With all the turmoil driven by the Covid-19 pandemic and the nation’s political situation, let’s get our minds off today’s troubles by taking a microhistorical dive into Oswego’s past life as a quarrying and mining center.
Quarrying? Mining? Those who give our small corner of the Fox Valley’s geology any thought at all probably figure the gently rolling landscape left after the last glaciers retreated has always been primarily used by farmers, first Native People and then the White settlers that displaced them.
But while it hasn’t gotten as much attention as farming, mining has been a local pursuit since prehistoric times.
A few hundred million years ago, Oswego was at the bottom of a shallow sea. Over the eons, tiny marine creatures died and drifted to the bottom where their shells built up into substantial layers of limestone.
The Native People who arrived following the retreating glaciers found they could mine the limestone bluffs along Waubonsie Creek behind the modern Oswego Public Library for nodules of chert that could be easily fashioned into razor-sharp knives, scrapers, drills, and points for arrows and spears. And, in fact, back in the 1980s when we were permitted to do a little rescue archaeology, we found a chert-knapping workshop on the bluff overlooking the creek not far upstream from those chert veins. We retrieved somewhere around 50 pounds of chips (a tiny fraction of the total) those ancient workmen left behind as they fashioned their tools and weapons—and those chips were still razor-sharp.
When White settlers arrived in the 1830s, they soon discovered the limestone that underlays the Oswego area was relatively easy to access, especially along the creek where those ancient people had mined chert. And they didn’t waste much time in mining that limestone for a number of purposes.
Local quarries were established in several areas, including along the banks of the creek behind what is now the Oswego Public Library where those chert mines had been located. Unlike the Native Americans who mined chert veins layering the limestone, the settlers quarried the limestone itself for building materials. Evidence of these early quarrying operations is still visible today if you look hard enough.
The Hopkins brothers established a limestone quarry along the creek early in the village’s history. Then in 1871, another quarry was opened a bit farther upstream. As the Kendall County Record reported on Oct. 5 of that year, “Ed. Richards and Chas. Mann have opened a quarry up the Wauponsie [sic] on the land of Mr. Loucks from which they are taking very nice building stone.”
Eventually, Loucks took over the quarry’s operation, as the Feb. 10, 1876 Record reported: “Walter Loucks Esq., one of Oswego’s oldest citizens, has the well-known stone quarry on the Wauponsie [sic] creek open for business again, and parties in want of good stone for building purposes or good sharp sand for mortar or cement should call at the Wauponsie quarry. Mr. Loucks expects to be able to furnish cut stone for all purposes in a few months.”
By June that year, the Record reported Loucks’ quarry was in full operation: “When you want stone for foundation or cellar walls, for well or cistern, you can get a first class article at Walter Loucks’ stone quarry at Oswego.”
As the Record noted about the Loucks quarry, in addition to using limestone as a building material, early Oswego residents also baked the limestone in kilns to produce quicklime, which, in turn was mixed with sand to create lime mortar for stone and brick construction. There was once at least one lime kiln along the banks of Waubonsie Creek just upstream from the Ill. Route 25 bridge, probably operated by Loucks in conjunction with his cut limestone and sand quarrying operation.
Over on the west side of the Fox River a mile north of Oswego, the Wormley Quarry, operated by Civil War veteran George D. Wormley, produced both cut limestone and flagstone. The Wormleys used cut stone from their quarry to build two of their farmhouses adjacent to the quarry. In addition, large quantities of flagstone were mined from the Wormley quarry, some of it likely used as foundation stones for the grist and sawmills built by Nathaniel Rising at the Fox River dam just north of Oswego.
Flagstone’s name derives from Middle English flagge, meaning turf, or maybe from the Old Norse flaga meaning slab or chip—opinions appear to vary. Flagstone occurs in layers of varying thickness and is ideal for sidewalks and paving.
The Wormley quarry continued on for many years. In July 1881, the Kendall County Record ran an ad from George Wormley touting the quality of stone from his quarry: “Stone! Stone!” the advertisement announced. In the advertisement, Wormley stated: “I am getting out some very fine stone and will try and get enough to go around. Come and see for yourselves. Also flagging. Can get stone to cover culverts almost any time.”
After its life as a stone quarry, the Wormley quarry property was sold to the YWCA for use as a summer camp and named Camp Quarryledge. Since those days, the parcel has had numerous owners but the old quarry, namesake of the camp, still exists, owned nowadays by the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints.
The Hopkins Quarry, operated by Oswego farmer Elijah Hopkins, was situated on Wolf’s Crossing Road, just west of Oswego. Hopkins and his family emigrated to Oswego from Ohio in 1857, settling just east of the village on what was sometimes called the Old Naperville Road, which we call today Wolf’s Crossing Road.
Hopkins found the topsoil on his land was only about two feet deep atop the underlying limestone, providing easy access by the Hopkins family quarrymen. Hopkins eventually opened quarries on both sides of the road. Like the Wormley and Loucks quarries, Hopkins’ quarries produced both good quality building limestone and flagstone. As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on June 8, 1876, “Joseph Failing has laid down a very nice and substantial flagstone sidewalk in front of his residence. The stone came from the Hopkins quarry.”
Today, the former quarries are serene lakes and wildlife sanctuaryies amidst the area’s hustle and bustle where evidence of mining is still clearly visible on the quarry walls.
Those glaciers didn’t only uncover and leave behind limestone, either. Glacial till in the form of gravel deposits underlay much of the Fox River Valley, and that includes the Oswego area.
South of Oswego along the river the Cowdrey family farmed along with their neighbors, the Leighs and Parkhursts and Herrens. In the 1870s, the scenic wooded parcels of the Cowdrey farm became favored destinations of picnickers from Oswego and Yorkville. During the hot summers of the era, refugees from nearby cities came to the area to camp, some spending a month or more at Cowdrey’s Woods.
As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Aug. 7, 1889, “A number from the cities of this region are now encamped in the Cowdrey park down the river.”
During that era, the railroads in the U.S. were undergoing explosive growth and every mile of rails required tons of gravel for the roadbed, including fill for depressions along the right-of-way. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad knew there were extensive gravel beds underlaying Cowdrey’s farm (the railroad’s Fox River Branch was built right through the gravel beds), as well as the farms along the river all the way nearly to Oswego. And when the company’s other gravel beds began playing out, they started looking at the area along their Fox River Branch south of Oswego for a replacement.
In 1892, the CB&Q’s huge gravel mining operation at Montgomery had played out, and the company was ready to convert the property into a livestock yard to allow sheep being shipped to the Chicago market to rest and feed before being sent on to the Chicago Stockyards. As the Record reported on July 27, 1892: “These extensive gravel beds have been nearly exhausted and will not be worked any longer than another year at most. The big excavation made there will be leveled off, properly drained and converted into sheep yards. The engineering work has already been completed and work of building will commence at once. Sheep that are shipped over the Chicago Burlington & Quincy and the Chicago Burlington & Northern lines will be unloaded at Montgomery and there prepared for the market. They will then be shipped to Chicago in car load lots or several cars at a time as wanted.”
In April 1893, the Record reported that George Cowdrey was negotiation with “Chicago parties” on selling his property for a gravel mine. And by August, the deal was done. On Oct. 11, the Record’s Oswego correspondent noted: “Operations in the gravel works down at Cowdrey’s have been commenced.”
The far south end of Cowdrey’s land didn’t appeal to the gravel interests as much, and that remained a popular area for campers. Bought by Chicago parties and named “The Elms,” the place drew city folks for years. And under it’s current name of “Hide-A-Way Lakes,” it still does.
The effects of the financial Panic of 1893 temporarily closed the gravel mines, but as the economy got moving once again, gravel mining south of Oswego accelerated, too. Companies under various names—the Fox River Gravel Company, the Conkey Gravel Company, Chicago Sand and Gravel, and the CB&Q itself—operated portions of the pits up into the 1950s leaving behind a landscape of narrow lakes on land adjacent to the Fox River.
The mining operation was huge, and included its own rail sidings and huge processing plants along with its own small railroad that, in those pre-diesel hauler days, carried the gravel from the huge steam shovels and draglines to the processing plant on the site. From there, the Burlington’s rail cars carried it to where the railroad needed it. The pits closed during the Great Depression, but reopened during World War II and then continued on until about 1950 when the operation closed for good.
The remaining lakes and spoil heaps from the old gravel mining operations remained, and provided some scenic areas for private homes and for organizations such as the Barber-Greene Hunting and Fishing Club. The State of Illinois bought a large parcel in the early 1950s when proposals were afoot to build a series of dams up and down the Fox River to make it navigable from the Chain of Lakes to Ottawa.
Part of the parcel was leased as a municipal dump for residents of Oswego and Oswego Township for several years. Then in the summer of 1963, the 160-acre parcel that included the dump was deeded over to the Oswego Park District (later renamed the Oswegoland Park District). Much to its future regret, the park district allowed dumping on the site to continue for a few years before closing the dump with the aim of turning the parcel into a natural area they named Saw Wee Kee Park.
Residents who lived on land adjacent to the park objected when the park district announced some modest development plans and a series of lawsuits was initiated against the park district alleging there was considerable contamination by hazardous materials on the old dump site. Years of litigation followed with the park district in the end forced to spend thousands of dollars to mitigate the contamination.
Today, Saw Wee Kee is one of the park district’s natural area gems, with a canoe launch on the river, hiking trails, and other facilities that mask the area’s one-time role as a vital cog in the expansion of the nation’s rail transportation network. It’s also a reminder of the era in which our little corner of the Fox River Valley not only produced agricultural products, but also turned out vital building materials that helped grow the community.