pan drippings from pork chops, ham, or pork steak
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Dice and cook the bacon crisp, or retain a small amount of pan drippings in a frying pan. Mix in the other ingredients and bring to a boil. Pour hot mixture over dandelion greens, leaf lettuce, or head lettuce to wilt. Serve as a side dish or (as we do) use the sauce as gravy over potatoes served as part of the meal.

The egg gives it a pleasant yellow color (thus our family name for it: yellow gravy) and the half and half (or better yet, cream) provides the sweetness that compliments the vinegar.

Image result for digging dandelion greens In my mind’s eye, I can still see my grandmother in coat and sunbonnet digging dandelion greens in her farmyard before lunch on sunny windy spring days in preparation for a dinner of boiled potatoes, canned green beans, pan-fried ham slice, and yellow gravy. Which always makes me appreciate why those Pennsylvania German ancestors wrote home and begged for dandelion seeds.

But I strongly suspect those lawn fanatics who see anything except an unbroken carpet of hybrid bluegrass as an affront to their family honor would just as soon my pioneer ancestors had left well enough alone.

On the other hand, lawncare firms and garden departments in big box and hardware stores that annually rake in millions from dandelion haters may want to consider a monument to those heroic Pennsylvania German dandelion lovers of yesteryear.

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, family, Food, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Science stuff, Women's History

Winter travel in Illinois was always a challenge, but at least it was bug-free

Let’s say you’re a French colonial fur trader, and a resident of the Illinois Country in the late 1600s. In order to get here, you had to paddle a birch bark canoe loaded with several hundred pounds of trade goods all the way from Montreal.

Now it’s winter, and the snow has drifted deep outside your snug cabin at your fur trade post. The temperatures have dropped well below zero, much colder than it ever got in your native Provence. So what do you do now, during the short January days?

Road trip!

It turns out the winter months, not known as the most temperate or comfortable time of year in the Illinois and the rest of the Midwest, was a favored traveling time for the Europeans who began arriving in these parts more than 300 years ago.

Given that Gor-Tex and down parkas from L.L. Bean wouldn’t be invented for another three centuries, why was January and February the prime colonial travel season in Illinois?

The answer is a simple four-letter word: bugs. Illinois during most of the year was afflicted with a dismayingly large collection of biting insects including flies, mosquitoes, wasps and hornets, and a huge collections of others that made life on the Illinois prairie miserable between the last frost of spring and the first frost of late autumn. About the only way to make sure the critters wouldn’t suck every last drop of blood out of man or beast was to wait until everything froze solid.

Even given the primitive state of cold weather gear of the era, it was far preferable to deal with frostbite rather than hordes of biting insects.

1680 LaSalle on snowshoes

During the late winter of 1680, Robert Cavelier de La Salle and a couple companions hiked from Peoria to Canada, as imagined by artist George Catlin in this painting. While LaSalle was prompted to take his winter walk due to financial problems, it was also easier to travel thanks to the lack of biting flies and mosquitoes.

The early settlers divided Illinois prairies into two classes, dry and wet. Wet prairies were your basic marshes—a marsh being a swamp without trees—which were prime breeding grounds for not only mosquitoes but also the biting flies that made such an impression on so many early travelers.

According to John Madson in Where the Sky Began, there can be up to ten million insects to each acre of the kind of tallgrass prairie that covered Kendall County 300 years ago, and continued to cover it until the first pioneer farmers began planting fields of corn in the late 1820s.

A dismayingly large number of insect species are native to Illinois, but the ones that most tormented early travelers and settlers were the biting and stinging flies that swarmed over and around the area’s wet prairies and the various species of mosquitoes. A fairly large percentage of Kendall County was considered wet prairie, especially in Bristol Township and in the marshy areas along Morgan, Rob Roy, and AuxSable creeks.

Madson again: “I’ve suffered sorely enough from mosquitoes in the Everglades and Louisiana swamps, but never so sorely as on the wet prairies of southern Minnesota.”

Madison’s southern Minnesota prairies are almost identical to the kind that predominated here in the Fox Valley until the last half of the 19th Century. Starting soon after settlement and extending into the first quarter of the 20th Century, virtually all of them were drained.

In 1722, Jean Francois Nicolas Becquet, newly arrived at Fort de Chartres in modern southern Illinois, sent a letter to his mother back in France relating the hardships of the his journey up river from New Orleans, including being afflicted with biting insects: “The trip up the Mississippi was the worse journey I have ever known. I am convinced that the rain, the waters of the Mississippi, and the endless biting and stinging insects that abound there, could provide a more accurate image of hell than any fire.”

Almost a century later, things hadn’t improved much at all. One Illinois settler who sent greetings back to his family in Vermont in 1821 reported: “I became acquainted this year with the prairie flies about which I had heard so much in Vermont. The smallest kind are a beautiful green about twice the size of a common housefly. Another kind is about twice as large as these, of a slate color. These, this season, in riding on the prairies, would entirely cover a horse and when fastened they remain until killed by smoke or by being skinned off by a knife, and then the horse will be covered with blood. The only way of riding a horse by day is by covering a horse completely.”

The flies were so vicious they even had major impacts on Illinois’ native wildlife. According to M.J. Morgan in Land of Big Rivers: French and Indian Illinois, 1699-1778, the flies, during their most prolific season, forced even buffalo to leave their normal stomping grounds and seek relief elsewhere. “On account of the green-headed flies,” Morgan said one observer reported, buffalo left the Wabash valley to range west and north of the Illinois River during the summer months.

In the summer of 1683, while on the way from Canada to the Illinois Country, Louis-Henri de Baugy, a political and business rival of LaSalle’s, wrote a letter to his brother in France in which he noted, rather matter-of-factly, that it was likely the Iroquois would attack the French post at La Rocher—Starved Rock—the next year and he might well be killed. That, he wrote, did not trouble him so much, however. What did trouble him was looking forward to further travel by canoe, during which the flies “tormented a person so cruelly that one did not know what to do.”

Thomas Hulme, an Englishman who traveled through east central Illinois in 1818, noted the biting flies were a danger to travelers’ horses. “Our horses were very much tormented with flies, some as large as the English horse-fly and some as large as the wasp; these flies infest the prairies that are unimproved about three months oin the year, but go away altogether as soon as cultivation begins.

Illinois historian William Pooley observed in 1905 that the dense swarms of biting flies also had an impact on the pace of settlement of Illinois. “Excessively warm weather and numerous flies sometimes so worried immigrants that they resorted to night traveling, being unable to make progress during the day.”

Horses with fly nets

Biting flies remained a problem right through the era of horse-drawn farm equipment. One strategy to fight flies was to use fly netting that provided some protection.

As Clarence W. Alford, speaking of the state’s early settlers, put it in The Centennial History of Illinois, “His livestock was viciously attacked by several kinds of horse-flies, black flies, or buffalo gnats, and cattle flies, while his own peace of mind and his health were endangered by mosquitoes, three varieties being carriers of the malaria germ.

Illinois’ mosquitoes and flies—the green-headed fly (probably today’s green-eyed horsefly) was remarked on by most travelers who left accounts—were not only vicious in their own right, but to add to the torment also carried diseases. In particular, mosquitoes transmitted malaria, which the pioneers called the ague (pronounced A’gue). The ague was so common that the settlers divided it into several varieties: Dumb ague, shaking ague, chill fever, and others. Common symptoms began with yawning, followed by a feeling of lassitude, fingernails turning blue, and then feeling cold until the victim’s teeth chattered noisily. After an hour or so, body warmth returned, increasing until fever raged with terrible head and back aches. The spells came to an end with an extremely heavy sweat.

The disease returned on a regular basis although it became less and less strong throughout a person’s life and wasn’t usually fatal, although it could be. Juliette Kinzie who wrote such a charming memoir of pioneer Illinois, died in 1870 when her New York druggist accidentally gave her morphine instead of quinine, probably for an ague attack, at the age of 64.

Tales of explorers, missionaries, and settlers traveling the Illinois prairies during the area’s fierce winters are rife. They didn’t do it because they wanted to, but it was either that or look forward to scraping the flies off your horse—and probably yourself, too—with a sharp knife.

Today, we still travel a lot during our Illinois winters, but it’s not because the insects are making us do it. And travel nowadays is usually by comfortable automobile or high-flying airplane with our destinations being somewhere in the sunny southland.

But sometimes, like when we’re stopped in traffic or hustling to make a connecting flight, it’s worthwhile to reflect on where and how far we’ve come—and why—as we look forward to where we’re headed.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, History, Illinois History, People in History, Science stuff, travel