Tag Archives: Fox River

Bob Rung made a lasting, positive difference

My friend Bob Rung died last week.

Friends and acquaintances dying is getting to be all too common these days, with me having spent 70 summers on this here Earth.

Many of my friends are passionate people, and all are interesting. But only a few have made the kind of lasting impression on his community and region due to his passion that Bob Rung did.


Fishing for smallmouth bass on the Fox River of Illinois draws thousands of anglers to the Fox Valley and also provides an excellent recreation source for area residents. (Photo courtesy of the Illinois-Wisconsin Fishing Blog)

His first and greatest passion was fishing, something to which he had devoted (as near as I could tell) his entire adult life, and most of his childhood, too. His family moved to the sprawling Boulder Hill subdivision between Montgomery and Oswego when he and his siblings were children, and there he grew up within walking distance of the Fox River.

He honed his skills and learned on his own how to manufacture the lures and equipment best-suited to tracking down the wily smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleyes, and other gamefish that were so rare when we were kids.

We went through high school together although he, being a Boulder Hill kid, wasn’t someone I hung around with. But he walked into the gym with the rest of us on graduation night in May 1964 after which so many of us went our own ways.

And for Bob, like so many of my male classmates, that meant being shipped off to the jungles and rivers and mountains of Vietnam, where he put his training as a U.S. Army medic to work, getting wounded himself along the way. When he came home he decided to put his love of animals in general and fish in particular to use and in the fall of 1971 he and a partner bought the Oswego Fish & Hobby Shop at 25 Jefferson Street, across the street from the Oswego Public Library in the Wilhelm Building.

But his first love was still the Fox River and fishing and he eventually decided to see if he could make a career out of it, which he managed to do by becoming a college-educated fisheries biologist working for the Illinois Department of Conservation.

And that’s where Bob and I met again. He knew that I had a pretty strong interest in the Fox River, too, especially in our local environmental hero who called himself “The Fox.” So when I needed some technical background for stories I was doing on the river or its tributaries, Bob was my go-to source.

Like me, he really hated the dams that dot the river from Dayton just above Ottawa near the river’s mouth to the series of dams that create the Chain O’Lakes up north. I did a number of articles about the Yorkville dam and how good it would be for the health of the river to get rid of it, and Bob helped by supplying me with good sources for research on the harm dams do to the streams they block.

Bob was also a major source of expert information and oversight after the Flood of 1996 badly damaged the dams along Waubonsie Creek, and the Oswegoland Park District decided to remove all the ones it had access to. The dams had been built over a span of more than a century, one to provide deep enough water for an ice harvesting operation, one to back up water to fill the water hazards at Fox Bend Golf Course, and the others for varying reasons. The problem was, the dams prevented fish from swimming upstream to spawn and that had a negative impact on the diversity of life in the Fox River. So Bob strongly advocated for their removal, something we were able to help push along down at the newspaper. Today, fish can easily swim upstream to spawn, something that has had an extremely positive impact on the Fox River.


Friends of the Fox River organize an American Water Willow planting project in the summer of 2015. Bob Rung championed planting water willows up and down the Fox River’s banks to stabilize them and to provide enhanced habitat for fish. (Friends of the Fox River photo)

In addition, Bob was fascinated with improving the entire ecology of the river basin to enhance the environment for fish. To that end, he got both me and Jim Phillips—that aforementioned furry crusader doing business as “The Fox”—interested in his campaign to plant American Water Willows up and down the river’s banks. A low-growing tough-stemmed plant, it grows in colonies that stabilize stream banks, which is a good thing in and of itself. But in addition, the plants’ leaves, stems, and flowers also provide browse for deer, and its rhizomes provide tasty meals for beavers and muskrats. In addition, the plants’ water-covered roots and rhizomes provide cover newly hatched gamefish minnows and a fine habitat for invertebrates that fish and other creatures feed on.


Bob Rung tosses a long-nosed gar back in the water in this 2012 photo from the Kankakee Daily Journal.

Over the years, he got organizations ranging from the Illinois Smallmouth Bass Alliance to the Friends of the Fox River to plant thousands of water willows along the rivershed’s stream banks. I once kidded him that he’d become the Johnny Appleseed of water willow propagation, and after a moment of silence he said he wouldn’t mind being called that.

Bob’s passion was the Fox River and he was one of those lucky individuals who was able to do important things that not only satisfied his own keen interests, but also left a continuing legacy for generations to come. On the Fox River below Montgomery, everyone who stalks fighting smallmouth bass and trophy muskies, who enjoys quiet canoe rides through a genetically rich and diverse riverscape, or who just likes to sit and appreciate the river’s beauty and serenity owes Bob Rung a vote of thanks for what he accomplished for the rest of us.




Filed under Fox River, Kendall County, Newspapers, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

No power, but no flood—this time at least

We’ve been getting a bit of rain lately around these parts, although the Fox River has entered its usual mid-summer shallow season.

On Sunday evening, another of the spotty thunder storms we’ve been experiencing this summer rolled through, accompanied by lots of lightning, one of which struck uncomfortably near the Matile Manse, after which the lights well and truly went out.

When I say this was a spotty t-storm, I’m not understating it a bit. It never did rain from that bit of thundercloud at my son’s house, which is about a mile and a half south of us.

So there we sat with no cable TV and no Internet, which wasn’t all that big a loss since we’d both been reading anyway, although my wife was reading a dead tree book, so she needed a bit of light. Me, I was reading on my iPad’s Kindle app, so I was good. But we decided to take a ride to see what we could see and determined that it was only the seven or eight houses at our end of North Adams that had no power. Drove to Panera to charge our phones and have some over-priced soup, and then home, shortly after which the ComEd boys and girls did their thing and the power came back on.

While we did indeed lose power, at least we weren’t afflicted with a flood like the one that hit our area just 20 years ago this month. The Flood of ’96 was the most serious one the area had experienced in many decades—if ever.

Our corner of the Fox Valley got around 17” of rain the night of July 17-18, 1996, and it caused a rolling series of local disasters as the flood water drained and tried to get to the Fox River. As a result, roads that were open and passable the morning of July 18, were closed to flooding by that evening, stranding more than one person somewhere he didn’t want to be.

Our penchant for draining wetlands and turning them into either farm fields or residential or commercial subdivisions really came back to bit us during the Flood of ’96. Blackberry Creek, trying to carry a volume of runoff it was never meant to, and whose course was restricted by bridges on several county roads and state highways, spread out and flooded roads and businesses and complete housing developments, especially on Aurora’s far west side and in Bristol Township here in Kendall County. Because there was no straight route for all that water to go, it spread out, seeking a way to get to the river, flooding a huge area.

1996 7-18 Car off road in flood

This Ford Taurus station wagon encountered a washed-out culvert on Douglas Road just south of Collins Road the night of July 17-18 1996. I took the photo, which won the Spot News Photo award from the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, on July 18.

Meanwhile, here in the Oswego area, normally small streams turned into raging torrents. Waubonsie Creek, taking in a huge volume of runoff, nearly took out the railroad bridge here in Oswego and did take out the venerable 1880s box truss bridge just south of the Matile Manse on North Adams Street. The whole bridge structure was picked up and washed downstream. Meanwhile, the railroad folks brought in carloads of large diameter rocks to shore up the rail bridge’s upstream piers and abutments. It worked, but it was a near-run thing.

The Fox River, generally low and sluggish stream in mid-July, also became a raging torrent, coming up out of its banks to levels not seen for many a year. At that time, my sister was living across the street from us right on the river. None of the floods any of us had ever experienced had driven the river so far out of its banks. That morning, my sister awoke to see her lawn furniture beginning to float away from her backyard. But she was a former farm girl, and so grabbed a rope, made a lasso out of it, and proceeded to lasso the lawn chairs as they floated past on the flood tide—much to the amazement of her husband, who had grown up in an apartment building on Chicago’s South Side and had only seen such things in cowboy movies.

No one was killed, but some were injured, including one fellow who had been driving on Douglas Road out east of Oswego when he encountered a culvert that was no longer there, the entire road having been washed out when the tiny stream that usually carried only field tile drainage a few miles to Waubonsie Creek turned into an angry, rushing torrent. It was dark, and the guy’s Ford Taurus station wagon fell right into the chasam that had formerly been the road crossing the trickle.

As floods went, this one was a real doozy. As somebody interested in history and in the effects we have on our environment, it was a real eye-opener as well. When I correlated subdivisions that flooded but that had never flooded before with the Little White School Museum’s collection of 1830s survey maps, invariably there were wetlands or marshy areas drawn in where those modern housing developments are located today. Mother Nature really does have a way of getting her own back, sometimes despite modern engineering’s best efforts.

As I noted above, residents of the Fox Valley have been trying to eliminate wetlands ever since the first settlers arrived, and they’ve been really good at it, too. But those old wet areas served a couple valuable purposes that the powers that be are only recently paying attention to. First of all, wetlands tend to blot up stormwater runoff, slowing it’s velocity and releasing it at slower rates. Without those wetlands, water runs off quickly and at speed, and fast-moving water is extremely destructive. Wetlands, because they temporarily hold stormwater, help recharge ground water aquifers. And they also filter stormwater so that all the debris and harmful things that build up on streets, sidewalks, and parking lots don’t get washed directly into water courses.

Not, of course that we didn’t have some pretty spectacular floods before 1996, of course. Back in the 19th Century, there were three major floods that really stuck in peoples’ minds. Back in that day, they called them “freshets,” and they made pretty big impressions.

Fox River freshets were recorded in 1840, 1857, and 1868.

The 1840 freshet caused the least amount of damage, primarily because there just weren’t a whole lot of property to damage at that early date. The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, noted of the 1840 flood: “The year was ushered in by one of the largest spring freshets known. Fox River flooded all the lowlands along its course, and at Millington two acres of splendid logs were carried away. Only two such freshets have been known since, in 1857 and 1868. But the last two have had bridges instead of saw logs to exert their brief power on.”

1857 Aurora freshet

The 1857 freshet left a big impression with folks living along the Fox River that year. Above, Galena Boulevard deadends at the Fox River since the bridges to Stolp Island have been washed out, as have several buildings on the island.

J .H. Sutherland wrote in the Oswego Herald in 1907 that the 1857 spring freshet was still clear in his mind, recalling that he’d gone to bed when it was still raining.

“When I arose next morning at about seven o’clock, lo! and behold, the river was a raging torrent. A lumber yard owned by a Mr. Rowley was floating downstream, and was all lost during the day; the bridge was washed away, a sawmill at the east end of the mill dam also floated downstream, the flour mill was seriously damaged, and the mill dam was washed out.”

The memorable freshet of 1868, caused when a rainstorm caused the ice on the Fox River to suddenly break up, damaged the Oswego bridge but did not wash it out. Fortunately, the year before, the old wooden structure had been replaced by a new iron arch bridge. But other communities were not so lucky.

The March 12, 1868 Kendall County Record reported that: “The ‘breaking up’ of 1868 has been unusually severe and disastrous in the destruction of property. Last year our freshet began about the 12th or 13th of February and this year it took place on Friday and Saturday, the 6th and 7th of March. It commenced raining on Thursday afternoon and continued till Saturday night, carrying off the snow into the streams and raising them rapidly. We have heard that one of the piers of the new bridge at Oswego was badly damaged by the ice, and that travel over it was impeded for some time till the beams were shored up by blocks. Post’s bridge across the river opposite Plano was carried away, piers and all. The greatest loss, however, to our county is the destruction of the new bridge at Milford [Millington], which was only finished last summer at heavy cost. Three spans of this bridge were lost, and as it was built mostly by private subscription, the damage is severely felt.”

Despite the rain we’ve been getting here in northern Illinois, at least we’ve had nothing so far approaching the Flood of ’96, for which we can all be thankful. But it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on Mother Nature in case she decides to mess with us again, just for old times sake.

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Filed under Aurora, Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History

And plank roads seemed like such a good idea, too…

Elon Musk and his Tesla autos have been in the news lately, and not all in a good way. Apparently there’s a self-driving feature on the newest Teslas that perhaps ought to be called a ‘self-driving’ feature, especially after a Tesla recently drove itself right under a semi, killing the Tesla driver.

Tesla’s now warning owners that “self-driving” isn’t exactly full auto-pilot, but rather that it’s probably helpful if drivers pay at least minimal attention to where their cars are going. Which sounds like the kind of advice adults really shouldn’t need to be given.

A lot of work is going into creating self-driving cars these days, and not just by Musk’s Tesla. But Duncan Black, one of my favorite bloggers, is skeptical, and I think he’s right to be.

The good thing about self-driving cars, of course, is that they’d use the same ground transportation foundation that manual driving cars use, with no need to create any new infrastructure for them to use. So in that way this latest bit of transportation technology growth somewhat mirrors the thinking behind the growth of plank roads back in the first half of the 19th Century.

Starting in the late 1840s, railroad companies were established to tap the huge northern Illinois agricultural market, with the eventual goal being to connect Chicago with the Mississippi River, a transcontinental rail line then only the vision of a few dreamers. But in order to get on the way to the Big Muddy, they first had to start by crossing northern Illinois’ Fox River.

Not that the railroad promoters looked at the Fox River Valley as simply an obstacle to be dealt with, of course. The area was then, as now, an extremely rich agricultural area. Livestock and grain flowed east to Chicago from the farms that dotted the prairies in DuPage, Kane, Kendall, and Will counties in a broad band stretching around the growing city on the lake to the west and south. And finished goods, lumber, and other items made the return trip west, all on the terrible, inadequate roads of the era.

What farmers wanted to do was get their livestock and grain to the lucrative, fast-growing market Chicago had become. Livestock could be driven to the stockyards (we think of cattle drives as western happenings, but they took place right here in Kendall County, too), but grain had to be hauled. Chicago was such a market draw that farmers as far west as Rockford, and even Iowa, drove horse-drawn wagon loads of corn, wheat, barley, oats and other grains to the growing market. It wasn’t easy, but it could be done, though at a relatively high cost in both time and materials.

Because of the already heavy investment in horse-drawn transport, it made sense to a lot of the strongest boosters in the Fox and DuPage River valleys to improve the area’s roads instead of investing in a completely new form of transportation technology like railroads.

Oswego & Indiana Plank Road script

Like many companies in the early 19th Century, the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road Company issued their own currency. Using the stuff was chancy at best, but in an era when recovery from the contractionary policies of the Andrew Jackson administration had destroyed the nation’s economy, it was sometimes any port in a monetary storm.

The investment was not just in horses and wagons, either. Inns and taverns along the major roads in the area, blacksmith and farrier shops, wagon makers, wheelwrights, farms that raised draft horses, veterinary facilities, farmers who grew the fodder and oats needed to feed those thousands upon thousands of horses, and all the other myriad things that made the system work was woven into the very fabric of that period’s life.

As a result, when railroad entrepreneurs began seeking routes from Chicago to the west, they ran into opposition in more than one community as local businessmen tried to keep their personal financial apple carts from overturning.

The story of Oswego’s decision to forego participation in the railroad projected to extend from Turners Junction—West Chicago—south and west across the Fox River is well known, locally at least. Oswego’s city fathers said thanks but no thanks to the railroad, which crossed the river at Aurora instead. Why did they do something that seems to us to be such a silly thing? Because they firmly believed improved roads, not railroads, were the answer to the region’s transportation dilemma.

Plank road sketch

Plank roads were built by laying down logs spaced closely together, and then topping them with two stringers. Thick planks 10 to 12 feet long were then fastened to the stringers. Plank roads worked well when new, but deteriorated quickly in northern Illinois’ climate.

In those years, roads—which were little more than dirt tracks across the prairie—turned into long stretches of impassable sticky soup every spring and after every hard rain. The availability of timber, however, meant it was possible to pave with thick wooden planks to create an all-weather surface. Such plank roads quickly became popular ways of getting crops to market. Typically, plank road companies would be formed after being chartered by the state legislature. Stock would be sold to raise money and the road would be built, with tolls charged to use the all-weather surface.

One such plank road was projected to extend from Chicago to Naperville and then on to Oswego. Capt. Joseph Naper, founder and namesake of Naperville, was one of the major promoters of that plank road. He used his considerable influence to keep the railroad from passing through Naperville, and it’s not unlikely he also persuaded Oswego officials to oppose the rail line crossing the Fox River at Oswego. Naper, like other men of substance at that time, had interests in hotels and taverns, as well as in several other aspects of road transportation, including lots of plank road company stock.

Oswego Indiana Plank Rd Tollgate

A sketch of the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road toll gate that was located about a mile and a half southeast of Plainfield on what is today U.S. Route 30 at Lily Cache Creek in Plainfield. Despite its grand name, the plank road reached neither Oswego nor Indiana. (Illinois Digital Archives and Plainfield Historical Society collections)

Then there was the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road Company, established in the late 1840s, with the aim of extending a plank road from Oswego to Joliet, and from there due east across Will County to Indiana. Promoters and officers of the plank toll road read like a roll call of early Joliet business and political leaders, including Illinois Governor-to-be Joel Matteson.

According to Joliet railroad historian, Bill Molony, the O&IPR Company’s survey for the road’s route was completed in May 1851 and the right-of-way was obtained. According to Molony, the section from Plainfield to Joliet was opened in 1852 or 1853. Travel on that stretch was heavy, so it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that the road would quickly be extended west to Oswego. And, in fact, work started on the stretch west of Plainfield to Oswego, but funding quickly dried up as the newfangled railroad was proving to be not only feasible but also faster and more economical even than plank road traffic.

In the end, of course, the enthusiasm for plank roads turned out to be a blunder. Steam engines didn’t require oats or horseshoes and they didn’t get tired or die while working hard in hot Illinois summers. They could run all day and all night, rain or shine, winter or summer. Once the classic “I” shaped steel rail was perfected, maintenance on rail lines became a relatively minor part of the entire cost of transporting goods. Not so plank roads, which required constant maintenance and even then the surface often proved unreliable. Broken planks damaged wagons and often injured or even killed horses.

By the late 1850s, rails not roads were seen to be the transportation wave of the future. But the damage to local economies had already been done. Writing in the Sept. 5, 1855 Kendall County Courier, an early settler writing under the pen name “Plow Boy,” reported that:

“In 1850, a [rail] road was commenced from the Junction to Aurora, thereby connecting with Chicago. A committee of agents of the railroad company waited upon the citizens of Oswego, and solicited their cooperation in extending the road to Oswego. But they were met with insults. They were told that Oswego could do favorably enough without a railroad. That a plank road was the thing that would throw railroads in the shade, and monopolize the whole business of transportation. The consequence was that Oswego was without either railroads or plank roads.”

As a result of this misplaced faith, Naperville didn’t get a rail link to Chicago until the mid-1860s, and Oswego and Yorkville didn’t get their rail links until 1870. At least Naperville’s rail line was a main line link; Oswego’s and Yorkville’s was a spur line.

To us, with the advantage of 20/20 historical hindsight, the decision to refuse participation in extending rail lines, but instead to champion plank roads seems crazy. But at the time, it all seemed perfectly reasonable and justified by the economic imperatives of the day. The challenge has never been to look back to see what we’ve done wrong; it’s always been to try to look ahead and figure out which of the available options is the right one.




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Filed under Aurora, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Technology, Transportation

Bison really did roam the Prairie State–lots of them…

Saw the news item the other day regarding reintroducing the American Bison to open lands on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. Apparently, bison from the reservation were transported to Canada about a century ago to recreate a herd north of the boarder, and now the folks up in the Great White North are returning the favor to the Blackfeet people. Naturally, the ‘sagebrush rebellion’ folks are against it, but a few of the giant animals are already roaming their former range.

Thoughts of bison naturally turn to the Great Plains and the eastern slope of the Rockies, since that’s where the giant herds lived that so impressed early travelers and settlers. But we had bison right here on the tallgrass prairies and in the woods east of the Mississippi just as they did west of the river. Granted, the eastern herds weren’t as vast as the western herds, but at one time, there were a lot of bison around these parts.

1687 bison detail from Hennepin's Mississippi map

A detail from Hennepin’s 1687 map of the Mississippi River recognizes the importance of bison to the lives of Native People. (Library of Congress)

In fact, on one of the earliest maps depicting northern Illinois, our Fox River (as distinct from the Fox River of Wisconsin that empties into Green Bay) is labeled “R. Pestekouy.”

Pestekouy was reportedly the word for bison in the tongue of the resident Native Americans who spoke the Algonquian family of languages. So the name of the river suggests American Bison were probably fairly common along its banks.

Although the upper Illinois River Valley and its tributaries comprise a tiny fraction of the huge map (measuring 6 x 4.5 feet, it was drawn by the official cartographer of New France, Jean Baptiste Louis Franquelin), it is perhaps the earliest and most accurate of the maps produced during the 17th Century era of exploration of the lower Great Lakes.

The history of bison in Illinois has been of interest to historians and archaeologists for generations—and in dispute for almost the entire time. The attempt to chronicle that history and fit it into the history and prehistory of the state has been a puzzle that has become much more clear in recent years.

The last wild bison in Illinois was reportedly killed about 1808, so by the time the earliest settlers arrived in northern Illinois, the huge grazing animals had been gone for two decades or so.

1855 Bison hunters

This 1855 engraving gives an idea of how the hunters of the Illinois Confederacy may well have hunted bison during the winter here in Illinois.

With the question of when bison disappeared from Illinois documented, the state’s early historians began wondering how long the animals had been in the state before they were eradicated. In the late 19th Century, the new science of archaeology began to be applied to the most obvious (and sometimes spectacular) of Native American remains in Illinois—the thousands of mounds that dotted the state. Given the importance of bison to the tribes then still living on the Great Plains west of the Mississippi, the state’s early historians figured that certainly the Indians who occupied Illinois up to the era of colonization would also have been intensive consumers of the animals. So imagine their surprise when a vanishingly small number of bison remains were discovered through the years during excavations of mounds and, later, village and other habitation sites.

Those findings seemed to clash with accounts left by early French explorers who visited Illinois during the late 1600s, and who reported that bison were a major food source for local Indians who, they reported, conducted large, organized bison hunts twice yearly.

So the question loomed: How could bison be such a major factor in the culture of Indians during the Historic Period when physical evidence for them in Native People’s habitation sites seemed so rare?

After surveying the archaeological evidence collected during the previous several decades, John W. Griffin and Donald Wray concluded in a 1945 article in the Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Science, “Bison in Illinois Archaeology,” that bison did not arrive in Illinois until around 1600. They surmised that extreme drought conditions west of the Mississippi might have driven bison to seek better grazing east of the river. While that explanation seemed to fit the facts as they were then known, both historians and archaeologists remained uncomfortable with it.

American Bison Range

The range of the American Bison is mapped above, with the plains bison in darker brown and the larger woods bison in lighter brown. The lightest color denotes the range extent of Ice Age bison.

It was good they were uncomfortable because, as it turns out, the very archaeological evidence—or lack thereof—they relied on to make their determination ended up misleading Griffin and Wray.

Since 1945, work has continued to understand Illinois’ prehistory, including numerous excavations of habitation sites, as well as archeological and paleontological work at a number of non-village and non-habitation sites. As that all moved forward, more and more evidence began to accumulate that herds of bison had been present in Illinois for thousands of years before 1600.

Newer, more accurate scientific dating techniques for animal remains and the accumulation of ever more knowledge concerning Illinois during prehistoric times began leading researchers towards the idea that not only did bison roam Illinois well before historic times, but that they were also likely important sources of food for thousands of years.

Then in 2005, solid physical evidence for that was uncovered at the Lonza-Caterpillar Site along the Illinois River near Peoria. Archaeological excavations at the site had begun in 1996 and had uncovered several bison skeletons, along with those of elk, deer, and other animals apparently intermixed with evidence of human habitation, including cooking pits. Testing suggested Native Americans had occupied the site, off and on, for some 4,000 years.

As excavation continued at the site during the summer of 2005, researchers from the Illinois State Museum uncovered a bison skeleton with an embedded stone projectile point, clearly indicating hunters had harvested it. A bone in a second set of bison remains had a bit of chert, apparently from a broken projectile point, embedded in it as well. Both sets of bones were scientifically dated and suggest humans were for sure hunting bison in Illinois between 450 and 250 B.C.

Coupled with an increasing number of finds of bison remains, including remains of at least two individual animals discovered during silica sand mining operations near Ottawa that were dated to nearly 6,000 years ago, it seems that bison probably inhabited Illinois more or less continuously from the end of the last extension of glaciers into the state until they were exterminated in the first decade of the 19th Century.

American bison.jpg

Prairie bison once roamed virtually all of Illinois. The last wild bison was killed in 1808. They have now been reintroduced by both commercial breeders and in such places as on the grounds of Fermi National Laboratory in Batavia.

And that prompted historians, paleontologists, and archaeologists to undertake a complete reexamination of those widely accepted conclusions reached back in 1945 by Griffin and Wray.

Finds right here in Kendall County helped nudge those conclusions along after the numbers were plugged into scientific studies.

Among those finds was, in the first decade of the 20th Century, a trove of bison bones here in Seward Township on John Bamford‘s farm. Then in the late 1980s, another bison bone was discovered at the Jensen Site in what was found to be an ancient cooking pit on Dr. Lewis Weishew’s former property in Oswego.

And Kendall County wasn’t unique in that respect. Bison bones kept popping up in places they shouldn’t have—if Griffin and Wray’s hypothesis was correct—all over Illinois. By the late 1990s, R. Bruce McMillan, then the director of the Illinois State Museum, was curious enough to begin looking at the subject anew. He figured one good way to get an idea of bison in Illinois would be to survey the state’s museums—large and small—to see just how many bison remains had been discovered and where they were found.

As part of his study, McMillan and Dr. Bonnie Styles of the Illinois State Museum staff visited the Little White School Museum in Oswego in June 2000 to see the bison remains on exhibit there, including a portion of a rear leg bone discovered at the Jensen Site; a more complete bison leg bone found in the Fox River just above the mouth of Waubonsie Creek; and a bison tooth found in the creek itself. All three were submitted to Dr. Michael Finnegan of Kansas State University for positive identification as bison remains. Dr. Finnegan dated the Jensen Site bone to between 1200 and 1400 A.D., hundreds of years before Griffin and Wray suggested they’d arrived east of the Mississippi.

So if bison were here in Illinois, and quite common at that, what accounts for the rarity of bison bones in early Indian habitation sites? According to McMillan, the lack of bison evidence is not evidence of a lack of bison.

Something scientists, with a bit of humor, have dubbed the “schlepp effect” kicks in with bison, animals too large to easily haul to a village site in one piece after killing. Instead, he suggested, bison were butchered at kill sites and the meat, not the whole carcass, was hauled (“schlepped”) to village sites. And in fact, French accounts during the early historic period in Illinois attest to that. Bison bones left exposed on the Illinois prairie quickly deteriorate unless quickly covered like those at the Lonza-Caterpillar Site, thus was their very existence cloaked.

It appears bison reached their largest population in Illinois during the early historic period due to a variety of factors including the decimation of Native American tribes by imported European diseases and inter-tribal warfare. The introduction of firearms and the demand for bison hides then led to the animals’ eradication east of the Mississippi. In 1704, for instance, a single French tannery established near the mouth of the Ohio River reported shipping more than 12,000 bison hides down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

This story is a great illustration of what science is really all about. It is not well understood by many of us laypeople that scientists are always ready to rethink their conclusions—if and when something better comes along to explain whatever phenomena they’re studying. The key is, it really has to be better, scientifically, and provable in order to overturn a currently accepted theory.

If you’re interested in how 50 years of conventional scientific wisdom concerning bison in Illinois was turned on its head, get a copy of Records of Early Bison in Illinois by R. Bruce McMillan—it’s still available used on Amazon.com.




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

Ice skating and other winter memories…

For some reason, I got to thinking this morning about ice skating on the Fox when I was a kid

So decided to, as one of my blogging heroes Brad DeLong puts it, hoist a January 2013 post from the archives about when we used to skate on the Fox.

This year, with December’s heavy rains, the Fox is nearly at flood stage so even if global climate change and development hadn’t ruined the river for skating, the high water would have precluded freezing anyway. The best years for skating featured dry autumn weather so that the water level and the current were both at low ebb, which encouraged freezing the river solid.

I recently went through bunches of family photos, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any photos of us ice skating. But we do have a few ice skating-related photos in the collections of the Little White School Museum, some of which are in this post.

Here it is…enjoy!

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The week they killed the Illinois River…

Saw in the news the other day that Donald Trump, the real estate mogul who says he’s convinced he’s got what it takes to be President, said one of the government agencies he’d kill off as soon as possible is the Environmental Protection Agency.

Now Trump is not an entirely stupid person since he’s not been able, sometimes despite his best efforts, to squander the fortune left to him by his father and grandfather. But he does seem to be monumentally ignorant about everything other than how to bully opponents into doing whatever he thinks needs doing at the moment.

I’m sure Trump has absolutely no idea and even less interest in why the EPA was originally established, or the remarkably good things it does to make sure we don’t kill ourselves in the name of corporate profits.

After all, it’s not difficult to uncover stories recounting government bureaucracies run amuck, especially in the some of the areas regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and under the Endangered Species Act.

But before we get too enthusiastic about eliminating environmental and wildlife protection regulations because they might slow to the ability of corporate American to make an instant mega-buck or two, it might be useful to recall what the nation was like in the days before air and water quality were subjects for government regulation—and presumably what Trump and his ilk would like to see become the status quo once again.

It wasn’t all that long ago that rivers and creeks were considered to be little more than open sewers placed on the Earth as convenient dumping grounds for every human waste product from garbage and sewage to hazardous chemicals.

Starting from the era of settlement in the early 1830s, it took the pioneers and their descendants less than a century to kill the Fox River. And by the 1950s, the river was little more than a cesspool with a current. Changed as it was into a lethal mixture of heavy metals, chemical poisons such as cyanide, and raw sewage by the cities and industries along its course, the river was a daily reminder of how greed and ignorance can destroy a valuable natural asset.

While it took less than a century to kill the Fox, it took less than a week to kill the Des Plaines and upper Illinois rivers all the way from Chicago to Morris.

Sanitary and Ship Canal under construction. Photo by F.E. Compton Co., published 1914.

Sanitary and Ship Canal under construction in June 1899. Photo by F.E. Compton Co., published 1914.

By the late 1800s, Chicago was in trouble. Its rapidly growing population was daily creating about 500 million gallons of raw sewage, and the technology of the times simply wasn’t capable of dealing with it. It was impossible to continue dumping it into Lake Michigan because the city pumped its drinking water from the lake.

The only river in the city, the Chicago River, emptied into the lake, which was another problem. The slaughterhouses at the sprawling Union Stockyards had for years dumped the offal from butchering operations directly into the Chicago River, turning the stream septic by depriving the water of all oxygen. That poison, along with the raw human sewage of tens of thousands of residents and everything else dumped into the city’s sewers that flowed into the lake created a dangerous public health situation.

So the city’s engineers came up with what they figured was an ideal solution. The flow of the Chicago River and the ship canal that linked the lake with the Illinois River system via the Des Plaines would be reversed. Instead of the river flowing into the lake, the lake would flow into the river, creating a giant flushing mechanism designed to move the city’s sewage downstream to the less populated areas of the state. The sewage would be gone downstream, out of sight and out of mind. After all, who cared what happened to those living downstream?

Now the idea wasn’t completely new. Back when the Illinois & Michigan Canal was being contemplated, one of the ideas was to dig through the height of land separating Lake Michigan from the Des Plaines valley, and use lake water to keep the canal full. That, however, proved impossible given the engineering restrictions of the 1830s. In an early attempt to get sewage out of the lake in 1871, the old I&M Canal was deepened enough to introduce lake water into the canal system, but the scheme only lasted a year before the whole canal silted up and the reversal of flow halted.

But by the 1890s, such a project was not only conceivable, but eminently doable. And when the project was completed in January 1900, the locks at the old mouth of the Chicago River on the lakefront were opened on Jan. 17, lake water permanently rushed south for the first time.

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal looks tranquil in this 1904 photograph taken at Willow Springs, but the waterway was carrying a dangerous load of poisons and other pollutants that virtually eliminated all fish and other aquatic residents of the upper Illinois River.

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal looks tranquil in this 1904 photograph taken at Willow Springs, but the waterway was carrying a dangerous load of poisons and other pollutants that virtually eliminated all fish and other aquatic residents of the upper Illinois River.

In the 1911 edition of the Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, famed fisheries biologist Stephen A. Forbes, the first head of the Illinois Natural History Survey, wrote a gripping description of what happened to the river during and immediately after the locks opened.

Not that you should get the idea the Des Plaines River was a pristine stream in 1900, of course. Forbes noted that the river’s flow was “sluggish” during the low water that summer as it carried “undiluted, the sewage of a number of large suburbs” of Chicago. The sewage carried by the Des Plaines “had consequently time to reach an advanced stage of decomposition and to develop immense numbers of septic organisms before it reached the mouth of the [sanitary and ship] canal,” Forbes wrote.

At the mouth of the canal, on the day the locks opened, the Des Plaines and its noisome cargo met the “comparatively fresh” sewage from Chicago. Forbes knew the Chicago sewage was “fresh” because of its “still recognizable ingredients, such as lumps of tallow, chunks of human excrement, pieces of toilet paper, watermelon and muskmelon seeds, broken grains of corn and wheat and finely chopped straw–all coming down practically unaltered through the whole length of the canal.”

The flood of sewage continued south in the Des Plaines until it met the Kankakee River where the two streams formed the Illinois River. Further downstream at Morris on July 15, Forbes wrote, the river “was grayish and sloppy, with foul, privy odors distinguishable….Putrescent masses of soft, grayish or blackish, slimy matter, loosely held together by threads of fungi and densely covered with bell animalcules, were floating down the stream….The gases from the bottom sediments of the stream were obtained for analysis and were found to be identical with those from septic tanks….There were, of course, no fishes here, or any other animals requiring oxygen.”

By the time the raw sewage stream arrived at Peoria, at least some of the raw sewage either precipitated out or had oxidized, removing what little oxygen that remained in the water. Fish in the Illinois were driven up the Fox and other tributaries as they sought oxygenated water. And the upper stretches of the Des Plaines and Illinois were dead. That’s they way things stayed for years.

As this photo posted on the Illinois Wisconsin Fishing Blog testifies, the Fox River has rebounded from its former badly polluted state. The river now boasts growing populations of smallmouth bass, walleye, norther pike and other gamefish.

As this photo posted on Blake’s great Illinois Wisconsin Fishing Blog testifies, the Fox River has rebounded from its former badly polluted state. The river now boasts growing populations of smallmouth bass, walleye, norther pike and other gamefish.

With the emphasis on clean air and water and the passage of national laws regulating both, things slowly began turning around. It’s taken some 40 years, but today, the Illinois-Des Plaines system is popular with boaters and fishermen. The Fox, which was also badly polluted until passage of the first Clean Water Act, has bounced back as well.

It is more than likely little of any of that progress would have been made without the efforts begun first at the federal level and then in the states as appreciation of how badly we’d treated the land, air and water we depend on for life itself.

It’s true that bureaucrats often overstep their bounds—is a mud puddle in an old gravel pit really a “wetland” that deserves federal protection? But before we get too enthusiastic about throwing out government regulations, it might be a good idea to recall those “putrescent masses of soft, grayish or blackish, slimy matter,” Dr. Forbes saw floating down the Illinois River in those good old pre-regulation days. I could be wrong, but I’m not sure even Donald Trump would be in favor of going back over that ground.


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The star-crossed I&M Canal…

When missionary and linguist Father Jacques Marquette and cartographer Louis Jolliet first saw the area around Chicago at the foot of Lake Michigan in 1673, they were struck by how easy it might be to build a canal connecting the headwaters of the Chicago River with the Des Plaines River.

Jolliet suggested that it wouldn’t take much labor to dig a deep enough canal to link the Des Plaines—part of the Illinois River system—to the Chicago River whose mouth is on Lake Michigan. One short canal, the Jesuit explorer suggested, would connect the south-flowing Illinois and Mississippi rivers with the Great Lakes highway from the interior of northern North America with the Atlantic seaboard colonies.

The Illinois & Michigan Canal linked the Illinois River with Lake Michigan at Chicago. Although its heyday was brief, it boosted Illinois' economy starting in the late 1840s. (Wikipedia image)

The Illinois & Michigan Canal linked the Illinois River with Lake Michigan at Chicago. Although its heyday was brief, it boosted Illinois’ economy starting in the late 1840s. (Wikipedia image)

Local Indians, in fact, told the explorers that the two rivers occasionally mingled their waters during wet spring seasons or other times when both were at flood stage.

But while a canal linking the Illinois River and Lake Michigan didn’t seem like much of an engineering challenge to 17th Century French explorers, the idea never really took off, mainly due to the remoteness of the Illinois Country from the other settled areas of Colonial North America.

That the idea wasn’t acted upon didn’t mean people forgot about it, however. When the U.S. government moved into the area after the successful conclusion of the Revolutionary War, military officers and others again began contemplating the construction of a canal. When the government concluded a treaty with Indian tribes in northern Illinois in 1816, one of the provisions was a cession of land roughly 10 miles either side of the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers for 100 miles southwest from Lake Michigan to the rapids on the Illinois River that marked the head of steamboat navigation. The tribes were persuaded to give up the land for a virtual pittance on the assurance of Ninian Edwards, governor of the Illinois Territory, that a canal built in the area would be an economic boon for the Native Americans.

At first, the U.S. Government agreed with Louis Jolliet on the ease of connecting Lake Michigan with the Illinois River. Major Stephen Long of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrote to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun in 1816 contending that the canal could be built “with very little expense compared with the magnitude of the object,” which was building the economic power of the West. But President James Monroe figured it wasn’t the federal government’s job to finance internal improvements and so the idea again languished.

It wasn’t until 1822 that Congress finally authorized construction of a canal on the ceded lands. The idea was that land within the 10-mile strip on either side of the river could be sold to defray the cost of building the waterway. But Congress only gave the new state of Illinois enough right-of-way for the canal itself and the towpath, keeping the rest of the land for itself. Illinois Gov. Shadrack Bond decided to go ahead with the project anyway and got the engineering work moving ahead.

Some of the old I&M Canal's locks have been restored, like this one, Lock 15, at LaSalle, Illinois. (I&M Heritage Corridor photo)

Some of the old I&M Canal’s locks have been restored, like this one, Lock 15, at LaSalle, Illinois. (I&M Heritage Corridor photo)

That’s when it was discovered the project wouldn’t be quite as easy as it seemed. While the area around Chicago seemed to be nothing but muddy wetlands, it turned out that bedrock hidden by all that mud and water was close to the surface. Further, there turned out to be quite a bit of fall between Lake Michigan and Peru, where steamboats had to stop most of the time due to rapids on the Illinois River. And finally, while it was relatively easy to get from the headwaters of the Chicago River to the Des Plaines, that really didn’t get you anywhere worthwhile. The Des Plaines, for much of the year, was so shallow that even fur trade canoes had to be portaged around long stretches of it. At certain times, the portage at Chicago to water where boats and canoes could actually float was up to 60 miles in length. So the river as part of the canal was ruled out, and a dug canal paralleling the river for 96 miles from Lake Michigan to Peru was in.

With those problems understood, engineers estimated the canal would probably cost $700,000, a huge sum in those days.

To help out, Congress granted the state a five-mile swath of land on each side of the proposed canal route in 1827 (a total of 290,915 acres), with the land sales at $1.25 an acre to help finance construction.

But at first, land sales were as sluggish as the Chicago River’s current, and cost estimates kept rising to astonishing heights.

Even so, there was agitation to get the project going. After all, the Erie Canal in New York, that linked Lake Erie with the Hudson River across more than 300 miles of extremely rough, almost mountainous, country had been built and opened in 1826. The New York canal was not only an engineering marvel—probably the greatest engineering triumph of the first half of the 19th Century in the United States—but was also a huge financial success.

So despite the ever-increasing construction estimates and other concerns, construction began July 4, 1836 in Bridgeport near Chicago. The start of construction immediately caused hysterical land speculation along the canal’s route.

And then the whole thing—canal construction, land speculation, and get-rich schemes too numerous to count—came to a screeching halt when the Panic of 1837, one of the nation’s most severe depressions, struck. The panic was a likely unintended consequence of President Andrew Jackson’s hatred of both paper money and the Bank of the United States. Jackson forced paper money to be recalled throughout the west and decreed only gold or silver coins would be accepted. The move literally sucked all the money out of the fast-growing western frontier of the era—meaning Illinois and the other states created from the Old Northwest Territory.

The outstanding bonds on the canal bankrupted Illinois—and cost estimates rose to more than $13 million. The General Assembly, led by Whigs who championed internal improvements at government expense, had involved the state ever more deeply in financing the canal. Although it limped along as a little money trickled in here and there, by 1842, construction had stopped altogether.

Very early on, a so-called “deep cut” strategy, which would have allowed boats to enter the canal directly from Lake Michigan and sail serenely to Peru was contemplated. But as soon as the route was surveyed and land contours mapped that was dropped in favor of building locks along the canal route.

The canal route descends 141 feet from its entry on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago to the end of the line at Peru. To handle the drop, a series of 15 locks were designed by canal engineer William Gooding. Dams and feeder aqueducts were built from several rivers and streams—including the Fox River at Dayton—to supply water for the canal. The feeders were made largely redundant in 1871 when a deep cut was made through the rise from the elevation of Lake Michigan to Lockport, and water from the lake could be used to fill the canal.

Along with other engineering miracles, the canal crossed the Fox River at Ottawa via an aqueduct.

After many fits and starts, the Illinois and Michigan Canal finally opened for business in 1848. And just as its promoters had promised, it became a powerful economic engine driving growth in northern Illinois.

From April 24 to Oct. 15, you can even take a ride on a replica canal boat towed by a mule at LaSalle. For information, go to http://www.lasallecanalboat.org/.

From April 24 to Oct. 15, you can even take a ride on a replica canal boat at LaSalle towed by a mule. For information, go to http://www.lasallecanalboat.org/.

However, the canal had the bad luck to be finished just as railroad construction began in Illinois, and so the I&M Canal’s heyday was to be very brief in duration, but not in impact. And even though railroads soon stole much of the canal’s business, the idea of shipping goods by water—which was and is much cheaper than by rail—did catch on. It was especially a boon for the region’s farmers, since the canal opened markets from New York to New Orleans. Soon, most of the region’s grain was flowing to Chicago via the canal where newly developed grain elevators loaded freighters headed east. That not only boosted Chicago but it marginalized once-booming river ports to the south including St. Louis.

Eventually the I&M was superseded by the Illinois Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Illinois Waterway, which still carry millions of tons of goods. As the huge tugs push giant tows up and down the river, the old I&M Canal still slumbers right beside the newer, much larger waterway.

Today, the I&M Canal has become a destination for nature lovers and those interested in the state’s early history. Cycling and hiking along the canal’s former towpaths, picnicking, wildlife watching, and even canoing along some sections draw thousands of visitors every year.


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A plea on behalf of the lowly cottonwood…

Several years ago I lost an old, old friend, when crews from the village of Oswego removed a giant cottonwood tree just down North Adams Street from my home.

The tree was dying. After every storm, it dropped a few more branches. A strong windstorm a few weeks before it was taken down brought a giant limb larger than many trees in the village crashing down on the street. So it was probably time the venerable old tree was removed. But I still miss it.

When I moved to North Adams Street as a third grader, the tree, located just next door, was one of the largest along a street crowded with giant overarching elms and cottonwoods.

Cottonwoods can grow to 100 feet in height and can be four or more feet in diameter.

Cottonwoods can grow to 100 feet in height and can be four or more feet in diameter.

In the summertime, we’d sit under it, and even during the hottest days, the rustle of cottonwood leaves–they pick up every hint of a breeze–made a sound that seemed to promise cooler weather. We never climbed the towering tree or tried to build a tree house in it. It was far to large, and the branches closest to the ground were still far higher than those on most of the other mature trees in the neighborhood.

After my wife and I were married, we bought the house—my great-great grandparents had lived there until their deaths in the early 1900s—and the giant cottonwood that dominated the front yard became a part of our lives. We watched each spring as leaves formed, and groused a bit as the inevitable cotton-like seeds coated the 1 neighborhood.

Even then, well over 40 years ago, the tree was starting to die. The dead branches, though, first became homes and feeding stations for woodpeckers and other birds. After limbs were culled by one of our vigorous Illinois windstorms, birds colonized the rotted heartwood voids in jagged stumps left on the tree’s towering trunk. And the rustle of those leaves still sounded a cooling note on the hot summer days of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In 1976, we sold my great-great grandparents’ house and moved next door to my parents’ house (and my childhood home) in 1976. The tree was no longer ours, but we still kept an eye on it. It still shaded the street on sultry August days, and stood out in stark light gray contrast against a cold startlingly blue January sky, offering me, at least, a tie with my childhood and with all the folks who had known the tree.

Cottonwoods create a distinctive foreground for clear blue Midwestern winter skies.

Cottonwoods create a distinctive foreground for clear blue Midwestern winter skies.

The giant cottonwood probably grew of its own accord, seeded by any one of the dozens of towering cottonwoods that once lined the banks of the Fox River. Cottonwoods like moisture, and in our narrow river bottomland along North Adams, the trees found conditions to their liking.

From the size of the tree, it may well have been an immature tree when the Battle of San Juan Hill was fought, possibly even providing some shade along the dirt track that was then called Water Street when my great-great-grandparents moved to the house in which my wife and I would one day live.

The tree had matured by the time my great-grandparents moved to town in 1908, building the home I now live in, to live next to my great-grandmother’s parents, whose front yard the cottonwood dominated. The tree was there to see wars and famine and depression and recovery as the decades passed, growing, maturing, and becoming old, providing shade and living space for a variety of wildlife from fox squirrels to red- headed woodpeckers.

During the years it stood close by the road, the springs that dampen the soil there providing plenty of nourishment, its relatives growing on the banks of the Fox River themselves became old and, ravaged by flood, ice, and age, and one by one, died.

When the settlers arrived, cottonwoods with their penchant for keeping their feet damp marked watercourses and provided both shade and a welcoming environment for hundreds of creatures. They were easy to spot with their distinctive medium gray deeply-fissured bark and towering trunks that can reach 100 feet in height. Like their relatives the poplars and aspens, cottonwoods have rounded triangular-shaped leaves that are dark green on top and a light silvery gray-green below.

The Midwest’s Native People favored cottonwoods for manufacturing dugout canoes because the wood is easily worked. They were not heavily logged as were most of the area’s other timber because cottonwood simply doesn’t make very good lumber. Dried, it becomes lightweight, almost like balsa wood, and so isn’t particularly good for firewood, either.

The passing of our cottonwoods is, I think, a melancholy event. Forest preserves, municipalities, and parks are much more likely to plant one of the more glamorous hardwoods, such as maples or oaks, when they decide to reforest an area. It’s too bad someone is not planting a few cottonwoods, especially in low-lying areas and along streams. They grow fast, tolerate wet conditions, and provide valuable streamside stabilization. And since only the female trees produce the billowing clouds of cottonwood seeds each spring, cloned male trees that are available for planting don’t create that particular problem.

So if no one else is willing to champion planting a few cottonwoods to replace our dying the giants, I will. Consider this a plea to allow our children to enjoy the sound of cottonwood leaves giving a cooling rustle as a breeze stirs on a sultry July afternoon. Give another generation a chance to see towering, gaunt, gray branches silhouetted against a brilliant winter sky. Offer all of us a chance to see the leading gusts of a fast-moving summer thunder storm change the dark green leaves to silvery green as the first gusts hit and big drops of rain begin to fall.

Our old friend on North Adams Street is long gone. The summers have been a little hotter on our street because of the loss of the old giant’s shade, and we have a little less diversity in bird life as woodpeckers and other insect-eaters hunt elsewhere for their dinners. But perhaps as reforestation takes place throughout Kendall County, our forest preserve, park district, and municipal officials will decide that diversity demands a cottonwood or two be included so that future generations can lie on their blankets on a summer day looking up and marveling at what nature—with the help of a few tree planters—has wrought.

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

Wasting quality time during summers on the river

Summers when I was a kid, we spent hours on the Fox River.

These days, we see a lot of canoes and kayaks on the river, groups of them, in fact. But I don’t see any kids using river scows to poke around the shallows along the shore or in and out of the islands that dot the river.

When it comes to kids and the river, things are not what they used to be.

None of us had canoes when I was a youngster—they were, in fact, considered somewhat exotic—but many of us owned a scow at one time or another.

A river scow looked, basically, like a wooden box that tapered at the bow. The sides were generally 12” deep, with the usual width at about four feet (the width of a sheet of plywood), and their length was most often eight feet, though some were both longer and wider. The stern was generally flat, and the bow was slightly swept up. The bottom was usually completely flat with no keel to catch on rocks or other obstructions. Some were painted gray, and some green, some dark blue.

Built in the days before plywood, this sturdy scow apparently got its owners were they needed to go. ("Repairing the Old Scow" from The Ice Queen by Ernest Ingersoll, Harper & Brothers, New York 1884)

Built in the days before plywood, this sturdy scow with upswept bow and stern apparently got its owners were they needed to go. (“Repairing the Old Scow” from The Ice Queen by Ernest Ingersoll, Harper & Brothers, New York 1884)

Unlike tippy round-bottomed canoes, river scows’ wide, flat bottoms made them very stable under almost all conditions. In addition, since they had relatively broad beams (sailor talk for “width”), they were also able to float on very little water, a definite advantage on the generally shallow Fox River during the summer months.

Our scows were never fitted for outboard motors, mostly because the Fox was far too shallow to safely run a motor, unless it was during the annual spring flood, and that was no time to be out on the river. Also, none of us had the money to buy an outboard motor, so there was that, too.

We usually didn’t row, either. Oars were expensive and had to be bought in a store, and rowing in the shallow, rock-filled river was way too challenging. Sometimes, though, oars could be a help, especially when trying to get up one of the river’s rapids.

We didn’t row and we didn’t paddle and we didn’t use outboards, so, you may ask, how did we propel our boats? We polled them, standing up in back like boatmen in Venice propel their gondolas and Senegalese fishermen get from place to place. We made our poles by cutting one of the soft maples that grew like weeds along the shoreline, generally choosing one that was eight to 10 feet long and about two inches in diameter. We favored using our hatchets to dress the business end into a blunt point that made it easier to get a grip on the river’s bottom which ranged from gravel, to rocky, to mud, and even sometimes smooth bedrock. And we left the bark on to give us a better grip.

Polling was a skill that took a bit of learning. Standing in the rear of the boat, the boatman (or boatgirl) stood sideways with the left foot forward (assuming the boatman to be right-handed). After feeling the bottom with the poll to get a good purchase, the poll was pushed using the shoulder and arm muscles and bracing with leg muscles. Besides muscles, successful polling required a good sense of both balance and rhythm.

Scows were generally made with two permanent seats, one in the bow and one amidships. Sometimes a third (usually removable) seat was installed at the stern. Since it was hard to poll with a seat in the way, the stern seat was usually removed during use.

Besides a good pole, the only other standard equipment was an anchor and a couple lengths of rope. We made our own anchors by putting some pieces of scrap iron in a coffee can, and then filling it with concrete, adding an eyebolt before the concrete set. Some scows boasted two anchors, although not many went to the trouble.

Scows were fine craft to explore islands and from which to fish. They were generally stable craft and forgiving of most mistakes. In addition, polling is quiet, and it’s easy to sneak up on a favorite fishing hole, gliding in to catch an unwary catfish.

I helped build two scows for friends, and owned one my folks bought me that was built like a tank of 1” lumber throughout and 2” gunwales. It was so stable that two of us could stand on the gunwale on one side and it wouldn’t tip over. That also meant, however, that it wasn’t the easiest boat to handle given that it was so heavy.

A clammer in his scow on the Rock River, Beloit, Wisconsin, about 1910. By the 1950s, clamming was long gone from the Fox River.  (Photo by Lloyd Ballerd, Beloit College Archives)

A clammer in his scow on the Rock River, Beloit, Wisconsin, about 1910. By the 1950s, clamming was long gone from the Fox River. (Photo by Lloyd Ballerd, Beloit College Archives)

By the time we were haunting the Fox River from Boulder Hill to the islands just below Oswego, scows were no longer used for commercial purposes. In the first half of the 20th Century, a lot of Kendall County residents made money clamming—harvesting clams whose shells were then sold to button factories, one of which was located in Yorkville for a few years. A combination of river pollution and the invention of white plastic killed the clamming industry along the river. By the time we came along, though, those days were merely memories and the big scows the clammers used were but memories.

Today, it seems, scows themselves are but memories. I haven’t seen one in use on the river in decades. Today’s kids seem to spend their waking hours playing organized sports, participating in one of the many scout or 4-H groups in the area, or being hustled from one to another of the many organized activities kids participate in these days. There seems to be little interest in spending time alone on the river, observing plants and animals outside the structured settings of school or park programs. And that’s a shame.

There’s nothing quite like gliding through the mist rising from the river on a cool summer morning, watching a Great Blue Heron fish for its breakfast or spying an egret resting on a riverside tree branch, or exploring an island looking for treasure. It’s too bad so few of today’s kids will ever experience it—they don’t know what they’re missing.

But I do.

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Carping about the Fox River…

The good news is that the Fox River has somewhat, if far from entirely, recovered from the grievous things done to it in the name of progress during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Right now, the river is pretty much a raging torrent, carrying the runoff from well over 6” of precipitation that has fallen on the Fox River Valley since June 1—with more on the way. The high water helps flush poisons, old and new, out of the streambed, which encourages the spawning of gamefish so sought-after by local anglers. From muskies to walleyes to fighting smallmouth bass, the Fox now boasts an increasingly healthy fishery.

The manufactured gas plant in Aurora in 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped in the river, as can be seen in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

The manufactured gas plant in Aurora in 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped in the river, as can be seen in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

It wasn’t always so, of course. The pioneers who arrived along the river’s banks in the early 19th Century started indiscriminately used it as a handy sewer as soon as they got here, dumping everything in from their own human waste to the byproducts of industries large and small, in to watch it drift downstream. The most noxious producers of waste products were the coal gas manufacturing plants, the largest at Aurora owned by what became Western United Gas & Electric. There, coal was cooked to release gas used for cooking and heating Fox Valley homes while the byproducts, laced with crazily lethal carcinogens, were dumped in the river.

The result was the elimination of most desirable gamefish, which left the river mostly to the German carp. Many area residents were convinced the carp had driven the other species out by clouding and otherwise fouling the water, but, in fact, the carp were among the only fish tough enough to survive until the federal government started getting serious about cleaning up the nation’s streams in the 1970s.

There are still parts of the river—in the dead-end channel on the east side of the Ashland Avenue dam at Montgomery, for instance—where nothing other than what pioneering fisheries biologists S.A. Forbes and R.E. Richardson described as “filth enduring species” like carp can be found. That’s because those areas, especially in summer, suffer from oxygen depletion and lack of sufficient current to cleanse the channel of pollutants.

But in the free-flowing stretches of the river, particularly the portion from the dam in Montgomery to just above the dam at Yorkville, and from there to Dayton, the river is relatively healthy and the numbers of Forbes’ and Richardson’s “filth enduring species” are far lower.

German carp thrived after being stocked in the Fox River by the U.S. Fish Commission in the 19th Century.

German carp thrived after being stocked in the Fox River by the U.S. Fish Commission in the 19th Century.

As I noted above, carp, while generally disdained by anglers, did not cause the river’s problems. But they are certainly a powerful sign that serious problems still exist, because carp can thrive where other fish simply can’t live.

At that same time, of course, we must keep in mind that carp are not native to the Fox River. Rather, they were shipped here from Europe at fair expense and stocked in the river as part of a U.S. Government project to encourage a commercial inland fishery on the Illinois River and its tributaries.

“Sufficient attention has not been paid in the United States to the introduction of the European carp as a food-fish,” a U.S. Fish Commission report for 1872-1873 contended.

But attention was soon more than sufficient and the commission began carp imports in the late 1870s. The fish were so prized that the first shipments from Europe were placed in the reflecting pools at the Washington Monument to recover from the trip and lazily pass the winter before they were released in western rivers.

The first batch, 40 carp, was stocked in the Fox River in Kendall County in 1882. In 1883, 20 more were stocked in Kendall County. After that, the program accelerated, with 1,000 stocked at Aurora during a single day on Jan. 2, 1886.

Illinois in general and the Fox River in particular got so much attention partly because the one-time superintendent of the U.S. Fish Commission was Dr. S.P. Bartlett of Quincy. Bartlett was a staunch carp booster who wrote in 1900 that “…it is today the universal opinion of every responsible fish dealer on the Illinois River that the carp was the best gift ever made by the United States Fish Commission to the people of the State.”

Which was saying something, because among some of the other species the fish commission stocked in the Fox River were Atlantic Salmon, Chinook Salmon, and Rainbow Trout. Unfortunately, the salmon and trout didn’t take. Even more unfortunately, the carp did.

Bartlett complained that people kept blaming him for introducing carp to Illinois rivers. But he contended, lots of people liked the carp, pointing to a letter he received form M.D. Hurley, president of the Illinois Fishermen’s Association. According to Hurley: “I have heard it said that the carp are driving the fine fish out of the river. This is also far from the truth, as the carp lives in harmony with all kinds of fine fish. The only fish that does not seem to like the carp is the buffalo, and that is because carp are too lively for them and they cannot stand the jumping about of the carp.”

Bartlett’s cheerleading aside, by the early 1900s, carp had become an increasingly contentious issue in Illinois and elsewhere. Bartlett complained in 1902 that “This cry against the carp is a great big humbug—it is an outrage—they are a good fish if you know how to cook them.” Although he added with refreshing honesty, “But not so good if you don’t know how.”

Shot back W.E. Meehan, commissioner of fisheries for Pennsylvania and someone who didn’t like carp (or, apparently, those people, who turned out to be Italians) one bit: “Possibly the carp is fit for food. Personally, I do not like his looks as a fish and I do not like the looks of the people I have seen buying him in the market. I believe he is a cheap food for a cheap people…I do not think we can make good people out of cheap food.”

And so the arguments went. In the end it was found the introduction of carp, along with many more boneheaded species introductions, have had serious and negative impacts on the nation’s environment. Oddly enough, we still haven’t learned that lesson—witness those annoying Asian ladybugs, Dutch elm disease, and a host of other calamities we’ve brought on ourselves.

But one thing you can give the lowly carp credit for: They’re wonderful living gauges of stream quality. When you see them and no other fish swimming in a river or creek you know that stretch of water is in big environmental trouble.

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Filed under Aurora, Environment, Food, Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History