Tag Archives: Great Lakes

A great lake guaranteed Illinois’ economic success

Depending on their viewpoint and the era during which they lived, early explorers and settlers considered Lake Michigan to be either a priceless water highway deep into the interior of North America or a 307 mile long barrier to western travel.

The earliest European explorers didn’t even know Lake Michigan existed, thanks to the antipathy towards the French by the Iroquois Confederacy. French adventurers explored and mapped Lake Superior in the 1630s, long before the Iroquois allowed them passage to discover there was great water highway to the south. Not until Marquette and Jolliet explored south along the western store of Lake Michigan in 1673 did its length become appreciated.

A decade later, René-Robert Cavalier de La Salle used Lake Michigan as the major route to his new commercial colony in Illinois. By doing so, the French were able to bypass the Ohio River route to the west, the northern reaches of which were controlled by the well-armed and organized Iroquois Confederacy and their British allies.

Until the end of the French and Indian War in North America in 1764, Lake Michigan was, literally, a French lake. French forts controlled the Straits of Mackinac, Green Bay, and periodically Chicago and the mouth of the St. Joseph River at the southern end of the lake.

After the era of French control, the British controlled the lake for only a decade and a half or so before the new United States wrested control of most of the Great Lakes during the Revolutionary War. The War of 1812, essentially a short, less successful, continuation of the Revolution, did manage to solidify U.S. control over the lakes.

1831 Fort Dearborn

Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1831, just a few years before the U.S. Army built a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River.

During the era of U.S. pioneer settlement, Lake Michigan became more an impediment than a help to settlement. That was because there was no harbor at the southern end of the lake. The rivers emptying into Green Bay gave access to the Mississippi River via portages to the Wisconsin River, but that left the interior of what would become Illinois difficult to reach. Sailing ships that arrived in Chicago had to lighter their cargoes using small boats to laboriously across the sandbar blocking the mouth of the shallow and sluggish Chicago River. The ships themselves, however, could not enter the river and so were unable to dock to ride out the storms that frequently blew up. As a result, ships had to quickly unload and get back out into the lake to avoid being driven ashore by rough weather.

Settlers that came west to Detroit, where there was a port, were hindered in heading overland to the Illinois prairies along the old Territorial Road by numerous bogs and swamps in Michigan and Indiana.

Not until the 1830s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug a channel through the sandbar, was a true harbor created at Chicago. The new channel allowed ships to enter the Chicago River and safely dock, and also made unloading cargo a lot faster and less labor-intensive. Almost overnight, Chicago became a major Great Lakes port. In 1833, only four sailing ships called at Chicago. In 1834, after the first channel through the bar opened, 176 sailing vessels arrived.

Chicago’s position so far south allowed ships to carry grain from the prairie hinterland in the Des Plaines, DuPage, and Fox River valleys directly to the great eastern cities and return with goods ranging from finished products to lumber to build the great city that was taking shape along the lake shore.

Chicago Grain Elevators

According to the Library of Congress, this illustration shows some of the grain elevators on the Chicago River just as Chicago was becoming the premier grain transhipment point in the nation.

In an astonishingly short time, in fact, Chicago displaced St. Louis as the chief grain shipment center in the west. St. Louis was well located on the Mississippi, but that was a curse as well as a blessing. Grain elevators, when they were finally invented and then perfected, could not be safely located on the shore of the great river because of its frequent floods. Chicago, however, with its location on Lake Michigan and the slow, sluggish Chicago River, was not affected by flooding since the lake level remained constant. That meant grain elevators could be built along the Chicago River—and the riverbank was soon lined with the towering structures.

In the late 1840s, the Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed, linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois River—and from there the great Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri River system. The canal made shipping grain that much more efficient since it could be sent both south on the canal to the New Orleans market as well as east on the lakes to the New York market. In addition, the canal offered farmers living near its banks an easier shipping destination than hauling it overland all the way into Chicago.

At virtually the same time, railroads began to stretch west to Chicago and beyond, and the era of shipping cargo strictly via the lakes was over. Railroads that headed straight west from New York, Baltimore, and the other great eastern cities eventually met Lake Michigan, where they had to curve south to pass the end of the lake. And that made Chicago an even greater city. Not only was it still the lakes’ greatest port, but it quickly became the great rail center of the West.

With both ships and trains arriving in Chicago in large numbers, the population of the city and its hinterland quickly grew. It proved a boon for Kendall County, with new settlers able to cheaply and easily travel west from their old homes to Chicago and then undertake a short overland journey to the rich prairie lands along the Fox River. Once settlers arrived in the Fox Valley, they found themselves in an excellent location to easily get both their crops and livestock to the growing markets in Chicago and to take advantage of lower cost goods from raw lumber to finished clothing.

More than almost any other geographical feature, Lake Michigan has had the greatest long-term effect on the economic growth of Illinois throughout the history of the region. Although the lake is no longer the vital shipping link with the East it once was, its effect on rail and road transportation routes has guaranteed that Illinois will remain a U.S. economic powerhouse for the foreseeable future.






Filed under Environment, Farming, History, Illinois History, Technology, Transportation

It was St. Louis vs Chicago—And we’re not talking baseball, either

Got to thinking about my last post on plank roads and how local officials in the early 1850s rejected railroads, figuring that paving roads with wooden planks was the best technological fix for the era’s terrible roads.

You shouldn’t get the impression that those folks here in Kendall County were the only ones who misread the likely future that railroads were going to create. Something very similar happened down in St. Louis, with an even bigger economic impact as rejecting railroads had up here on our small farm town.

From the early 1830s to the early 1850s, as the pioneer era matured, Illinois became a huge grain exporter. Early on, the trick was to actually export all that excess grain farmers were beginning to produce using better agricultural techniques and increasing mechanization. One way to get it to market was to let it walk all by itself by turning grain into cattle and hogs that could be driven to Chicago. But to get the grain itself to market meant hauling in wagons over the region’s primitive road system.

Loading grain sacks

Until grain elevators were perfected, grain was shipped in sacks from the farm to market. Each sack was handled numerous times until it reached it’s ultimate destination, a process that was expensive and time-consuming.

In that day and age, grain in excess of needed food for the farm family and livestock feed was bagged, loaded aboard the farm’s wagon, a four-horse team hitched, and the load hauled to market. That market might be in the rapidly growing city of Chicago or, depending on the farm’s location, might be the Illinois River.

No matter where it went, though, it was transported in bags, which were unloaded into a warehouse. They, in turn, were then reloaded onto a sailing ship along the docks along South Water Street in Chicago or aboard a steamboat or flatboat on the Illinois River for the trip downstream to St. Louis. From Chicago, the grain was taken to Buffalo, where it was unloaded once again into a warehouse, for later transshipment down the Erie Canal to the New York City market. After grain arrived via the Illinois-Mississippi route at St. Louis, slaves unloaded the sacks onto the Levee, a broad strip of land extending along the city’s entire riverfront, where it was stacked for later sale or to be reloaded by more slave labor aboard a steamer or flatboat to be shipped down to New Orleans.

1857 Chicago port

This detail from J. T. Palmatary’s 1857 bird’s-eye view of Chicago shows why the warehouses and grain elevators along South Water Street offered so much efficiency in handling everything from lumber to grain. All manner of transportation, including rail cars, wagons, and sail and steamships could load and unload cargoes simultaneously.

All that loading and unloading took time, and time is money. With the introduction of rail transport, efficiency in loading and unloading became a pressing goal of those engaged in the grain trade. To that end, in 1842, Buffalo, N.Y. grain merchant and warehouse owner Joseph Dart invented the grain elevator. Dart’s elevator was a tall building that consisted of a series of vertical grain bins. Once grain had been removed from its sacks and moved to the elevated bins using steam power, it could be moved from bin to bin or loaded aboard canal boats, lakes ships, or rail cars by gravity alone. It was a great idea and quickly spread west to Chicago where the city’s grain merchants quickly perfected the concept.

In seemingly no time at all, grain elevators replaced the grain warehouses that lined the banks of the Chicago River along South Water Street. Grain brought in from hinterland farms in sacks was emptied out, graded by quality, and elevated to bins where it was mixed with other grain of the same grade that could then be loaded aboard the new rail cars or on Great Lakes ships for shipment east, or even loaded aboard boats on the new Illinois & Michigan Canal to be sent south to the New Orleans market.

With the old sack system, individual farmers’ grain could be identified from the time it left the farm until it reached its ultimate destination, with farmers known for shipping quality grain receiving a premium sales price. With the new system, fair grading and accurate records were an absolute must, and as you might surmise, there proved to be a lot of ways the new system could be manipulated. And manipulated it certainly was, although that’s a story for another day.

Because the Chicago River and Lake Michigan do not flood, the South Water Street elevator complex could be built right on the river bank, where it could be directly serviced by wagon, rail, canal, and lakes shipping.

1852 St. Louis Levee

Thomas Easterly’s 1852 Daguerreotype of the busy St. Louis Levee illustrates the distance between the river and shoreline warehouses dictated by the ebb and flow of the Mississippi River’s water levels throughout the year. Every barrel, box, and sack of cargo had to be physically carried across the levy to and from waiting steamboats.

Not so in St. Louis. There, the Levee was not only a transshipment point, but was a buffer for the city against the power of the Mississippi, which frequently flooded. As a result of the unpredictable river, grain elevators could not be built directly on the Mississippi’s riverbank, but had to be located some distance from the river. That meant no direct access to the city’s elevators by steamboats on the river.

In addition, St. Louis’s economic leaders decided, much like their counterparts in Oswego, that railroads were not the coming thing in transport. The decision was to stick with steamboats, since the city already had infrastructure in place for them. Not only that, but the city fought against the idea of a direct rail connection across the river, forbidding any rail bridges to be built. Indeed, when the first rail bridge spanned the Mississippi, it was not at St. Louis, but rather crossed the river from Rock Island, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa. And then St. Louis’s steamboat interests fought the bridge’s existence in court, the case decided in the railroad’s favor thanks to the legal acumen of their lawyer—himself a former flatboat crewman who transported bags of corn to New Orleans—Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, Illinois.

Chicago, meanwhile, was becoming the nation’s central railroad hub with commodities from the huge hinterland surrounding it flowing into the city, and finished goods flowing out. There was good reason that when circumstances, including rural free mail delivery, made mail order businesses possible, the nation’s two largest, Sears, Roebuck & Company and Montgomery Ward & Company, located in Chicago.

1874 Eads Bridge, St. Louis

James B. Eads’ revolutionary bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis didn’t open until 1874, more than two decades after a web of rail lines extended from Chicago to the rest of the Midwest. The bridge created the city’s first direct rail link to the east side of the Mississippi, but it proved too late to succeed in competition with Chicago.

St. Louis didn’t get its direct railroad connection with the east bank of the Mississippi until 1874, when James B. Eads’ remarkable, innovative bridge opened to traffic. Eads built his bridge despite the opposition of steamboat interests who remained economic powers in St. Louis despite railroads having proven to provide economical, year round transportation.

By that time, however, Chicago was preparing to steal the crown of the Midwest’s economic leader from St. Louis, a disparity that has only gotten greater over the ensuing decades. In 1840, St. Louis and St. Louis County had a total population of nearly 36,000, dwarfing Chicago and Cook County’s population of just 10,201. But by 1870, while the population of St. Louis and county had grown to 351,000 people, Chicago was already crowding it with 349,000. In 1880, St. Louis’s city and county population had barely increased to 382,000 while Chicago and Cook’s population had continued its strong growth to 607,000 and by 1890, the population of St. Louis was 488,000 while Chicago’s population had nearly doubled to 1,192,000.

Would the fate of St. Louis have been any different had the city embraced railroads in the 1850s instead of grudgingly accepting its first rail link east of the Mississippi two decades later? Possibly. Even probably. But it’s also pretty clear that Chicago would have surpassed St. Louis no matter what given the Windy City’s location that let it take advantage of direct connections via the Great Lakes and railroads to the New York market and rail and canal connections south to New Orleans, not to mention rail connections west across the nation to the Pacific.

But the railroad phobia that was apparently so common in the early 1850s undoubtedly made things worse for St. Louis.

There’s probably a lesson for us there, but as I’ve noted before, the real trick is to figure out what that it might be and then make use of the lesson learned. Because if current events show us anything at all, it’s that humans not only stubbornly refuse to learn history’s lessons, but more often than not refuse to admit there are any lesson to be learned in the first place.

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Filed under Business, Farming, Frustration, History, Illinois History, Law, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Transportation

They paved paradise…

Did a story for the Ledger-Sentinel (although corporate has apparently decided to just call it the Ledger these days) a few weeks ago that recapped the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture farm census for Kendall County.

This most recent national farm census was taken in 2012, with the results finally released in 2014. I’d been thinking of doing a piece about it around the time it was to be released, but then the whole thing slipped my mind until late spring this year.

Farm censuses have been taken for almost 200 years now, with the first one taken by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1820 as part of the regular decennial population census. That was the practice until 1950, when the census bureau started collecting farm data only in years ending with 4 and 9. In 1978, that was changed to taking the farm census in years ending in 2 and 7. Finally, in 1997, Congress moved responsibility for collecting farm data to the USDA—which seemed pretty logical to me—and keeping the requirement to collect the data in years ending in 2 and 7. Thus the 2012 census.

When I finally got the data entered into my trusty spreadsheet, I have to admit being surprised—astonished, really—at the amount of farmland the census showed had been lost to development in the five years prior to 2012.

Collar Counties

Kendall is the only non-Collar County to border on three of the six Chicago metro region Collar Counties, putting it in the perfect spot to absorb overflow population from fast-growing Kane, DuPage, and Will counties.

Previously, the largest amount of farmland lost to development had been the 8,313 acres lost between 1992 and 1997.But between 2007 and 2012, Kendall County lost an astonishing 37,131 acres of farmland to development. In the 57 years prior to 2007, the county had only lost a total of 28,365 acres to developme

Granted, it was clear that the county’s strong growth was going to catch up with it sooner or later. Between 1990 and 2010, Kendall County’s population grew from 39,413 to nearly 115,000. My hometown of Oswego went from 3,914 to 30,303 during the same period.

But in the five years between 2007 and 2012 the biggest recession since the Great Depression hit the nation, and it hit Chicago’s collar counties particularly hard. It’s an indication of just how frenetic the financial industry was driving inflation of the nation’s housing bubble in the years immediately prior to the crash of 2008. Billions of fraudulent dollars were changing hands as vast tracts of farmland in Chicago’s hinterland were purchased, subdivided, and developed. Infrastructure—streets, curbs, gutters, water and sewer lines—was being pushed as developers rushed to provide the new homes the financial industry required to keep the bubble inflated through a whole host of actions that ranged from simply unethical to downright illegal.

It took a while for the development train wreck to come to a standstill and the dust to settle. When it did, not only had a bunch of productive farmland been sold for development, but also vast swaths of it had been covered with all that infrastructure listed above. And that meant that while some land sold for development could still be farmed because it was vacant, a lot of it simply could not.

The disappearance of so much farmland capped a long-term period of population growth in Kendall County, particularly in its northern three townships, but also in the county’s eastern tier of three once almost entirely rural townships. Oswego, situated in Kendall’s northeast corner, is a member of both groups.

NaAuSay and Seward townships, situated directly south of Oswego, until this most recent flood of growth hit in the 1990s, had no municipalities in their boundaries. But then Plainfield began expanding across the eastern border of NaAuSay Township, while Joliet and Minooka began intruding into Seward. And that’s how come some residents of Joliet and Plainfield send their children to Oswego schools. It’s also one more reason why so much farmland was lost to development in the five years prior to 2012.

The northern tier of Kendall’s townships—Little Rock, Bristol, and Oswego—had been undergoing growth for years prior to the inflation of the housing bubble. Oswego and Bristol, especially, were the subject of growth hurtling down the corridor along U.S. Route 34—called Ogden Avenue east of the Kendall County border—that accelerated to extraordinary levels after the construction of the huge Waubonsie Interceptor sewer line. The 60” diameter sanitary sewer line was built down the Waubonsie Creek valley from what was then called the Fox Valley Mall to Montgomery, where it crossed the Fox River to the Fox Metro Water Reclamation District’s treatment plant.

As soon as adequate sanitary sewer capacity was available, residential and commercial growth along the Route 23 corridor in Kendall County exploded. Why? For the same reason folks found the county a good place to live way back in the 1830s. Back then, the search was on for cheaper land that was good for farming in a location not too far away from the Chicago market that even in the early 1830s had begun to grow. As soon as U.S. Army engineers figured out how to drive a permanent channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River, creating for the first time a safe harbor for Great Lakes shipping, that growth turned exponential.

The Chicago region’s population grew outward from the Lake Michigan shore, first spurred by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s commuter line that terminated at Aurora, and then after World War II by the web of multi-lane limited access expressways that stretched from Chicago north, south, and west.

Oswego Township was picked for industrial development in the early 1950s, with sprawling Caterpillar, Inc. and Western Electric plants built. Plenty of land was available at relatively low prices in the area that was outside the Chicago metro area, but close enough, and with the necessary rail connections industry of that era required.

And at the same time, developer Don L. Dise, hearing about the coming construction of those facilities, decided Oswego Township was the perfect spot to build Kendall County’s first super subdivision. He picked the huge Boulder Hill Stock Farm, owned by the Bereman family, as the location for his development, located right across the Fox River from the new Western Electric and Caterpillar plants, figuring the plants’ workers would need housing. Eventually, the Cat plant alone employed more than 7,000.

Calling his new planned development Boulder Hill after the former livestock farm, Dise proposed building out neighborhoods to attract all economic levels, from executives to factory workers. And he succeeded, attracting an eclectic mix of new homeowners, from CB&Q executives to Caterpillar and other local factory line workers, with most of the first homes financed thanks to the post-World War II GI Bill. Not only did the GI Bill promote home ownership, but it also encouraged veterans to get college degrees, which allowed the millions who served in the war to move up to better jobs, and then buy brand new houses from Dise and other developers.

The first families moved into their new Boulder Hill homes exactly 60 years ago.

The late 1950s was the county’s first big spasm of growth. Between 1950 and 1960 Oswego Township’s population doubled. Then it doubled again between 1960 and 1970. As growth to the east continued to accelerate even faster, refugees from Cook and DuPage counties looking for cheaper housing, less traffic, and a small town atmosphere, continued to move into Kendall County, but growth was relatively restrained until the Waubonsie Interceptor literally opened the floodgates.

And that touched off the next era of growth that both flowed and ebbed several times before the financial industry, with the help of Congress and President Bill Clinton, who removed regulations that had kept it to reasonable levels, hit on the idea of securitizing mortgages. Not only did they securitize mortgages, they also figured out how to defraud the entire real estate financing system by methods ranging from forcing appraisers to artificially inflate existing home values to require bigger loans to gaming the home loan system itself to allow mortgages to be awarded to those who could not afford them. Which was fine, because the goal was not to make money off house payments, but rather by selling the mortgages (sometimes several times), bundling them, and dividing them into batches so they could be securitized into bonds for sale to investors. Since the bond rating agencies were in on the fraud and since government was not allowed to regulate the bonds, the amount of farmland purchased at greatly inflated prices in order to feed the need for more and more mortgages to be sliced and diced and sold to suckers was substantial.

In Kendall County alone, it amounted to that 37,000 acre loss in just five years mentioned above. As the bubble inflated between 1990 and 2010, Kendall County’s population tripled. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2007, Kendall was, in percentage terms, the fastest growing county in the nation.

Then the crash came, but here we sit nonetheless.

And what happened to all those farmers as land was gobbled up by developers? Glad you asked. More later…


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Filed under Business, Farming, Frustration, History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Environment, Fox River, Illinois History, Local History, Science stuff, Transportation

They shoot rapids, don’t they?

Several years ago when we were visiting the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Visitors Center we bought prints of three or four of Frances Anne Beechey Hopkins’ wonderful voyageur paintings. A framed copy of “Shooting the Rapids” that Mrs. Hopkins painted in 1879 hangs over my customary seat in our TV room, while other framed pints decorate the walls up at our Wisconsin fishing cabin.

Mrs. Frances Hopkins' "Shooting the Rapids" is one of her most famous paintings, though it's questionable how often birch bark canoes shot rapids during the fur trade era.

Mrs. Frances Hopkins’ “Shooting the Rapids” is one of her most famous paintings, though it’s questionable how often birch bark canoes shot rapids during the fur trade era.

While I love the drama on display in “Shooting the Rapids,” when I look at it I always hope that Mrs. Hopkins was taking artistic license and that she and her husband—both of whom are depicted sitting amidships in the huge canot de maître, the master or Montreal canoe, as it balances on the edge of the churning rapids in the instant before it shoots downstream—were actually not placed in such danger.

Because while birch bark freight canoes were the backbone of the fur trade transportation system in North America from the 17th through the 19th Century, something they definitely were not was robust. Any one of the rocks in the rapids Mrs. Hopkins depicted in her painting could have caused a catastrophic structural failure that would have led to injury and even death for the canoe’s crew and passengers.

I’ve written before about the amazing design of birch bark canoes. They proved the perfect vessels to haul trade goods to the interior of North America and then to haul the furs obtained in trade back east to be shipped to Europe. Over a period of many, many years, its Chippewa inventors refined it until the birch bark canoe was a reasonably sturdy, light-weight craft well suited for navigating waters as varied as the open water of the Great Lakes and small, swift rivers in the interior of the continent.

But while it was capable of traveling long distances in the hands of experienced canoemen, the birch bark canoe was also fragile and required almost constant maintenance. That wasn’t a problem as long as voyages were limited to regions where paper birch trees grew. But when the trade empire of first the French and later the British was extended to the lower lakes region below the line where paper birches thrive, logistical problems occurred and even more repair materials had to be carried along in the canoe itself.

At the end of each day after fur trade brigades had paddled many miles, their canoes were hauled out of the water to dry out and await minor repairs. The skin of each canoe was made up of sheets of birch bark stretched over a cedar frame, and secured with watap (tough, pliable strips split from the roots of spruce trees). The bark sheets themselves, which had been carefully stripped off large-diameter birch trees (bigger trees meant larger sheets, which meant fewer sheets, which meant fewer seams to leak), were tightly sewn together with watap as well.

When the entire canoe frame was covered with birch sheets, a mixture of spruce sap, or gum, was melted with finely ground charcoal over a low fire. The hot mixture was then painted on the seams to waterproof them.

During use, these seams worked themselves open, and so they had to be checked and re-sealed each day. On a 35-foot Montreal Canoe, the kind favored by the fur trade companies for the Great Lakes routes (and illustrated in Mrs. Hopkins’ painting), it took a lot of spruce gum to keep the water outside the canoe.

In addition to that, during a day’s paddling, a Montreal Canoe could absorb several hundred pounds of water, making it less maneuverable and, since it was sitting lower in the water, more prone to running aground. On sand bars this wasn’t much of a problem, but in a swift river or on a rocky shore, it could prove fatal.

That’s why, despite dramatic stories (and Mrs. Hopkins’ painting) to the contrary, fur traders seldom shot river rapids in their fragile canoes—one mistake in judgment could doom an entire crew and destroy tons of valuable furs or trade goods. Besides that, few voyageurs could swim (odd, given their vocations), so any accident that dumped them into especially deep or swift water was often fatal.

In reality, most canoe crews either portaged around rapids or cordelled their craft up or down rapids instead of taking the dangerous course of shooting the whitewater. (Frances Hopkins "Going up the Rapids")

In reality, most canoe crews either portaged around rapids or cordelled their craft up or down rapids instead of taking the dangerous course of shooting the whitewater. (Frances Hopkins “Going up the Rapids”)

Instead of shooting them, rapids were most often bypassed by portaging. Using that technique, each canoe was completely unloaded and then carried across the portage. Then all the goods or furs were also carried across, reloaded and the voyage continued. But depending on the rapids, sometimes canoes were only partially unloaded, and then moved across by cordelling, with the crew using ropes to pull the canoe up the rapids or floating it down the swift water in a controlled descent. A couple of the crew were usually kept aboard to fend the craft off any rocks, while others on shore did the same thing using long poles.

Even working as carefully as possible, damage to fragile canoe hulls was almost inevitable. In the North Country, where birch and spruce trees were common, repair materials could readily be obtained on the spot. But down here, well south of the birch line and out west, emergency repair materials had to be carried along. The amount of those materials was therefore limited, so a catastrophic accident meant the crew was in serious trouble.

Fur trader Peter Pond found himself in exactly that situation back in the late 1700s. Pond, who left an extremely entertaining account of his trading exploits (published in Five Fur Traders edited by Charles M. Gates, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, 1965), reported that he and a couple helpers paddled far up the Missouri River on a trading expedition with the Sioux. The area was, from the viewpoint of someone from the Northeast like Pond, desolate with the only trees visible being a few gaunt cottonwoods. After pulling their birch bark canoe up onto the bank to spend the night, the crew was awakened by a huge storm, as storms out on the prairie tend to be.

As Pond later recounted in his own inimitable style (he never met a word he couldn’t misspell—it makes the most sense to read it aloud), “the wind toock the Canew up in the Air Leat hir fall on the frosen flat & broke Hir in Peceis. I was then in a Sad Sittuation.” Pond and his men were forced to walk across the prairies to the nearest trading post, a trip of several arduous days on foot.

The 25-foot replica birch bark canoe crafted by Ralph Frese of the Chicagoland Canoe Base that we paddled down the rapids of the Fox River of Illinois.

The 25-foot replica birch bark canoe crafted by Ralph Frese of the Chicagoland Canoe Base that we paddled down the rapids of the Fox River of Illinois.

Even in areas where birch trees were plentiful, shooting a rapids could be extremely chancy, even for the most experienced canoemen. Louis Jolliet, the explorer and cartographer who traveled with Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., from Michilimackinac all the way south to the mouth of the Arkansas River on the Mississippi, and back again, found that out when his canoe wrecked near Montreal in 1675.

Frances Hopkins illustrated the life of voyageurs at the end of the canoe era. By the time she was traveling the north country with her husband, who was an executive with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the changeover to Mackinaw Boats (similar to the York Boats used in the far west) and bateaus was nearly complete, which is what makes her paintings so valuable for students of the fur trade.

Shooting the rapids sounds like fun, and with modern canoes it is. We did it once in one of Ralph Frese’s fiberglass replica North Canoes, 25-feet long and similar to one in another of Mrs. Hopkins’ paintings. But the fur traders of old didn’t have the luxury of seeking a thrill. Their canoes were literally their lives and their livelihood, and couldn’t be squandered on anything so chancy as the exhilarating thrill of shooting a rapids. And as Peter Pond discovered, even that couldn’t save a trader from the occasional disaster. The trick was to learn from mistakes. And weight down your canoe at night.

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Crowdsourcing the fate of the St. Charles Experiment…

From what I read on the Internet these days, crowdsourcing is all the rage among the cool kids. Apparently, you can visit a crowdsourcing web site and solicit funds to make that movie on the history of darning needles you’ve been hankering after for years, or persuade people to fund that new invention you’ve come up with to do the Popeil Pocket Fisherman one better.

Thinking about that in the shower this morning, I had an idea to try to do some crowdsourcing historical research.

So here’s the deal: Back in the 1840s, a fellow that some might have called a crackpot, but others may have called a visionary, decided to build a steam boat here in northern Illinois on the Fox River, and then sail it down to Ottawa where the Fox empties into the Illinois, down the Illinois to Grafton where it empties into the Mississippi, down the Mississippi to the Ohio, then up the Ohio and eventually all the way to the St. Lawrence River in Canada. No small plans did this gentleman make. I related the story here once before, but I never get tired of telling people about it, so I’ll let the Oct. 2, 1840 edition of the Illinois Free Trader at Ottawa lay out the entire story:

 Fox River Navigation — Arrival

of the Bark “St. Charles Experiment.”

On Tuesday evening last Mr. Joseph P. Keiser and lady arrived at our steamboat landing in a beautiful bark, six tons burthen, from St. Charles, Kane county, Illinois. Mr. K. left St. Charles on the 18th inst. amid the smiling countenances of a large collection of citizens of that place who had assembled to witness his departure on this hazardous and novel enterprise. He descended Fox River without much trouble, notwithstanding the low stage of the water at present and the dam at Green’s mill, &c, might be considered by some as presenting insurmountable barriers.

The St. Charles Experiment would have steamed past Starved Rock on its voyage own the Illinois River to the Mississippi in October 1840.

The St. Charles Experiment would have steamed past Starved Rock on its voyage own the Illinois River to the Mississippi in October 1840.

The “Experiment,” we believe, is the first craft that has ever descended this beautiful stream this distance, save, perhaps, the frail bark of the Indian in days gone by. The distance from St. Charles to this place is about eighty miles by water, passing through a section of country which, in point of fertility, is not surpassed by any tract of country in the Union, and to the enterprise and exertions of Mr. Keiser belongs the honor of first undertaking and accomplishing the navigation of Fox River, which winds its meandering course through it.

The object of Mr. K’s enterprise is somewhat of a novelty. His design is to travel by water to the river St. Lawrence, in Lower Canada, by the following route: From St. Charles down Fox River to its mouth at Ottawa; thence down the Illinois to its mouth; thence down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Ohio; thence up the Ohio river to Beaver, Pa.; thence by way of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Canal to Akron, O.; thence on the Ohio Canal to Cleveland; thence on lake Erie to Buffalo, N.Y.; thence on the Welland Canal to Lake Ontario; and thence to the river St. Lawrence.

This route will doubtless prove arduous to our friend, but he is in fine spirits and considers his worst difficulties ended by having successfully descended Fox River at the present stage of the water. He has our best wishes for a safe and pleasant journey, hoping that he may be able to inform us of his safe arrival at his distant destination.

So far as I’ve been able to tell, the St. Charles Experiment is the only steamboat to have ever navigated the Fox from the river’s northern reaches to its mouth at Ottawa.

And here’s my historical crowdsourcing question: What the heck ever happened to Mr. K, his lady wife, and the St. Charles Experiment? Did they make it to the Mississippi? Did they actually steam up the Ohio to the canal system, puff through Akron, and into Lake Erie?

Perhaps some hardy researchers with access to microfilm newspaper files in towns along the route of the St. Charles Experiment will check for the period starting in early October 1840 and see if a strange craft from a town on the Illinois prairies stopped by to say hello on its journey to Canada.

I’ve wondered about the fate of the Keisers for many years now, and would like to put a “-30-“ at the end of their story. Can any of you loyal readers of historyonthefox add to the tale?

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Today’s lesson, ladies: Don’t fool around with Dr. Lester

This August 16 sunset shot on Butternut Lake illustrates one reason why we head north to Wisconsin as often as we can.

This August 16 sunset shot on Butternut Lake illustrates one reason why we head north to Wisconsin as often as we can.

Posting’s been lighter than usual due to a vacation up in the North Woods that went very well.

We picked up my fishing buddy, Paul Baumann, at the Central Wisconsin Airport and then traveled up to our cottage on Butternut Lake. The next day, Paul and my wife Sue (also a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1964) and I all headed up to the Whitecap Mountain ski area and picked up another high school buddy of ours, Jerry Rissman. And then we went up to Bayfield on Lake Superior, took the ferry over to Madeline Island, and spent the afternoon with yet another high school friend, Bill Fennell. All in all, it was a mini-high school reunion that was lots of fun.

The weather for the remaining days of vacation Up North wasn’t the best, but we did catch fish, and had a lot of fun and (as usual) great food.

Heading north in the summer to get away from it all is far from a new thing under the sun. Many of us Illinois kids went north with our parents and so came to enjoy the quiet and beauty of Wisconsin’s lakes and forests. But heading north was pretty common well before the 1950s. My dad helped a friend build a log fishing cabin on Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota in the 1930s. And 19th Century newspaper accounts suggest getting out of Illinois during the season when corn was tasseling out and ragweed pollen was at its height was the only way to find a little relief.

Back in the 1800s, one of Oswego’s three physicians was Dr. Gilbert Lester. A native of New Brunswick, Canada, Lester suffered greatly from hay fever and in those pre-Benadryl days getting out of his adopted hometown and back to his native New Brunswick was the only way to cope. As Oswego correspondent Lorenzo Rank put it in the Aug. 29, 1880 Kendall County Record:

“Dr. Lester has gone to spend some time on the Atlantic coast in Canada and Maine for the purpose of escaping the hay fever.”

Later in the century, he favored heading north up to Lake Superior for a few summer weeks. According to the Aug. 17, 1892 Kendall County Record:

“Dr. Lester started this morning on his annual trip north to get out of the reach of the hay fever…Marquette on Lake Superior is to be the Doc’s destination.”

Lester’s first wife, Caroline Elizabeth Hunt Lester, died in January 1884, whereupon he apparently enjoyed bachelorhood—to excess, some might have said.

Dr. Gilbert Benjamin Lester in an 1888 engraving. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dr. Gilbert Benjamin Lester in an 1888 engraving. (Little White School Museum collection)

Starting in the late 1880s, a frequent visitor to Lester’s home, where he lived with his two unmarried daughters, was Anna Brown. The daughter of a literate family from down Newark way, Anna had begun her teaching career in 1870 at the Old Stone School in Oswego and was reportedly well liked by her students and their parents.

On May 1, 1877, she took her students out for a walk to gather flowers for their May baskets. The hike led them south along the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy tracks from downtown Oswego to the woods and pastures that bordered the rail line. The children were having a good time gathering flowers when they heard the whistle of the upbound passenger train. Brown looked up and was horrified to see one of her students, little David Carpenter, frozen in fear, on the short rail bridge over Morgan Creek. The May 3, 1877 Kendall County Record reported what happened next:

“As the five o’clock train came along a little boy, named Carpenter, about nine years old, was on a railroad bridge over a ravine and became frightened. Miss Brown ran on the bridge to help him off. She saved the boy, but the engine struck her, ran over her left foot and threw her from the bridge to the creek, ten feet below.

The train was stopped, backed up, and the unfortunate lady got aboard and taken to Oswego, thence to her boarding place. Doctors were summoned, and her injuries found to be severe. The toes of the left foot were crushed, and portions of the foot had to be amputated. She was badly hurt about the back by the fall, and internal injuries are feared. Tuesday night the doctors thought she would not recover, but Wednesday morning she had rallied somewhat from the shock.”

Lorenzo Rank, in the next week’s Record, reported on the acclaim Brown was receiving in the community:

“She has been held in high esteem in this community because of her many good qualities, always active on the side of religion and good morals, is an excellent teacher, with the faculty to make herself beloved by all her scholars. It was said by the passengers that on the return to the place of the accident, the scene was very affecting, that there was a general crying and sorrow of the children, and all that first could be got out of them was ‘Miss Brown is killed;’ some adding, ‘Davie Carpenter is to blame.’ Now beside all this she is a heroine and will be more admired than ever before.”

As determined as ever, Brown recovered from the ordeal and went on with her career. Although having a limp the rest of her life and needing a stout cane to walk, she continued to teach school in Oswego and later in Chicago and finally Sandwich, where she was working when she and Dr. Lester became romantically involved. On July 12, 1893 Lorenzo Rank reported in the Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” column:

“According to report, a quiet wedding took place last week; one of our prominent widowers with a former teacher in our school, to wit: Dr. Lester and Miss Anna Brown.”

But while Dr. Lester was once again married, apparently he was loath to give up some of his bachelor habits, one of whom was Charlotte Haight, wife of prominent Oswego businessman David M. Haight.

David M. Haight's store at the northeast corner of Main and Washington streets in downtown Oswego. Haight went bankrupt just a few weeks after Anna Brown Lester attacked the grocer's philandering wife. (Little White School Museum photo)

David M. Haight’s store at the northeast corner of Main and Washington streets in downtown Oswego. Haight went bankrupt just a few weeks after Anna Brown Lester attacked the grocer’s philandering wife. (Little White School Museum photo)

Anna knew that Mrs. Haight had paid altogether too much attention to Dr. Lester for many years, and she warned the storekeeper’s wife to stay away from their home or face the consequences. “If you continue to come, you come at your peril,” she wrote in a letter to Charlotte Haight. Mrs. Haight, however, refused to stay away from the Lester home. As we’ve seen above, Anna Brown Lester was no shrinking violet and so decided on direct action, using her sturdy cane to punctuate the points of her argument. As the Oct. 12, Aurora News Semi-Weekly, reported:

“A bride of scarcely two months, jealous of her husband’s attentions to another woman, waylaid her rival Tuesday night and administered a severe thrashing with a stout cane for which offense she this morning cheerfully paid a fine of three dollars and costs….

Dr. Lester of Oswego, a widower past 60 years of age, was wed less than two months ago to Miss Anna Brown, a maiden lady of 40 summers or over. Miss Brown had lived much of the time in Oswego but of late years had been a school teacher at Sandwich.

For a few weeks after the honeymoon, all was apparently lovely in the relations of Dr. Lester and his bride. Lately observing people have noticed a slight change.

Mrs. Lester became convinced that Mrs. D.M. Haight, wife of one of the leading merchants of the town and her husband, were getting altogether too familiar. The sheep’s eyes that Mrs. H. cast at the doctor were simply unbearable and there was talk, too, that made the matter all the worse. Tuesday night, matters came to a climax.

Mrs. Lester waited in the shadow of her husband’s office and when her rival came along for the usual evening chat with the doctor, the enraged wife fell upon her with a heavy cane, which she plied with such vigorous effect that Mrs. Haight still bears the bruises.”

Two days later, in a letter to her good friend and stepdaughter, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lester Smith, Anna noted that Mrs. Haight and Dr. Lester had been seeing each other for a decade. While she said she was mortified to be brought up before Justice Lockwood, she suggested she did not regret waling the tar out of Mrs. Haight, writing:

“Mr. L read the charge of assaulting her, striking her with a cane &c and then it was my turn to speak and I said “I did follow her from my husband’s office and struck her with a cane two or three times & she knows how many times better than I and she deserved it all.” This is about my speech. He put the fine at $3 & cost so it amounted to $4.20 — So with the talk and reports in papers it has cost me dear.”

So, anyway, a couple weeks later, D.M. Haight’s well-known Oswego store went broke, thanks to the on-going financial Panic of 1893. The Haights moved to Chicago where D.M. engaged as a traveling salesman for the Fox River Butter Company, and presumably clearing the field for more of Mrs. Haight’s amorous adventures. Dr. Lester, his health debilitated by chronic hay fever and serious eye problems—and possibly one too many women in his life—died in March 1895 at the age of 65. Anna Brown Lester had the last laugh, enjoying several more years living in Oswego to general acclaim and participating in the community’s civic affairs until her death from pneumonia in 1909.

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