Tag Archives: environment

The Fox River’s still recovering from “Gaslight Era” pollution…

I got to thinking about some of the slang expressions we used to use as kids the other day, and one that popped right into my mind was “Boy, now you’re cookin’ with gas!”

It meant that things were really going well, but even by the time we were using it in the late 1950s it was obsolete. The original expression was in praise of high-tech manufactured coal gas piped to homes in larger towns and cities starting in the 1800s. Gaslights and large old gas stoves and ovens might not sound like high-tech to us today, but compared with the wood burning cook stoves and kerosene lamps they replaced, they were the cat’s pajamas.

The gas of the “Gaslight Era” was not today’s clean natural gas nor was it the liquefied natural gas—propane—with which we’re also familiar. Instead, it was gas manufactured from coal.

Manufactured gas required, as the name implies, a factory. There, coal was heated to liberate the gas it contained. Various machines in the factory then removed a variety of impurities from the gas (mostly hydrogen and methane with some carbon monoxide and a bunch of other really dangerous compounds created during the process) before it was pumped into large tanks—called either gas holders or gasometers—from which it was forced through mains to homes, stores, churches and businesses.

A typical manufactured gas plant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of the impurities removed before the gas was piped to users were dangerously carcinogenic while others were simply poisonous. But like polluters through the ages, the companies had no compunctions about simply either burying the stuff in the ground, dumping it into any nearby stream, or both. Unfortunately for future generations, much of the waste was very stable and did not break down. The PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and other compounds are basically the same as the ones produced by the steel industry’s coking process and which have been found to have contributed to cancers not only among people living around the coking mills, but also the fish and other wildlife living in streams the in which the waste was dumped. It’s no coincidence that some of the nation’s worst Superfund cleanup sites are old manufactured gas plants along with coking mills.

Clip from the Aurora Beacon-News showing the old gasometer on Hurd’s Island in the Fox River near downtown Aurora. (Courtesy the Aurora Then and Now Facebook page)

But back to the gas produced. The limiting factor was that mains had to be extended from the gas factory to users and somehow pressurized so the gas flowed to users. The most common way to pressurize gas in mains was to pump it into huge tanks called gasometers or gas holders. Gasometer tanks moved up and down, their weight creating the pressure to customers. The gas, lighter than air gas was pumped into gasometers, generally at night or early in the morning, causing the tanks to rise up to the top of the iron frames around them. As gas was used during the day, the weight of the heavy tanks—originally made out of sheet iron—kept the pressure in the mains as the tanks gradually sank into the excavated area under them.

The Aurora Gaslight Company’s relatively modest manufactured gas plant at River Street and North Avenue in 1888. (Courtesy Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Maps)

Generally, it took at least a medium-sized town to support even a small gas factory. But a large town could support a large enough gas factory that it could be piped to other smaller towns and villages nearby. For instance, as Aurora grew the Aurora Gaslight Company was established to provide manufactured gas for the city. When Ira C. Copley assumed leadership of the company, he began acquiring other utility firms, eventually merging them to form Western United Gas & Electric Company. The company continued to expand its operations, and gas mains were gradually extended from their gas plant on River Street near Aurora’s downtown south to Montgomery and Oswego and by 1913 all the to Yorkville, Plano, and as far west as Sandwich and as far east as Plainfield.

Because manufactured gas economics of the 1890s and early 1900s simply didn’t allow for smaller towns to have their own manufactured gas plants, nor for lines to be extended to rural areas, individual acetylene gas generators were developed for home use. Acetylene gas wasn’t entirely practical for cooking (although some acetylene gas stoves were available) or heating, but it was just fine for home, church, and business gas lighting.

John Edwards’ acetylene gas generator from a 1901 advertisement in the Kendall County Record.

In that pre-electric light era, selling acetylene generators was pretty big business. In Oswego, hardware merchant John Edwards invented and patented an acetylene gas generator about 1900 that was available in several sizes designed to supply sufficient gas to light everything from small homes to large businesses.

All the generators used various mechanisms to add carbide crystals (with which Union Carbide made its first fortune) to a tank of water, producing acetylene gas. The generators were usually located in buildings’ basements with attached pipes extending up through the walls to supply wall and ceiling fixtures in each room and even to cooking stoves.

Edwards made pretty good money supplying the units for many homes in and around Oswego, as well as to two of the town’s churches.

On May 1, 1901, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent remarked: “’Let there be light,’ and that the acetylene [light], so thought Doc Woolley and James Pearce, who had it put in their residences by John Edwards, whose generator of the gas is considered the best extant.”

Eventually, Western United decided there was money to be made into the hinterland of their gas plant on River Street in Aurora. In February 1912, the Record reported that “the Western United Gas and Electric company was given a 50 year franchise to furnish gas and electric lights in Oswego. This permission comes after a summer’s work by the company in getting their gas pipes laid to Oswego.”

Then in 1913, work on extending gas mains began south to Yorkville and on to Sandwich, 20 miles west of Aurora, with a steam shovel trenching alongside modern U.S. Route 34 to bury the pipes.

By December 3, 1913, the Record reported they were using manufactured gas in their downtown Yorkville office and print shop to melt the lead for their Linotype machine used to set the newspaper’s type, replacing the much more dangerous gasoline burner they’d used before.

In March 1918, Western United reported they had installed 1,718 miles of gas pipe to serve 60,000 customers all over the region.

Aurora’s manufactured gas plant 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped on the riverbank and eventually into the river, as can be seen from the piles of refuse in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

But manufactured gas was, as noted above, a dirty business, resulting in horrific pollution of the Fox River. Granted, there were some virtually toothless state laws against polluting streams. No federal clean air or water laws then existed and wouldn’t for more than a half-century. And Western United, led by the wealthy and politically powerful Ira Copley, made full use of the political leverage they had to sidestep even the weak existing laws. And that had a catastrophic impact on the Fox River.

By May of 1922, Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall was bitterly complaining that the Fox River was plainly being destroyed by pollution from manufactured gas byproducts: “But now come the gas company, and other factories up the river, with their continued pollution of the waters in direct defiance of the laws and orders of the state and authorities. Fish are dying by the tons and they are floating in the quiet spots filling the air with their stench and the water with possible contamination.”

By 1907, Western United, the successor to the Aurora Gaslight Company, had considerably expanded it’s plant and facilities on River Street at North Avenue in Aurora. (Sanborn Fire Insurance Company)

In August of the same year, Marshall again complained about the volume of pollution Western United was creating: “We wonder if you were as much surprised as we were when the Hon. Ira C. Copley of Aurora, the president of the Western United Gas & Electric Company in a public statement acknowledged that the Fox River was being polluted by the refuse which he was permitting his company to dump into the stream. The announcement of the gas company will bring joy to the lovers of fishing and swimming and Mr. Copley will be acclaimed a champion, even through it took him a long time to get his harness on. But this company is not the only one which is a menace. All the way up the river there are cities, the refuse and sewage from which are being dumped indiscriminately into the Fox and adding filth to the once pretty river. The farther north you go along the stream the more beautiful it is and the purer the water is.”

It leads a person to wonder whether the customer service and environmental problems Western United was having led to Copley’s defeat in the 1922 Republican primary election for the U.S. House, ending his political career.

The solution to the on-going manufactured gas pollution wasn’t found until it became possible to provide natural gas to Western United’s customers instead of manufactured coal gas.

The first natural gas pipeline to Illinois from wells in Texas and Oklahoma, built by the Continental Construction Company, was finished in 1931. At first, there wasn’t enough natural gas to supply the pure product to customers, so Western United successfully petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission on Sept. 22, 1931 for permission to supply a mixture of natural and manufactured gas.

The switchover, however, required some updates to the appliances Western United’s customers were using. According to the Oct. 28, 1931 Record: “An army of 500 specially trained service men of the Western United Gas and Electric company will start work in the downriver towns including Montgomery Oswego, Bristol Yorkville, Plano, and Sandwich on Friday, Oct. 30, making the necessary adjustments on gas burning appliances to utilize natural gas.”

By that November, residents were enjoying cleaner burning gas. With the construction of more pipelines after World War II, manufactured gas was gradually phased out completely—along with those huge gasometers in Aurora that had fascinated generations of children who wondered how—and why—such huge structures bobbed up and down.

In 1950, Western United Gas and Electric merged with Illinois Northern Utilities Company to form the Public Service Company of Northern Illinois. Three years later, Public Service was absorbed by Commonwealth Edison creating a huge gas and electric distribution company. Just a year later, ComEd split off the gas distribution unit by creating the Northern Illinois Gas Company—today’s Nicor. The resulting separate gas and electric utilities served the area until the great divestitures starting in the 1990s leaving us with the list of companies we deal with today.

Nicor, which supplies natural gas to millions of customers in northern Illinois, is a direct descendant of the old Western United Gas and Electric Company.

They also left behind significant pollution that has only been cleaned up during the past few years. Western United’s old manufactured gas plant on River Street in Aurora—which had become a central NiGas’s facility—was found to be dangerously contaminated with PAHs and other aggressively cancer-causing compounds and was declared a Superfund site. Most of it has now been cleaned up, but it’s likely a lot of those persistent chemical compounds are still to be found in the Fox River’s silt deposits.

These days, Nicor Gas, the direct descendant of Western United, provides natural gas that heats the majority of the area’s homes and cooks the food in many more. Though the gaslight era is long gone, recalled only in period movies, back in the days when horses and buggies ruled the area’s roads, there was nothing like cooking with gas.

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Oswego has had its very own fossil since the 19th Century

One of my favorite authors is the late James Michener. For years while he was alive, his fans looked forward to reading one of his thick, arm-breaking novels, especially during the summer.

From Hawaii to Texas to Alaska, Michener has entertained and enlightened. It seemed to me, at least, that Michener must have spent years researching each of his books—and he did. One of the wonderful things about all of them is the minute detail into which Michener goes in explaining the background of the story he’s telling.

In Centennial, for instance, Michener starts out by telling the story of the life of a lady brontosaurus who was galumphing around Colorado 60 million years or so ago.

Here in Kendall County, not a whole lot was happening 60 million years ago, at least we don’t think so. At that time, this part of the landscape was high, dry land of a kind that unfortunately didn’t lend itself to the preservation of fossils. So I suppose it would be more accurate to say we don’t think a whole lot was happening back then.

The real action had happened some millions of years before, starting in the Precambrian era when the Earth’s crust got its foundation. Here in Kendall County, the evidence of Precambrian times—a thick layer of granite—lies about 4,000 feet below the surface, forming what geologists like to call the Precambrian Basement. It’s sobering to think that at one time, about a billion years ago, that granite was the surface of the land, although not one we’d recognize. During that era, the area was bare, dense rock, possibly cut by a few streams with no life at all, because the oxygen we breathe today had yet to be liberated from the planet’s crust.

2 Tentaculities oswegoensis fossil

A nice bunch of tentaculites Oswegoensis (the elongated cone-shaped fossils) along with a nice crinoid plate is part of the exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

From the lifelessness of the Precambrian, the area lurched into a riot of life during the Paleozoic Era starting about 570 million years ago. It was during this era that much of the dolomite and limestone that undergirds Kendall County was laid down. During the Ordovician period of the Paleozoic, from about 505 to 438 million years ago, Kendall County was part of the floor of a shallow sea. Because of this, large deposits of sandstone—particularly the valuable white St. Peter sandstone that can be found along the south Fox River—that can be found up and down the Fox Valley were left behind, as were layers of Ordovician limestone and dolomite. The numerous invertebrate creatures that thrived in the warm seas overlaying Kendall County left their mark in fossils in limestone outcrops all over the area. They can be most easily seen in my hometown of Oswego along Waubonsie Creek near North Adams Street where brachiopods and other bi-valves, along with other fossilized creatures, are commonly visible.

And, in fact, one of those creatures is even named for Oswego. As the story goes, in 1852 Dr. Mordecai Davis, an Oswego doctor, was surveying the area along the creek while engaging in his hobby of geology, when he discovered a fossil of a worm-like animal embedded in the blue-gray shale the creek had gradually eroded away. Since the creature was unknown to him, he conferred with Professor Wilbur at Aurora College, but the good professor couldn’t put a name to the fossil, either. So the sample collected by Davis was then reportedly sent to Washington, D.C. for study and eventually ended up at the Philadelphia Museum, where it was classified and named Tentaculites oswegoensis, after the place it was first found.

Chicago’s Field Museum maintains specimens of the ancient creature, but its identity is just as shrouded in mystery as it was when Dr. Davis discovered it almost 150 years ago. According to paleontologists at the museum, it is believed to be a marine worm of some kind, but that’s all that is known about it. The Little White School Museum in Oswego has some Tentaculites oswegoensis specimens of it on exhibit.

Two other eras of the Paleozoic, the Mississippian and the Pennsylvanian, are extensively represented in Illinois, though not necessarily here in Kendall County. Much of the limestone that is crushed for use on county roads and for other uses originated during the Mississippian era. And the Pennsylvanian era is responsible for the thick seams of coal that underlay much of Illinois just to the south of Kendall County.

Annularia fossil

A nice Annularia (a fern-like plant) fossil from the Pennsylvanian Era collected in the Mazon Creek area of Grundy County.

During the Pennsylvanian era, Kendall County was located on the equator, and the life forms that lived then support these findings by geologists. The beds of Pennsylvanian fossils found in Grundy and LaSalle counties are rich in tropical sea life and plants that grew along the shore. Geologists tell us that during the Pennsylvanian, the area was alternately flooded and dry, resulting in the absolute riot of plant and animal life (including Tully Monsters!) found in the era’s fossil beds. My buddy Paul and I spent a lot of time in the 1960s and 1970s hunting fossils down in the Mazon Creek area. We eventually donated our collection of 500 or so of them to the University of Wisconsin, keeping a few of the nicer specimens, including a Tully Monster each, for ourselves.

Then came the Mesozoic Era, from 245 to 66 million years ago, and that lack of dinosaurs that would probably have driven poor James Michener to distraction. In Illinois, rocks from that era are almost entirely missing, probably ground away by the glaciers that arrived during the Cenozoic Era—which is still underway, by the way. The Cenozoic Era has been a pretty exciting time, too, with the advent of mammals, the advance of ice sheets from the North Pole, and the arrival of the first humans along the Fox River. Up to 20 glaciations of Illinois took place during the era, during which some 85 percent of the surface area of the state was covered in glacial ice.

Interestingly enough, geologists no longer believe the glaciers were slow to advance and retreat. Instead, it is now believed that glaciers advanced quickly and retreated just as quickly. During the last cycle of advances and retreats, Kendall County’s familiar rolling landscape was created.

But back to our story of Oswego’s own fossil. Back in February as they were excavating the footings for the new multi-story commercial building on the block bounded by Washington, Adams, Jackson, and Harrison streets (the old Alexander Lumber Company site) excavators uncovered the layer of blue-green Maquoketa shale that extends to Waubonsie Creek. In amongst the shale—named for the Jackson County, Iowa town where it was first identified—a local fossil hunter found some nice specimens of Tentaculites oswegoensis. It was treated as quite a discovery by some of the local press and even the Chicago Trib and the Sun-Times picked up on it as the collector presented a specimen to the Oswego Village Board. The board was appropriately gratified and village officials said they were busy learning more about the fossil named after the village and were discussing plans on how it could be properly displayed.

tentaculites exhibit

Oswego’s Little White School Museum features the story of Tentaculites oswegoensis as part of its core exhibit.

Of course, the real surprise would have been if no examples of good old Tentaculites oswegoensis had been found in that layer of Maquoketa shale. Most kids who grew up in Oswego knew there was a great fossil-hunting spot along the banks of Waubonsie Creek and they’ve been using their fingers to dig everything from Tentaculites to crinoid plates to bivalve fossils out of some of those soft Maquoketa deposits.

And, as noted above, there have been nice examples of the fossil on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum since the early 1990s. A fine example unearthed by naturalist, environmentalist, and author Dick Young some 25 years ago is part of the museum’s core exhibit. So, Oswego village people, if you’re looking for more information on the town’s very own fossil, just contact the museum and I’m sure they’ll be happy to help you out.

Mother Nature created a land that was kind to the humans who settled it during a period of tens of thousands of years, as well as to those who continue to arrive in growing numbers in this modern age. That creation wasn’t done quickly, of course, and still provides some surprises to those who are paying attention. But then again, things of great worth are seldom achieved overnight.

 

 

 

 

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

Maramech Hill area a historical gem—just not the one many believe it to be

Maramech Hill, located between Big Rock and Little Rock creeks just upstream from where the combined streams enter the Fox River, has been a celebrated local historical site for more than a century. Once touted as the site of a climactic battle between colonial French forces and their allies and the Fox Tribe, the area around the hill has become one of Kendall County’s premiere cultural and natural destinations.

Maramech Hill Area

The Maramech Hill area of Kendall County. Click here to enlarge.

Part of the area’s story begins during Illinois’ colonial era.

Warfare between Europeans and Native Americans began almost as soon as Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere.

In South and Central America, and a portion of southern North America, the Spanish waged a series of very successful wars of extinction against the native populations.

For most of North America, however, the situation was quite different. A series of powerful, adaptable, Indian tribes made the conquest of North America anything but a sure thing. Eventually, however, European numbers and technology won out over the Indians. But it was a tough, generations-long struggle.

For instance, the area that now includes the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia was known as “the dark and bloody ground” long before colonial American frontier settlers began filtering into it.

Maramech Hill site with timber

The Maramech Hill area (between the two creeks), during the settlement era, was surrounded by tall timber as the original survey map from 1838 shows. Click to enlarge.

Claimed as a prime hunting and trapping ground by the native tribes of the Shawnee, Delaware, Miami, and Huron people, the region was the location of nearly continuous intertribal warfare. It was warfare made worse when European colonial powers began playing the tribes off against each other in a quest to dominate the trade in furs. By the mid-1760s, the Europeans’ wars against each other had largely been settled in favor of England. English peace efforts included issuing a proclamation declaring a no-go zone for settlers west of a line that roughly ran along the peaks of the Appalachian chain. That effort failed spectacularly as American colonials flooded across the mountains to settle the region, touching off even more warfare with and between the tribes. A “dark and bloody ground,” indeed.

But it’s not so well known that nearly a century before those events took place, northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin and Michigan could have been accurately described as a dark and bloody ground as well, primarily because of a decades-long war between the French colonial government and the Fox Tribe.

The Foxes call themselves Meskwaki, or people of the red earth. The French, after encountering the tribe, referred to them as the Outagami or the Renards—French for fox. The tribe was first recorded living along the St. Lawrence River in modern Ontario. But warfare resulting from side effects of the fur trade—primarily conflict with the Huron Tribe—pushed the Foxes west, first to lower Michigan and then, eventually, to the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. So the Foxes arrived in our region with built-in animosity towards the French as well as a favorable feeling towards the Iroquois, deadly enemies of both the Hurons and the French.

Through that series of wars and forced relocation, the Foxes became a pugnacious people. Part of the great Algonquian-speaking majority of Native tribes in northern North America, they were members of a linguistic subgroup with the Sauks and Kickapoos.

After being driven out of eastern Michigan by the Ojibwas, the Foxes were involved in fairly constant warfare with that tribe. The Foxes also engaged in sharp battles with the Sioux in western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota. The Illinois, Potawatomis, the Miamis, and several other tribes in the upper Midwest were also often at odds with the Foxes.

Franquelin map color

Franquelin’s map of LaSalle’s colony in 1684 shows what early 20th Century advocate John F. Steward believed was Maramech Hill near Plano.

The warfare was bad for the business of the fur trade (especially their efforts to trade with the Sioux) and the French tried to stop it by weighing in on the side of the Foxes’ numerous enemies. This led the Foxes to cultivate ties with the powerful and ruthless Iroquois Confederacy, who were friends of the British and implacable enemies of the French and their Algonquian-speaking Native allies.

The Foxes’ actions to become the middlemen for the fur trade west of southern Lake Michigan—and to deny French firearms to the Sioux—resulted in denying the use of the strategic and economically valuable portage between the upper Fox River of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin River to French trading interests. Instead, French traders had to use the longer and far more difficult Chicago Portage. And if that wasn’t bad enough, cozying up to British interests eventually persuaded the French that the Foxes had to be destroyed.

In 1710, a large group of Foxes—not the entire tribe—agreed to move adjacent to the French fort at Detroit, ostensibly to live under the protection of the French military. However, given the Foxes’ long animosity toward the French and their Indian allies, the Foxes were soon—and predictably—embroiled with disputes against French interests. In 1712, the disputes led to a Fox siege of the French fort, with the Foxes heavily and skillfully fortified inside their own camp. Eventually, Indian allies of the French arrived to lift the siege and to besiege the Foxes. The stalemate lasted nearly a month until the group of Foxes, out of food and water, attempted to escape during a thunderstorm. They were unsuccessful, and virtually the entire band was destroyed.

The rest of the Fox Tribe, not surprisingly, was infuriated. They retaliated by killing French traders and several members of the tribes allied with France. At the same time, the Foxes mounted a diplomatic offensive, and concluded a treaty with their old enemies, the Sioux, to eliminate the threat of an attack on them from the west.

Kee-Shes-Wa Fox Warrior

Kee-Shes-Wa, a Meskwaki chief, painted by Charles Bird King in the early 1800s.

In response to the Foxes’ military actions, in 1715, the French attempted to launch a punitive expedition but those efforts were badly planned, and failed. The Foxes used the respite to build a strong, well-planned fortification on the Fox River of Wisconsin that empties into Green Bay. The fort’s walls were made of oak logs reinforced with earth dug out of trenches inside the fort.

When the French and their allies finally attacked in 1716, they used artillery and formal European siege tactics to attack the Foxes’ fort. However, the Foxes held out against the French and their allies, and forced a humiliating retreat.

The Indians of southern Wisconsin, the Fox included, often hunted buffalo on the Illinois prairie without the permission of the latter. In 1722, members of the Illinois Confederacy captured the nephew a Fox chief and burned him alive. The murder was in retaliation for the Foxes’ continually hunting in the Illinois Country without the permission of the Confederacy. In their own retaliation, a Fox force swiftly moved down into the Illinois County, and attacked a group of the Illinois Confederacy they found, forcing them to take refuge at LaSalle’s old fort atop Starved Rock. The Illinois managed to send a message south to Fort de Chartres in southern Illinois and a force of French and their Native American allies was dispatched to rescue the besieged Illinois. By the time the relief force arrived, the Foxes had wisely retreated, leaving about 120 Illinois dead.

Not content with hindering the French trade in furs, the Fox continually attacked down into the Illinois Country, raiding French and Native American villages alike. Deciding to take the offensive against the Foxes once again in 1727, the governor of Canada, the Marquis de Beauharnois, planned a campaign to destroy the Foxes’ military power. The governor appointed Constant Le Marchand de Lignery to command the campaign. Under the plan, de Lignery gathered a force of French troops and Native American allies in the summer of 1728. The Canadian force was to link up with another group from Illinois commanded by Pierre Charles Desliettes, commander at Fort des Chartres. the Commandant of the Illinois District. The rendezvous of the two forces was to have been at Chicago. But Desliettes’ force of 20 French soldiers and 500 Illini warriors happened upon a hunting camp of Foxes, along with some Kickapoos and Mascoutens, which they immediately attacked. The French force killed 20 and captured 15, after which Desliettes’ Illinois decided they’d had enough warfare and headed back home..

The balance of de Lignery’s large force, numbering some 1,650 French and Indians, continued into the Foxes’ country, but moved too slowly. The Fox learned of the coming assault and escaped before they could be attacked. The attackers only managed to burn some Fox and Winnebago villages and crops before they retired back to Canada.

Governor Beauharnois, however, had become determined to permanently solve his “Fox problem.” Part of the plan involved using interpreter Jean-Baptiste Reaume to stir up animosity against the Foxes among other tribes. With that set in motion, he also ordered French officials in the Illinois Country to be alert for any opportunities to destroy the Fox Tribe.

1731 Carte du Fort ou des Renards

Carte du Fort ou des Renards,” a map drawn in 1731 from accounts provided by French officers involved in the 1730 battle against the Fox Tribe proved Maramech Hill near Plano could not be the battle site. Click here for a larger copy. of the map.

At the same time, the bulk of the Fox Tribe had decided they’d had enough, and determined to leave their homeland and head back east to live under the protection of their one-time allies, the Iroquois. To that end they packed up and headed southeast with the intention of looping round the end of Lake Michigan down to Starved Rock and then east to cross the Wabash. The first part of their trip was uneventful, but when they reached Starved Rock, they attacked a group of Illinois Indians, capturing the son of one of that group’s chiefs, whom they burned at the stake. That infuriated the Illinois, who complained to the commandant at Fort de Chartres. For good measure, the Foxes had also attacked and angered groups of the Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and Mascouten tribes, which, it turned out played right into the hands of the French since Reaume had been goading all of them to attack the Fox for the past couple years.

From Starved Rock, the Foxes, with about 350 warriors and around 1,000 women, children, and old men, headed southeast, intending to cross the Wabash River. But having again angered the Illinois with their attacks, a force of about 200 Illinois warriors forced the Foxes to stop and build a fort to protect themselves. In the meantime, the French were calling on their Indian allies to join them to fight the Foxes.

The French forces eventually involved included Lieutenant Nicolas-Antoine Coulon de Villiers, Commandant at the River St. Joseph in modern southern Michigan; Lieutenant Robert Groston de St. Ange from Fort de Chartres; and Reaume. The allied French and Indian forces numbered about 1,400, and arrived to besiege the Foxes about Aug. 20, 1730.

This time, the Foxes’ luck against the French and their allies ran out. Low on food and water, the Foxes decided to make a desperate run for it during a violent thunderstorm the night of Sept. 8. Caught on the prairie outside their fortification, the Foxes were attacked and nearly exterminated. The battle did solve the Fox problem for the French, but it also served to sow dissent among their own allies. After all, if the French could exterminate one tribe, they could probably exterminate others.

Steward, John FIn the late 1800s and early 1900s, John Steward of Plano decided this climactic battle took place Maramech Hill near Plano here in Kendall County. Armed with this conviction and a good deal of money, he set out to find information to prove his contention. In 1903, Steward published a book he felt proved his point, Lost Maramech and Earliest Chicago, and even had a huge rock moved to the hill and inscribed with his version of what be believed transpired there.

Steward’s contentions, however, were controversial from the beginning, with most historians pointing out the plain language of the French colonial documents Steward located in France proved Maramech Hill could not have been the battle’s location. His thesis suffered a serious blow in 1935 when Stanley Faye published “The Foxes Fort—1730” in The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, an article that demolished most of Steward’s contentions. Some 50 years later, three contemporary maps of the battle and site that had been unavailable to Steward were discovered and described the Journal in 1980 (“The 1730 Fox Fort: A Recently Discovered Map Throws New Light on Its Siege and Location”) and 1987 (“The 1730 Siege of the Foxes: Two Maps by Canadian Participants Provide Additional Information on the Fort and Its Location”).

1900 Lettering the Maramech Hill marker

The carved granite boulder John F. Steward (right in photo) placed on Maramech Hill near Plano  to mark what he believed was the location of the climactic battle between the French and their Native American allies and the Fox Tribe in 1730.

That new evidence, combined with both old and newly discovered accounts of the battle have persuaded historians that Maramech Hill was not the site of the battle. Rather, it is probable it happened near Arrowsmith, Ill., located well to the south-southeast of Starved Rock, east of Bloomington in McLean County. Archaeological work at the Arrowsmith site has made it all but certain that was the location of the 1730 battle.

1903 Maramech Hill B

Maramech Hill in 1903

So, okay, the French-Fox battle of 1730 didn’t happen at Maramech Hill. What did go on there? Obviously, given the artifacts recovered by Steward, the site had been inhabited by Native Americans. As it turns out, many of the artifacts Steward recovered proved Maramech Hill had been the home of Native Americans for a long, long time—just not the ones he thought lived there.

The potsherds he recovered from the site, for instance, appear to be from the Mississippian cultural tradition, as do other stone tools such as hoes for working cornfields. The Mississippian culture was based on growing corn and on trade all over North America. Their capital was at modern Cahokia where upwards of 40,000 may have lived in the area surrounding Monk’s Mound, the largest manmade earthen structure in the Western Hemisphere. The river and creek bottomlands around Maramech Hill seem to have been tailor-made for the intensive agriculture practiced by the Mississippians.

But the artifacts Steward says he collected also point to habitation after the era of the French-Fox War as well, including trade silver that was created by British fur trade companies after the end of the French and Indian War in the late 1760s. Maramech Hill may have been the location of a Potawatomi village in the early 1800s led by Main Poche, a noted warrior who opposed the U.S. during the War of 1812.

Today, Maramech Hill and its immediate area are one of Kendall County’s most historically significant areas. Although Steward’s insistence that the climactic battle of 1730 between the French and the Fox Tribe happened there has been proven wrong over the last century and a quarter, the research into that era and the conflict between the Foxes and the French have proved to be extremely informative. For instance, warfare between the Fox Tribe and the French did not follow the familiar Hollywood script. Instead, the Foxes were able to develop the practical engineering expertise to blunt or thwart every French attack, including those involving artillery. In the end, it was lack of supplies that forced the Foxes to leave their fortified camp, leaving them vulnerable to an attack by a superior force. And while the battle didn’t happen here in Kendall County, it was part of the region’s history that made this its own “dark and bloody ground.’

Van de Rohe Farnsworth House drawing

The house legendary architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed and built for Dr. Edith Farnsworth draws visitors from all over the world to the Maramech Hill area.

Further, the area in which Maramech Hill is situated had its own fascinating history during the pioneer era and afterwards. Just down the road a bit from Maramech Hill, where the road—part of the old Fox River Trail stagecoach road from Ottawa to Geneva—crosses Rob Roy Creek was the tiny hamlet of Penfield, where a post office was established in December 1839. When Marcus Steward—John Steward’s father—established his new town along the right-of-way of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, the Penfield Post Office was moved to the new town on the railroad tracks, opening as Plano in May, 1854.

In addition, the neighborhood also features Kendall County’s only international attraction, the Farnsworth House, designed and built between 1945 and 1951 by famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for Dr. Edith Farnsworth on the banks of the Fox River just a short distance from Maramech Hill. The architectural treasure annually draws thousands of visitors from around the world to see van der Rohe’s architectural gem.

2016 Maramech Forest PreserveFinally, thanks to the area’s topography, today the Maramech Hill area is also one of Kendall County’s natural jewels featuring rare and endangered plants, a startling variety of wildlife, and unique geographical features.

Prehistory and the region’s elaborate civilizations created by Native People, Illinois’ turbulent early frontier era, the era of settlement, its rare and endangered plants and animals, the nearby Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area, and world-class architecture combine to make Maramech Hill and its surrounding region one of Kendall County’s most important and interesting areas.

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Filed under Architecture, Environment, Fox River, Fur Trade, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Native Americans, People in History

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.

 

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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.

 

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

Washington , D.C. was just one crime scene on the beaver comeback trail

With the seemingly unrelenting grimness of the news lately, it was nice to run across a story from a couple decades ago that gave me, at least, a bit of comic relief.

While looking for something else entirely, I stumbled upon a newspaper clipping (remember those?), and when I saw it, I remembered being amused when the story hit way back then—which is like two centuries in Internet age.

What happened was the U.S. Park Service had geared up and was hot on the trail of vandals who had severely damaged some of those prized cherry trees on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Come to find out, though, the “vandals” were furry critters with flat tails, great big teeth, and healthy appetites—beavers.

It’s not too surprising, I suppose, that park rangers in Washington, D.C., one of the most heavily urbanized areas in the nation, were at first surprised to find beavers munching happily away on the capital’s prized cherry trees.

We’re not nearly as heavily urbanized here in northeast Oswego Township as they are in Washington, D.C., but we’re not exactly out in the boonies, either—the population’s fairly dense around these parts. But beavers, like raccoons, coyotes, squirrels, deer, skunks, and a host of other wild animals don’t mind living amongst us humans.

Image result for fox river trail oswego illinois

The Fox River Trail at Violet Patch Park along the Fox River just north of Oswego.

In fact, many of those animals thrive thanks to humans. The population of whitetail deer, for instance, has exploded in recent years, and there are now far more of them bounding about the countryside here in the Fox Valley than 200 years ago. During my childhood back in the mists of history, there were none around here at all.

We’ve had our beaver problems, too, here in the Fox Valley, just like in D.C. Beavers like young trees best—like the ones park and forest preserve districts favor planting—and have been known to mow down dozens of succulent saplings in a single night. The Oswegoland Park District found that out to its dismay back 2002 when they landscaped the stretch of the Fox River Trail between Oswego and Montgomery. In a single night, beavers gnawed off dozens of brand new trees that still had their root balls bagged in burlap as they awaited planting. Those of us living along the Fox River’s banks know it’s best to armor plate fruit and most other young trees, or the local resident beaver will chop it down in no time.

It wasn’t all that many years ago that beaver were virtually non-existent here in the Fox Valley. The beaver population, along with muskrats, mink, and other fur-bearing animals had been wiped out nearly 200 years ago in the waning days of the fur trade. And given the area’s quick conversion to farm fields from the native prairies between the late 1830s and early 1850s, the habitat changed far too quickly for wild animals to adapt. And then, as if that wasn’t enough ecological stress, the Fox River was so polluted by industrial and human waste from the late 19th through the mid 20th centuries that most wild animals couldn’t live in it. Mercury, cyanide and other heavy metals poison beavers just as surely as people.

Image result for beaver

Fox River beavers don’t build traditional lodges, but instead burrow into the riverbank to create their homes.

By the time the first settlers arrived in Kendall County in the late 1820s, most of the prime fur-bearers had already been trapped or hunted to local extinction by the Native Americans who lived here during the fur trade era. The fur trade was, in large part, what drove the westward expansion of the European colonizing nations. French, Dutch, and British traders pushed ever farther west in a vigorous and ruthless quest for more and higher quality furs.

The beaver population in eastern Canada and in the area east of the Appalachians had been largely trapped out as early as the late 1600s, so the only option was to seek furs farther west. The French had penetrated all the way to Lake Superior by the early 1600s, although they were stopped from moving into the southern Great Lakes by the Iroquois Confederacy, which hated the French and their allies. Meanwhile, British traders, primarily Scots and Irish adventurers, penetrated the Appalachian chain of mountains and dealt with western tribes for furs.

This frantic economic exploitation of natural resources was not peaceful, of course, The Iroquois Confederacy attempted to corner the fur market in the late 1600s, raiding west in large numbers from their homeland in upper New York. The conflicts of the era historians call the Beaver Wars resulted in the extermination of some tribes and forced the displacement of many others.

In addition, the Dutch, French, and British all fought wars over the fur trade, each with their own set of Native American allies, until the British emerged victorious in 1765 following the Seven Years War. But their triumph was only fleeting; their North American colonies south of Canada successfully rebelled forming the United States.

Even so, the fur trade and its resulting competition continued.

Image result for Illinois bison

At its height, the bison population east of the Mississippi River stood at between 2 and 4 million animals. Bison are gradually being reintroduced back into Illinois at various state and national wildlife areas. This photo was taken at the Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands near Franklin Grove here in Illinois.

The trade had major effects on the Midwest. Most fur-bearing animals were driven to regional extinction, as were most of the larger game animals like the whitetail deer mentioned above, which were prized for their tanned hides. Other casualties were the Eastern Elk and the Eastern Bison. Both large animals breed slowly and the introduction of firearms into the area starting in the late 1600s had a major impact on their populations. It was about that time the Eastern Bison herds reached their largest populations, but then the subsistence hunting of Native People changed to market hunting for the fur trade. Thousands of the large animals were killed for their hides. According to R. Bruce McMillan writing in Records of Early Bison in Illinois (Illinois State Museum, 2006), a bison tannery established on the Mississippi River at the mouth of the Ohio River shipped between 12,000 and 15,000 bison hides down the Mississippi to New Orleans in 1702 alone. Heavy hunting pressure combined with a series of harsh winters put severe pressure on both the region’s bison and elk populations. The last Illinois bison was killed in 1808.

After the Revolution, two major companies, the North West Company and the XY Company, dominated the Great Lakes fur trade until 1808. That year, a German immigrant, John Jacob Astor, established the American Fur Company, and began a spirited competition with the established companies, including the Hudson Bay Company.

Surviving the upheaval of the War of 1812, Astor gradually consolidated his efforts in the upper Midwest, moving the administrative headquarters of that part of the operation to Mackinac Island in the strait between lakes Huron and Michigan. Each year, brigades of boats and canoes left Mackinac Island and headed into the interior to gather furs from the Native Americans and trappers of European descent who had harvested them during the winter months. The cold winters of the upper Midwest caused beaver and other fur bearing animals to grow thick, lustrous pelts. In fact, the prime winter beaver pelt was the de facto currency in the area before settlement.

Mackinac Boat

The fur trade first depended on large birch bark canoes, but switched to Mackinac boats in the 19th Century, especially in the areas south of the range of birch trees.

Fleets of the double-ended, sturdily built Mackinac boats favored for the trade were rowed and sailed down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Chicago and up the Chicago River to the portage into the DesPlaines, provided there was enough water in it. The route was then down the DesPlaines to the confluence with the Kankakee. On this part of the route, it was not uncommon for the boats and the goods they carried to be hauled overland by wagon some 60 miles to the confluence with the Kankakee.

The Fox and DuPage rivers were seldom used to transport furs or trade goods because both were too shallow. Instead, goods were unloaded at depots along the Illinois River. Furs were transported to the depots by the Indian and white trappers, where they were exchanged for goods. In addition, traders working for the American Fur Company used packhorses to transport trade goods and furs along regular routes. Before he settled down in Kendall County, Vetal Vermet, an early resident, had been an American Fur Company trader who worked a regular route from Peoria to Detroit, passing through the area as he gathered Fox River-produced furs.

In 1834, Astor, correctly figuring the furs were about tapped out in the upper Midwest, sold the American Fur Company, instantly making him one of the richest men in the country. The company’s Midwestern operations were shut down soon after, although the firm itself lingered until 1864, with its operations moving steadily westward as the era of the French voyageurs gave way to that of the mountain men who harvested Rocky Mountain furs.

Today, many of the fur-bearers that made fortunes for some during the fur trade era are on their way back from local extinction, including the bison and, much to the dismay of cherry tree guards in Washington, D.C., those hungry beavers.

 

 

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Filed under Environment, Fox River, Fur Trade, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History

These are a few of my…

It’s just about Christmas, and most of us are looking forward to some quality family time around the tree, maybe at church, and possibly at the dinner table.

It sounds as if we’ll be enjoying one of those spiral-cut hams here at the Matile Manse on Christmas Day. No Christmas goose for this family, Uncle Scrooge. We tried doing goose for Christmas back in the 1970s and both times we were so sick with the respiratory flu we couldn’t get out of bed, much less participate in a family dinner. We decided Someone was trying to tell us something, so no more goose on the Matile table.

This is also the time of year we remember those Christmases past and the special treats we enjoyed so much. My Aunt Evelyn’s divinity, Grandma Holzhueter’s sugar and molasses cookies, and my mom’s apple and pumpkin pies were all integral parts of Christmas we looked forward to.

1956 Schwinn Corvette

The Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 in a cut from Schwinn’s 1956 catalog.

And, of course, there were the presents under the tree. I remember the toy service station I got one year, along with a car transporter truck, loaded with four pastel-colored plastic Hudsons. And, of course, the Christmas when I was seven and got my first Lionel train. Yes, I did get a Red Ryder lever-action carbine when I was 9 or so, and that great red and chrome Schwinn Corvette bike when I was 11 was a beauty. It also taught me, the day I got it, to NEVER do a panic stop with the front wheel caliper brakes while going down our steep gravel driveway.

As the holiday approaches, and with nothing better to do than recover from the persistent cold I’ve had for the past several days, I thought I’d just list a few of my current favorite things, along with some of my pet peeves as 2019 comes to a close. So, with very little further ado, here are a few of my…

Favorite gadgets…

Towel bar

My trusty heated towel bar

When I take my shower every morning, I thank providence for my warming towel bar. The gadget is fixed to the wall in our first floor bath, and gently heats and dries our towels. There is NOTHING better than grabbing a warm towel after exiting the shower.

I’ve carried a pocketknife for decades, starting when I was in grade school. These days, students would probably be either jailed or sent for counseling if they turned up at school with a pocketknife but it was another time back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. To start with, I carried a farmer’s friend pocketknife just like my dad’s. Before he retired in 1964, he sold livestock feed for the Moorman Manufacturing Company of Quincy, IL. The company gave out premiums to farmers for buying their products, and one year around 1958 or so, the premium was a nice four-blade Case pocketknife. I carried that until I discovered Swiss Army Knives back some decades ago. My current Swiss Army version was a Christmas gift from my daughter about 15 years ago. One of my most useful gadgets, I use its knife blade, nail file, and folding scissors just about every day. Less frequently, I use the tiny built-in LED flashlight and retractable ballpoint pen. But its built-in 2gb thumb drive is something I frequently use to carry back-up files around. Clever people, those Swiss knife makers.

Swiss Army Knife

My Swiss Army Knife, complete with sneaker net USB drive.

Those of us with ankylosing spondylitis, after our spines finish calcifying, can no longer bend over to pick up errant coins dropped, shoes, or papers. So to deal with the situation, I’ve got my Gopher picker-uppers scattered around the house and out in the garage and in the storage shed. Since they fold, they’re easy to take on trips, too. A related tool I use just about every day is my collapsible shoehorn that lives on a shelf in my closet.

New food finds…

I tried Popeye’s much-ballyhooed chicken sandwich a couple weeks ago, and have to admit the ballyhoo was fully warranted. I tried Burger King’s spicy chicken sandwich a couple years ago, but didn’t really care for it. To me, there was just too much spice. Last week, I was hungry for another spicy chicken sandwich, but didn’t want to drive all the way over to Popeye’s, so decided to try Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich, which was enthusiastically boosted by my buddy Glenn. In doing so, I found that not only is Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich really good, but that their fries are even better. If you haven’t tried Wendy’s fries for awhile, I’d advise a visit sometime soon. In the end, though, Popeye’s sandwich is still the champ from my point of view.

Arby's gyro

Arby’s gyro passed the Matile taste test.

Bob, my partner in crime down at the museum, said the other day how good the gyros were at Arby’s. We hadn’t had gyros for quite awhile—it seemed like the 2008 recession killed off most of the nearby spots that sold them. Generally, we have pizza on Sunday night, but last night we decided to try Arby’s traditional Greek gyros, and were VERY favorably impressed. And at two for $6, the price couldn’t be beaten. Granted, gyros perfectionists may not like Arby’s substitution of flatbread for the traditional pita, but we thought the flatbread was softer and fluffier than pitas, and really tasty. And we really liked Arby’s

Year end pet peeves…

As 2019 grinds to a close, as a grumpy old man, I have to include a few of my lingering pet peeves, most of which involve the others I share the road with.

Using your vehicle’s turn signals is not some sort of politically correct suggestion. You’re required to use them by law when changing lanes and when making turns. And you’re supposed to use the signals BEFORE you turn, not as you’re turning in order to give drivers both behind and in front of you a bit of warning what you’re planning to do. In driver’s ed, I learned that on the highway, you’re supposed to use your turn signal 100 feet before you turn and in town, you’re supposed to use it 50 feet before you turn. Please have a little respect for your fellow motorists and use your turn signals like they’re supposed to be used.

Fox River Trail markerThe Matile Manse is located right on the Fox River Trail, a walking, running, and biking trail that extends from Oswego north all the way to the Wisconsin state line. It’s really nice to see so many people using it and seeming to have such a good time doing so. On a warm summer Sunday morning, I swear we see half of Oswego’s population walking, running, or biking on the trail. It’s certainly one of the most heavily used amenities in the Oswegoland area and we owe former Oswegoland Park District Executive Director Bert Gray and environmentalist, naturalist, author, and war hero Dick Young for doing all the deep spadework that made it a reality.

But as the trail passes in front of our house it’s situated right on North Adams Street, meaning all those walkers, runners, and bikers share the trail with cars on North Adams. Since that section of trail is on the street, the rules of the road prevail. That means walkers must walk AGAINST auto traffic and that cyclists must ride WITH the traffic. And, again, I do mean MUST, since it’s the law. It also means walkers and cyclists should NOT split up with half on one side of the street and half on the other side when they meet a vehicle. I usually give kids some leeway with the splitting up part—I remember doing the same dumb thing when I was a kid. But with adults, there’s simply no excuse for this dangerous habit.

Furthermore, North Adams is a dark street with only a few streetlights. Since walkers and cyclists share the street with motor vehicles, it’s extremely dangerous for those walkers and cyclists to be out after dark with no lights or reflective gear, especially if they’re on the WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD! Several times when we’ve come home on dark, moonless nights we’ll suddenly come upon pedestrians dressed in dark clothing—black hoodies seem favored—with no warning. So my plea is for walkers, runners, and cyclists to please wear some reflective tape or carry one of those neat blinking strobe lights to give a bit of warning to hapless motorists on dark nights. And that goes for those out walking their dogs after dark, too, especially on rainy nights.

So there, my major peeves, new food finds, and favorite gadgets are all laid out just in time for Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s.

Hope you and yours have a very happy winter holiday season and that you’ll stop by in 2020 to enjoy more local history!

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How Don L. Dise changed Oswego, Montgomery, and Kendall County forever

It is unlikely that no one person or any single event, at least since the huge influx of new settlers during the “Year of the Early Spring” of 1830-1831, changed Kendall County more than did Don L. Dise.

Dise, 77 at the time, died 20 years ago this month at his home on Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean.

1876 Kendall County B

Kendall County was overwhelmingly rural until the post-World War II building boom changed its character. The development of Boulder Hill Subdivision in the nortwest corner of Oswego Township starting in 1956 arguably forever after changed the county’s character. (Little White School Museum Collection)

Like Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold, who laid out Oswego, Kendall County’s first town, Dise was a visionary who aimed to create a town with single-family homes, apartments, schools, churches, and stores along the banks of the Fox River—and to make his fortune while doing it. But unlike Oswego’s two 19th Century town builders, Dise built his urban vision starting in the mid-1950s.

Kendall County was first settled by American pioneers in the late 1820s, but it took nearly a decade for the first town to be platted. Immediately after Judson and Arnold mapped out their new town on the east bank of the Fox River in 1835, other villages were laid out throughout Kendall County. Yorkville, Newark, Bristol, Millington, Plattville, Pavilion, and Little Rock followed Oswego, and in the 1850s, the county’s newest town, Plano, was laid out along the new right-of-way of the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad west of the Fox River.

1918 BH Stock Farm Percheron sale ad

A 1919 advertisement for some of John H. Bereman’s prize Percherons raised on his Boulder Hill Stock Farm. (Little White School Museum Collection)

Over the succeeding years, towns came and went. Bristol Station was established at a stop on the railroad a couple miles north of today’s Yorkville on the CB&Q’s main line. Millbrook was also laid out along the rail line. Oswego Station was established a few miles west of Oswego, but a town never grew up around it like one did at Bristol Station. Pavilion, once one of the county’s fastest growing towns, withered after the railroad bypassed it and it eventually completely disappeared. Busy Little Rock, on the heavily-traveled Chicago to Galena Road, never grew, also because of its distance from the rail line, the same fate that befell the stagecoach trail hamlet of Plattville.

After the 1850s, no new towns were founded in Kendall County—until Don L. Dise decided to follow the lead of post-World War II homebuilders in New York and Pennsylvania who developed the concept of entirely new urban communities plunked down in formerly rural areas. The Levittown concept was developed by William Levitt, who created Levittown, Pennsylvania and Levittown, New York. Created to satisfy the desire for new housing by returning American military personnel following World War II, the Levittowns were self-contained with their own paved, winding streets; affordable homes, churches, schools, and stores.

1898 Aurora Golf Club at Boulder Hill

The Aurora Golf Club, located at what is today’s Boulder Hill Subdivision. The top photo was taken on what became the A.C. Hyde House on Bereman Briarcliff Road. (Little White School Museum collection)

It’s entirely likely that Dise, a Pennsylvania native, was well aware what Levitt was creating and so decided to try his luck doing the same thing out here on the Illinois prairie.

He found a likely spot on the 716 acres then remaining of the old Bereman family farm they’d named Boulder Hill Stock Farm, located along Ill. Route 25 just south of Montgomery. J.H. Bereman had made his millions selling freckle bleaching cream to Victorian ladies, and used some of the money he earned to buy more than 1,000 acres of Oswego Township farmland in the early years of the century. Bereman raised crops, but he was better-known for the blooded Percheron draft horses he bred and raised.

In 1901, investors tried to establish the area’s first golf course on about 50 acres of the property, using one of the farm homes as the clubhouse. It wasn’t a bad idea since Riverview Park, an amusement park that drew people from all over the area via the interurban trolley line that ran along the park’s border, was located just across the river. But the course’s location proved too far south of Aurora’s population in the days before reliable, cheap autos, and that course was abandoned in 1907, the investors moving the course north, where it eventually became the Aurora Country Club.

1956 22 Briarcliff Road

Bev and Ruth Skaggs bought the first house in Boulder Hill at 22 Bereman Road. They moved in in the fall of 1956. (Little White School Museum Collection)

In the early 1950s, Dise learned Caterpillar, Inc. was planning to build a large manufacturing plant in Oswego Township across the river from the Bereman farm, and also that Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of AT&T, was planning to open their new Montgomery Works in a former munitions plant and wallpaper factory on the west bank of the Fox directly opposite the Bereman farm.

In addition to the obvious need for housing for thousands of new workers at the two huge new factories, the young veterans of World War II were hungry for housing, and the biggest government aid projects in history outside of the war itself—the various GI Bills—were supplying a flood of cash to send the vets to college and help buy them new tract homes.

1957 BH Aerial 1957

By 1957, as this aerial view looking west towards the Fox River illustrates, Boulder Hill’s outlines were beginning to become visible. Paved streets with curbs, gutters, and sidewalks were creating an urban profile on the Illinois prairie. (Little White School Museum Collection)

So Dise took the plunge. Assembling a group of investors, they bought the Bereman farm in 1955. His sales director, A.C. Hyde decided to live in one of the Bereman farm homes—the former golf course clubhouse as it turned out—which still stands today on Bereman Road in Boulder Hill. Meanwhile, Dise and his family occupied the sprawling Bereman mansion on the bluff overlooking the Fox River just to the north of his new housing development.

Construction crews broke ground in the spring of 1956, and the first of the model homes were begun. The first home in the new development was sold to Bev and Ruth Skaggs in May of that same year. Bev worked at Lyon Metal Products in Montgomery and the new subdivision would be a perfect location for his family, he later recalled. The model homes were opened to the public in September of 1956 and by the end of the year 11 families were living in the new development—including the Hyde and Dise families.

1958 BH Playhouse

Dise created a unique ammenity by converting one of the Boulder Hill Stock Farm’s huge barns into the Boulder Hill Playhouse, a community stock theatre with a unique revolving stage. Opening in 1958, it was destroyed by arson in 1967. (Little White School Museum Collection)

From there, construction accelerated. By 1958, 100 homes were occupied in Boulder Hill, and the planned development was well on its way to becoming the largest community in Kendall County until booming Oswego surpassed it in 1997. As proposed by the planning firm of Carl Gardner & Associates, Boulder Hill was to have homes, apartments, churches, schools, parks, and businesses. And, eventually, it did.

Early on, Boulder Hill residents continued the World War II-era tradition of joining social groups to create a vigorous civic atmosphere. The Boulder Hill Sports and Social Club, the Boulder Hill Antique Study Group, the Hilltop Garden Club, and the Boulder Hill Civic Association were all established by the subdivision’s early residents to maintain civic pride and grow community spirit. Although he never really said so, Dise probably figured the largely self-contained subdivision would eventually incorporate and become a real town, but that never happened. That has remained one of Boulder Hill’s biggest problems. Without a municipal government, its services are badly fragmented. Municipal water is supplied by Montgomery, police protection comes via the Kendall County Sheriff’s Department in Yorkville, schools from the Oswego School District, parks from the Oswegoland Park District, street maintenance from Oswego Township, sanitary service from the Fox Metro Water Reclamation District, and building and zoning enforcement from Kendall County government in Yorkville. Mailing addresses are Montgomery, with that village’s 60538 ZIP Code.

1959 First church in winter

The Boulder Hill Neighborhood Church of the Brethren first met in this modified home at 5 South Bereman Road. (Little White School Museum Collection)

Incorporated or not, Dise’s development had a huge impact on the Oswego-Montgomery area, especially the Oswego School District. In the fall of 1955, 775 students in grades 1-12 were enrolled in Oswego’s schools—there was no kindergarten at that time. Five years later, the district’s enrollment had nearly doubled to 1,399 on the first day of classes and classrooms were bulging. By 1970, the enrollment had more than doubled to 3,441.

But Dise did help by eventually providing two new school sites in his development. Boulder Hill Elementary School opened in the fall of 1961 and Long Beach School in 1968. He also contributed $100 for each home built in the subdivision to help the school district out, the first such developer contribution in Kendall County’s history.

An active member of the Church of the Brethren, Dise offered first a private home for the new Boulder Hill Neighborhood Church of the Brethren to meet in and then a large site adjacent to Boulder Hill School for a large community church. The Boulder Hill Market was designed to serve the community’s grocery and retail needs.

1961 7-4 SuzanJohn Park II

SuzanJohn Park on Hampton Road in Boulder Hill was the first park the Oswegoland Park District owned. Donated by Dise, it was dedicated on Aug. 18, 1960. (Little White School Museum Collection)

Also in 1960, Dise donated the one-acre Suzan-John Park on Hampton Road to the Oswegoland Park District. The neighborhood park was the first real estate owned by the park district, which now owns and maintains 995 acres of parks, trails, natural areas, and buildings. The small neighborhood park was named after Suzanne Dise, Dise’s daughter, and John Hyde, son of Boulder Hill Realtor A.C. Hyde. Both Suzanne and John had died in childhood.

When he started construction on Boulder Hill 64 years ago, it’s unlikely Don L. Dise realized he was beginning as profound a change in Kendall County’s character as was experienced during the period of settlement and town building of the 1830s. Boulder Hill was only the start of the urbanization of our once almost entirely rural county, a trend that continues today, and after the downturn in the late 2000s is beginning once again to accelerate.

 

 

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The old trails, traces, and thoroughfares that helped build northern Illinois

It was the spring of 1837, and Robert Hill had a problem. It was his job to persuade his neighbors in his Cook County voting precinct to fulfill their responsibilities to work on the roads that passed through the area. One road was an almost purely local trail that ended—or began, depending on your perspective—at Hill’s claim. The other was a minor branch of the Chicago to Naperville Road, itself part of the system of main thoroughfares to Ottawa and Galena.

Chicago roads scan I

The web of trails, traces, and roads leading from Chicago on Lake Michigan to the prairie hinterland as settlement in northern Illinois began is evident from Albert Scharf’s 1900 map.

In those days before state and federal tax support of road construction and maintenance, local government required residents to work on the growing system of primitive roads that, like a spider web, spread westward from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River.

The network of trails used by Native Americans in the area bounded by Lake Michigan and the Fox River Valley probably evolved from game trails. When Europeans arrived in the area, they continued to use the existing trail system, even though, as one historian suggested, the trails were often not the most direct routes from point to point. With their twists and turns, they were often hard to follow. Names like Vincennes Trace and Potawatomi Trace suggest the trails were little more than faint tracks through the prairies and groves that dotted northern Illinois. Even experienced guides frequently got lost.

But during the settlement era—the 1820s to the 1840s—overland routes were the only options for travelers between Lake Michigan and the head of navigation on the Illinois River at Peru and Ottawa. Not until the Illinois & Michigan Canal linked Chicago’s lakefront with the head of navigation on the Illinois River and rail lines began stretching west of Chicago in the late 1840s was overland transport by road eclipsed.

In addition, merchants and other business owners in and around the booming lead mining town of Galena in far northwest Illinois were interested in an overland link with Chicago that might offer an alternative to expensive, relatively slow river transport of food, equipment, and other supplies the growing area required. While river transport was satisfactory for bulk cargoes, the Mississippi River of those years was a sometimes fickle transportation route. Drought often closed off portions of the river to navigation. High water sometimes did the same as the primitive steamboats of the day struggled upstream against the raging current while trying to dodge a variety of hazards, from snags to shifting sandbars. And even the mighty Mississippi often froze over during the winter months.

1820 Chicago

Chicago, as seen in this view from Lake Michigan in 1820, boasted little more than Fort Dearborn and a few fur traders’ cabins scattered along the North and South Branches of the Chicago River. Two decades later, it would be an incorporated city, the largest in northern Illinois.

Beginning in the early 1830s, as settlement accelerated in the region around the southern tip of Lake Michigan, both the state and local governments in Illinois began to lay out an official system of roadways. In northern Illinois, the initial purpose of this fledgling road net was to connect the areas south and west of Lake Michigan with Chicago and its Great Lakes links with Eastern markets.

Shipping from the east via the Great Lakes to Chicago had slowly increased since the visit of the first steamboats carrying troops during the Black Hawk War in 1832. But a major problem existed; there was no harbor at Chicago. The Chicago River entered the lake at an acute angle, running parallel to the shoreline, with a sandbar blocking entrance of the river to ships on the lake. As a result, ships had to anchor offshore and transship their cargoes over the bar in small boats. It was, time-consuming, labor-intensive, and became downright dangerous to ships and crews when storms howled out of the north and west, threatening to drive unwary vessels ashore. As a result, while steamers first visited Chicago in 1832 to drop off their cargoes of U.S. Army troops, they left as soon as they were unloaded because there was no sheltered anchorage for them.

Realizing the settlement’s strategic advantages, the U.S. Government began the creation of a true port at Chicago in 1833 by cutting a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River. Construction started July 1, supervised by Maj. George Bender, 5th U.S. Infantry. Bender began with setting a series of piers through the sand bar that blocked the harbor mouth. The deceptively simple task of cutting a channel through the bar—and then making sure it stayed open—proved a lot more difficult than originally thought. It eventually took some six years, and a cost more than $100,000 (nearly $3 in today’s dollars) to get the job completely finished.

1830 Chicago Harbor improvements

The proposed improvement of a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River. When it was finally completed, the channel helped fuel Chicago’s explosive growth.

But on Saturday, Feb. 15, 1834, with only a rudimentary channel carved through the sandbar, Mother Nature took a small hand in creating the Chicago Harbor. A heavy, two-day rainstorm caused the Chicago River to suddenly rise by three feet. The outflow of storm water found the channel Maj. Bender had begun and on which Lt. James Allen was then working, and cut a 30-foot wide, 12-foot deep channel through the bar. It’s likely the astonished engineers could hardly believe their good fortune.

On May 4, the Michigan, a sidewheel steamer with a fore-and-aft sail rig, took advantage of the new channel, and became the first steamboat to enter the Chicago River harbor, passing under the recently completed Dearborn Street drawbridge to anchor along the riverbank.

For the first time, with the channel finally cut through the bar, ships didn’t have to unload their cargoes immediately and flee to an area where there was some shelter. Instead, ships could be moored at docks along the river, safe from sudden storms, while cargo was unloaded.

3 Steamboat Michigan 1833

The Michigan was the first ship to make its way through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River and dock in the city.

Just a couple months after the Michigan arrived in Chicago’s new harbor, the aptly named Illinois became the first sailing ship to enter the Chicago River under full sail. On July 12, 1834, the Illinois forged through the newly opened channel with “her top-masts covered with flags and streamers,” sailing up-river through the open Dearborn Street drawbridge to dock at Newberry & Dole’s riverbank wharf.

While work to improve the channel through the bar and keep it from refilling with sand would continue for several years, the arrival of those first Great Lakes freighters was an important start.

1834 Dearborn St drawbridge

The Dearborn Street drawbridge—the first of many that would be built in Chicago—raises to let a ship through to dock along the Chicago River in 1834.

The tonnage of goods shipped to and from Chicago skyrocketed almost immediately after the safe harbor was provided for arriving vessels. In 1833, the year work on the channel through the bar began, just four ships arrived at Chicago—two brigs and two schooners, but no steamboats. Just two years later, 250 ships arrived and a year after that, the number of arrivals had nearly doubled to 456 vessels, with the total including 49 steamships.

In addition to goods, people were also arriving at the new port, as more and more pioneer farmers used the Great Lakes route to travel west. After arriving, these pioneer families left Chicago’s swampy streets and settled on the Illinois prairies in the fast-developing city’s hinterland. Meanwhile, a growing volume of cargo awaited shipment east. Goods crowding the docks along the Chicago River included steadily increasing amounts of grain produced as the acreage of cultivated prairie rapidly expanded in northern Illinois.

In 1837, four years after the channel through the bar at the mouth of the Chicago River was begun, only 100 bushels of grain were shipped from Chicago via the Great Lakes. A decade later—and a year before the completion of the I&M Canal and commencement of construction of the first railroad west of the city—more than 2.2 million bushels of grain were shipped from Chicago. Each and every bushel of that grain arrived at Chicago thanks to the network of roads extending into the growing city’s hinterland.

That spider web of roads stretching northwest, north, and southwest of the city provided the means for the coming tsunami of growth that would propel the Chicago metropolitan region that was then supercharged by completion of the old-technology I&M Canal and the new-technology rail lines that followed the old traces and trails out of the city by the lake.

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Pestekouy River Valley? Not for the past 331 years

Names of things have always fascinated me, and I guess they sometimes interest other people as well. I know that when I speak to various groups about local history, one of the most-asked questions is, “How did Oswego get its name?” Although Oswego, Illinois was named after a long-settled city in New York state, its name of Mohawk Tribe origins, many of the names of local geographical features originated right here.

For instance, a good example of a major local feature of interest is the Fox River. The Fox had been tagged with its present name several decades before the first American pioneer settlers arrived along its banks. The Fox River, as a matter of fact, was well known to explorers and map makers for well over a century before the first American settlers arrived in the area in the late 1820s.

Marquette & Jolliet

Cartographer and explorer Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette were the first Europeans to see the Fox River during their 1673 expedition.

The very first explorers who traveled through Illinois noticed the Fox River. In 1673, Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., led an expedition to discover where the Mississippi River’s mouth was located. The French hoped the Mississippi bore to the southwest and that its mouth was on the Pacific Ocean. By the time Jolliet and Marquette reached the mouth of the Arkansas River they were certain the Mississippi headed due south and that its mouth was probably somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico and definitely not anywhere near the Pacific.

Jolliet, an experienced cartographer, drew a map of the expedition’s journey after he arrived back in Canada following the trip. Although the most familiar edition of this map was probably not drawn by Jolliet, but rather used his information (his name is misspelled on the map), it does show the course the expedition took. It also shows the Fox River, although the stream is unnamed.

1683 Franquelin map

Franquelin’s 1684 map of LaSalle’s colony shows a number of Native American towns clustered around Starved Rock. The map shows the mouth of the Riviere Pestekouy–our Fox River–just above Starved Rock.

Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle was an intrepid French explorer and unsuccessful businessman who, using Jolliet and Marquette’s information, attempted to colonize Illinois beginning in 1679. LaSalle made several trips to the area before getting his trading empire started at the fort he built atop Starved Rock. Starved Rock, just as imposing three centuries ago as it is today, was called le Rocher by the French.

Jean-Baptiste Louis Franquelin, LaSalle’s cartographer, drew a fairly accurate map of the area comprising LaSalle’s proposed colony in 1684. On this map, the Fox River appears, but is referred to as the Riviere Pestekouy. Pestekouy was the French spelling of an Algonquian Indian word for the American bison.

Clearly, the residents of the several Indian villages located on the map along the Pestekouy River must have hunted the herds of the Eastern Bison that roamed the Illinois tallgrass prairies during those years, thus giving the river its name.

Franquelin drew another map of the area in 1688, which while more accurate than his 1684 map, still called the river Pestekouy.

In addition, Marco Coronelli, a Venetian Conventual friar, produced a map in 1688 based on gores he made for a globe in 1687, on which the Fox River is labeled Pesteconti R. It seems pretty clear that Pesteconti is an Italianization of the French Pestekouy, which is not surprising since Coronelli got most of the information for his map and globe from French sources, including Franquelin.

After Franquelin and Coronelli’s maps, cartographers stopped putting a name on the Fox River for several years.

In fact, as early as 1684, Minet, an engineer and cartographer who accompanied LaSalle, published a map with the Fox River drawn in but not named. After Coronelli’s map was published, the name Pestekouy seems to have vanished from maps.

For instance, Louis de La Porte de Louvigny in 1697 and Guillaume Delisle in 1718 both produced fairly accurate maps of the interior of North America, including the Fox River Valley, but did not label the Fox River with any name at all. The reason for this is unknown, but was probably due to the fact that the area had lost whatever economic significance it had gained during the LaSalle period due to a combination of factors, including the hostility of the Fox Indian Tribe.

1754 Ottens map detail

This detail from Ottens’ 1754 map shows the Fox River labeled as R. du Rocher, probably because of the proximity of its mouth to Starved Rock–named du Rocher by the French.

By 1700, the French trading center at le Rocher had been moved south to Fort Pimiteoui on Lake Peoria, and along with it had gone French military power in the upper Illinois and Fox River valleys. The Fox Tribe had prohibited the French from the area south and west of Green Bay, and that included use of the portage from the Fox River of Wisconsin that empties into Lake Michigan at Green Bay and the Wisconsin River that offers a good route to the Mississippi. For more than 30 years, the French and their Indian allies battled the Fox to secure access to the area northwest of Chicago. In 1730, the French and their Native American allies vanquished the Fox for the final time, opening the area to French trade and missionaries.

In 1754, after the French had in essence exterminated the Fox, an interesting map was published in both French and Dutch titled Map of the English and French possessions in the vast land of North America. The map was published in Amsterdam by Cartographer Josua Ottens. Interestingly enough, the Fox River is named R. du Rocher on Ottens’ map, which was quite a change from Riviere Pestekouy. It seems likely the name was derived from the Fox River’s mouth’s proximity to the old French post at le Rocher. It may well be that the French traders in the area had renamed the river after the old fort at le Rocher after the trouble with the Fox Tribe was settled.

1778 Hutchins map detail

Detail from Thomas Hutchins’ 1778 map showing the Fox River with its modern name.

It was a few years after Ottens’ map was published that our river officially received its present name. By 1764, the French had been defeated in the final French and Indian War—called the Seven Years War in Europe. British troops slowly moved into the vast area north and west of the Ohio River that had been controlled for so long by the French.

Thomas Hutchins, an engineering officer with the British 60th Royal American Regiment, traveled throughout the area between 1764 and 1775 with his regiment. In 1778, Hutchins published a map of North America titled, in part, A New Map of the Western Parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina; Comprehending the River Ohio, and all the Rivers which fall into it; Part of the River Mississippi, the Whole of the Illinois River.

On this map, published the same year that George Rogers Clark conquered Illinois for the state of Virginia during the Revolution, the Fox River was given its modern name. It is not known why Hutchins recorded the river’s name as the Fox River, but the Fox Tribe’s occupation of the area in the northern reaches of the Fox River Valley probably had a lot to do with the renaming of the stream.

Whatever the reason, the name stuck and was included on the first official map of the state of Illinois drawn by John Melish and published in I819. And Fox River it has remained ever since.

 

 

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