Tag Archives: Great Lakes

Spring and the start of the fur trade’s seasonal cycle likely didn’t include our Fox River

It would have been a grand sight, seeing voyageurs paddling their canoes down the Fox River here in what’s now northern Illinois as the winter fur-trapping season ended. The water sparkling as it dripped off their red-tipped paddles, the voyageur crews’ colorful costumes contrasting with the flowing water, and the French paddling songs drifting on the breeze would have been spectacular, wouldn’t it?

If it had actually happened, yes, it would have been pretty spectacular.

But the truth is, the Fox River has always been a shallow, although wide, stream whose water levels varied widely, making navigation iffy at best during most of the year and downright impossible the rest of the time.

Every spring for well over a century, brigades of huge 35 to 40-foot freight canoes—called canots du maître (master canoes) or Montreal canoes—set off from Montreal and Quebec, each canoe laden with some three tons of goods destined for fur trading posts all over the Great Lakes region—and beyond. The route started just above the Lachine Rapids at Montreal on the Ottawa River. Paddling upstream via a number of often dangerous and usually difficult portages on the Ottawa, the arduous route then ran up the small Mattawa River, where paddling upstream ended at its source on Trout Lake and crossed the height of land where streams began flowing into Lake Huron. From there it was down into Lake Nipissing and then into the French River for 70 miles of easy paddling downstream into Georgian Bay and Lake Huron for the sometimes stormy paddle to the fur trade depot of Michilimackinac at the straits between lakes Huron and Michigan.

Reenactors portray voyageurs paddling a 35-foot Montreal birch bark canoe as it would have appeared during the period the British dominated the fur trade following the French and Indian War beginning in the 1760s.

There, the goods were broken down into smaller cargoes for smaller 20 to 25-foot north canoes that were handier on the inland trade routes to the actual post of traders, such as the one at Chicago and posts on the Illinois River. The main route to get to the Illinois Country was via the Chicago portage—which, depending on how full or empty the Des Plaines River was could be up to 60 miles long—or the St. Joseph River east of Chicago.

To get to the Chicago portage, the brigades had to paddle right past the mouth of the Root River just south of today’s Milwaukee in modern Wisconsin, a short portage from which led to the headwaters of our Fox River—which is not to be confused with the Fox River that empties into Green Bay. So the Root-Fox route would have cut off some distance to reach the Illinois River, but the Fox usually wasn’t deep enough. Not that fur traders never used it, of course, but it seems as a regular route on the fur trade highway, it was a very, very minor player indeed.

In fact, the only account we have of a French party considering using the Fox as a  shortcut from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River post at Le Rocher—Starved Rock—ended with the French missionaries and the boatmen transporting them to their destination in central Illinois deciding to go on to Chicago instead of chancing finding deep enough water in the Fox.

Map probably drawn by Rene Paul of St. Louis in 1815 and subsequently copied by Lt. James Kearney, U.S. Army. Paul was St. Louis City Engineer and also worked as a surveyor. (Source: Plate XL, Indian Villages of the Illinois Country, Vol. 2, Part 1, Atlas, Sarah Jones Tucker, Illinois State Museum, 1942)

The route they investigated went up the Root River and then over a nine-mile portage to Muskego Lake in what is today southeastern Waukesha County, Wis., which empties into the upper reaches of our Fox River.

Traveling in 1699, Father Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme, a Seminary priest on his way to the Mississippi River, reported that “some savages had led us to hope we could ascend [the Root River in Wisconsin from Lake Michigan] and after a portage of about two leagues might descend by another river called Pesioui [our Fox River] which falls into the River of the Illinois about 25 or 30 leagues from Chikagou, and that we should thereby avoid all the portages that had to be made by the Chikagou route. We passed by this river which is about ten leagues in length to the portage and flows through agreeable prairies, but as there was no water in it we judged that there would not be any in the Peschoui either.”

Although apparently not a regular route for French and Indian fur traders, the Root–Muskego Lake–Fox route was apparently used by at least some hardy and adventuresome travelers because the portage is clearly marked on a variety of maps of northern Illinois drawn around the time of the War of 1812.

The frequent lack of sufficient water in the Fox was not the only problem, of course. Maps from the late 1700s until the 1820s suggest that the Fox Valley was fairly lightly populated by Native People. There were only a few permanent villages along the river during that era, including at what is today called Maramech Hill near Plano and in the Oswego area near the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Those were considered “permanent” villages, but they undoubtedly moved frequently as the farmland around them played out. It’s also likely villages were established at one time or another at or near the mouth of Blackberry Creek and all the other creeks that empty into the Fox. The farming was generally pretty good in those spots with rich bottomland soils, as was the fishing, which meant good living conditions.

During the winter months, those permanent villages broke up into small family groups, which, in turn, moved to their favored winter hunting grounds so as to spread out the hunting pressure during the lean times of the cold and snowy months.

The Fox River is picked out in green on this map of Native American villages in the Fox and Illinois River valleys as of about 1830. (Source: Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History, Helen Hornbeck Tanner, University of Oklahoma Press, 1987)

Along with hunting, the Native People did their trapping at those winter camps. For instance, Chief Waubonsee, whose permanent village was located along the Fox from Oswego north to Batavia depending on the year, reportedly spent his winters with his family along the Illinois River. A lot of other Potowatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa family groups from northern Illinois spent their winters there, too, and that made it profitable for fur traders to open depots along the river. In particular, the American Fur Company, which took over the trade in the Old Northwest Territory after the Revolutionary War had a series of fur trade posts along the river that were regularly serviced from the company’s western headquarters at Fort Mackinac.

Press for compressing cured hides into 90 pound pièces for the fur trade. Note the wrapped bundles of hides atop the press and to the right of the press mechanism. I took this photo many years ago at the Snake River Fur Post, a reconstruction operated by the Minnesota Historical Society at Pine City, MN.

The fur trade ran on a time-honored schedule that was established by French and, later, British traders starting in the early 18th Century. In the late spring, canoe brigades arrived from Montreal and Quebec to drop off trade goods for the coming season and to pick up the furs that had been accumulating at the posts during the previous winter. As the prime peltries were brought in during the winter and early spring months, they were stretched, dried, and packed into 90 lb. bundles, called pièces, in preparation for shipment. When the brigades arrived, they off-loaded trade goods for the coming season–which had been carefully packed in the same dimension 90 lb. pièces as the furs would be–and reloaded the big freight canoes with the bundles of pelts, which were then transported back to the trading headquarters on the Ottawa River.

By the 1820s, the fur trade brigades had given up using the traditional birch bark freight canoes and were using Mackinaw boats, sturdy double-ended craft that could be either rowed or sailed and could carry about the same amount of cargo without the maintenance problems and fragility inherent in bark canoes. By the 1830s, when settlement began in earnest here in the Fox Valley, the fur trade had almost entirely ended in northern Illinois. The furbearers had been trapped out, the Native People upon whom the companies relied on as major fur pelt suppliers were being forced west of the Mississippi by government removal policies, and northern Illinois was rapidly being turned into farmland by ever-increasing numbers of American settlers.

Even though the Fox River may not been much of a voyageur highway, it was a key part of the Old Northwest’s rich history and heritage during the fur trade era.


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Heading west to Illinois in the 1830s: A little perspective on modern traffic problems

The earliest American settlers came to Kendall County starting in the late 1820s on foot, and by wagon, flatboat, and steamship on Lake Michigan via Chicago.

Oswego’s first settlers, William and Rebecca Wilson and their children, along with their extended family, the Daniel, John, and Walter Pearces, traveled here to the Illinois prairie by wagon to settle permanently in the summer of 1833. The four men had walked west the summer before prospecting for good land and decided the area at and near the mouth of Waubonsie Creek on the Fox River would be a good spot to settle. They brought their families the next year.

Oswego in 1838 showing Daniel Pearce’s claim circled in red and the southernmost lobe of the Big Woods on the east side of the Fox River shaded in light green. (Little White School Museum collection)

In 1834, John and William Wormley walked all the way to Oswego Township. According to Rev. E.W. Hicks, Kendall County’s first historian, they walked from New York State with nothing but their rifles and a change of clothing. The Wormleys said they averaged 36 miles per day on the trip. When you stop to think about it, that’s pretty good going. U.S. Cavalry standards usually called for a march by horse units of 20 miles per day.

When they got to the mid-Fox Valley, they decided this was the area in which they wanted to settle, so they walked all the way back and brought their families out by horse and wagon the next year. Like the Pearces, descendants of the Wormleys still live in the Oswego area.

Those who travelled by wagon had a longer trip, but they could also carry a good deal more equipment and household items with them. Plows and scythes were the main farming implements packed, while the women packed spinning wheels, quilts, candle molds, and seed for the first year’s crop. Sometimes treasured furniture was brought along to make the prairie cabin more comfortable and as a reminder of their former homes and lives.

An immigrant wagon in an 1833 illustration.

Pioneers who came by wagon sometimes brought livestock along with them, from chickens and cattle to milk cows. Cows not only could provide fresh milk and cream on the trip, as well as butter. Butter could be made after a fashion while traveling by putting cream in a covered bucket and hanging it from the rear axle of the wagon. The constant jolting and bumping and jouncing of the wagon over the prairie eventually churned the cream into butter.

Settlers who came by wagon from the settled East were in for a shock as they encountered what passed for roads farther west. Roads that were laid through wooded areas still had tree stumps left m the roadway in the 1830s and early 1840s. The stumps were generally cut within two feet of the road surface so that wagons could clear them.

Although the roads did exist, the western residents of the era didn’t seem to be real clear on the concept of government-owned roads. For instance, a traveler on the National Road from Wheeling, West Virginia to Vandalia reported during a journey to Illinois in the 1840’s that “On passing a house newly built we had to avoid a deep hole dug right in the middle of the road (this was the State Road be it remembered), from which the clay for daubing the chimney had evidently been taken. To be sure, the road was a mere track, but there was a good deal of passage on it, and it was the route of a stage carrying the mail.”

Settlers who wished to travel by flatboat first journeyed to Wheeling, Pittsburgh, or some other town on the Ohio River, where their wagon and team were exchanged in trade for a flatboat and usually some cash. The journey down the Ohio brought settlers to Shawneetown in southern Illinois where their flatboat would be traded, along with some cash, for another team and wagon for the trip to the prairies of northern Illinois. Flatboats had value because they were made of sawn lumber, something that was not overly common and so was of some value on the Illinois frontier.

Ten year-old Della Agusta Southworth and her family traveled on the Great Lakes to Chicago in 1838 aboard the schooner Detroit. Ironically, they sailed from Oswego, New York, and after arriving at Chicago, settled in the new village of Oswego, Illinois–named after the New York city. (Historical Collections of the Great Lakes – Bowling Green State University)

For settlers with enough money, and who didn’t want to bring a lot of personal possessions or livestock with them, the quickest way to get to Illinois from Eastern states was via the Great Lakes. Steamboat travel was finally becoming commonplace in the 1840’s as a method of traversing the lakes, but sailing ships still predominated. Settlers usually got to Albany as best they could and then took the Erie Canal to Buffalo on Lake Erie. From there, they would board a steamboat for a quick passage (which was also expensive), or would take a lake schooner for a less expensive, though more leisurely (depending on the weather), sailing voyage to Chicago.

Della Agusta Southworth—later Mrs. Lyell Aldrich—an early settler in Kendall County, left an interesting record of such a sailing voyage. Mrs. Aldrich’s family came west to Illinois in 1838 when she was a 10 year-old girl.

“We took passage on the schooner ‘Detroit’ at Oswego, N.Y., on July 6, 1838, and five weeks later arrived in Chicago on Aug. 12. The Welland Canal with its 25 locks, almost one to a mile, was than not constructed to admit easy passage for so large a vessel as ours. So frequent delays occurred from running around and getting stuck in the locks. The keel had been taken off the schooner to save space, which caused her to drift in all directions.

“At Mackinac Island head winds delayed us for more than a week giving us time to visit the places of interest. When we finally reached Chicago, we sailed up the river toward the west, landing on the bank opposite the old log fort.”

It never gets old for me to compare 19th Century travel to travel today. These days, it is about a day’s drive from here to Niagara Falls via four-lane highways—no more waiting a week up at the Straits for the wind to change or the entire trip taking more than a month.

I always think it’s valuable to keep such facts in mind to offer a bit of perspective as we complain about today’s heavy traffic, gasoline prices, or road construction delays.

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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.





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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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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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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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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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Sea captains! In Kendall County?

When I was a youngster, I was besotted with sailing ships. I built models of the  Sir Thomas Lipton International Fishing Challenge Cup racer Bluenose, the U.S.S. Constitution, and (my masterpiece) the famed clipper ship Cutty Sark.

My most prized possession, a 1958 Christmas present, was my well-thumbed copy of the National Geographic’s Men Ships and the Sea, a collection of true sea stories, the end papers of which featured a full-rigged clipper ship, with all the sails labeled.

We spent hours virtually every summer day on the river back in those days, polling our scows up and down the Fox’s muddy stream, fishing and landing on and exploring nearby islands. One summer, I saved every penny I could and bought 2” diameter poles at Alexander Lumber that I fashioned into a fore-and-aft sailing rig for my scow. I manufactured leeboards and somehow talked my mother into sewing a sail. My little catboat rig actually worked, though tacking across the shallow main channel of the Fox was a real challenge.

During those years I read everything I could that was sailing-related, including C.S. Forester’s wonderful Hornblower saga. Nowadays, what with arthritic fingers and hands, holding books has become a chore, so I rely more and more using the Kindle apps on both my iPhone and MacBook Pro. And imagine my joy when I discovered electronic versions of the Hornblower books! I’m reading them again, in chronological order, using the uBooks app on my iPhone with its nifty auto scroll feature. Every morning during my 21-minute cardio maintenance Nu-Step routine, I let uBooks scroll as I furiously pedal, which makes the time speed by.

So given my fascination with things nautical, I was not a little surprised to run across accounts of two captains with direct Kendall County connections during my epic transcription project. Back when I was editor of the Ledger-Sentinel here in Oswego, I transcribed interesting news items from the Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” news column for our monthly “Yesteryear” feature. I also relied on a bunch of transcriptions Ford Lippold did during 1976, as he sat down at the Oswego Public Library with his portable typewriter transcribing from their microfilm collection. But those transcriptions were extremely incomplete. So when I retired from the news biz in 2008, I decided to fill in the gaps. Over the next five years, I transcribed thousands of news items, mostly dealing with Oswego, from microfilm in the Little White School Museum’s collections. As of this morning, the 70 or so pages of transcriptions Ford and I did prior to 2008 have ballooned to more than 4,700.

But I digress.

Two captains of Great Lakes ships either lived in or had direct connections to our small northern Illinois farming county of Kendall, Capt. John Raleigh and Capt. Frank Huyck. Capt. Raleigh actually owned a 155-acre farm near Yorkville in southwestern Oswego Township, along what is today Ill. Route 71, just south of Van Emmon Road. Every fall, when shipping on the lakes was interrupted by cold weather, Capt. Raleigh would leave his ship and head to his farm. As the Kendall County Record reported on Nov. 10, 1897: “Captain John Raleigh came home Saturday for the winter.” The following April, the Record noted: “Captain Raleigh is away on the lakes for the summer.”

While skippering the steam propeller passenger and freight ship Iowa, Capt. John Raleigh rammed and sank the yacht schooner Hawthorne in August 1896. Photo courtesy http://steamshipphotos.com

While skippering the steam propeller passenger and freight ship Iowa, Capt. John Raleigh rammed and sank the yacht schooner Hawthorne in August 1896. Photo courtesy http://steamshipphotos.com

Capt. Raleigh was apparently not a flawless skipper. August 13, 1896, the Wayne Weekly Breeze reported that “The schooner yacht Hawthorne, owned by McConnell Bros., was sunk off the Government breakwater at the entrance to the Chicago harbor Wednesday night by the single screw propeller [steamer] Iowa of the Goodrich Transportation Line. Capt. Martin Henderson of the yacht and a crew of four were taken off the wreck by the tug Gardner. The big steamer, in charge of Capt. John Raleigh, was on her maiden trip, and proceeded on her way to Grand Haven.” But he must have been good enough, because he enjoyed a long, and relatively successful career.

Capt. Raleigh eventually retired from the lakes, and moved to Yorkville, turning the farm over to his son Ray. He died in 1915 in Chicago at the age of 70 and is buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery beside his wife, Melissa.

Captain Huyck with his cigar (Betty Cornwell collection)

Undated photograph of Capt. Frank Huyck. (Betty Cornwell collection)

Capt. Frank Huyck, on the other hand, apparently never lived in Kendall County, although he visited here frequently after marrying a local girl.

On Feb. 13, 1889, the Kendall County Record reported in its “Oswego” column that “The marriage of Miss Helen Samse to a Mr. Frank Huyck of Sheridan, N.Y. will take place Wednesday at the residence of her parents, Chas. Samse. Helen marries a seafaring man, the mate of a Lake steamer.”

Although busy as first an officer and then as a captain aboard steamers on the lakes, Capt. Huyck managed to get back to visit friends and family once in a while. The Record reported on Sept. 2, 1891 that “Capt. F.B. Huyck came from off the lakes one day to make his wife and baby, who are summering here, a visit.”

By 1903, Capt. Huyck was in command of the Chemung, a passenger and freight steamship owned by the Union Steamship Companies. But in September of that year, the American Association of Masters and Pilots struck against several shipping companies, including the Union Steamship Companies. The companies managed to break the strike a month later and all of the strikers were blackballed from further employment—the captain of the Chemung among them. It would be three years until Huyck would find another job with a Great Lakes shipping company.

In 1906, thanks to his friend, Capt. William Reed, Huyck was offered a job as first mate aboard the steamship Amasa Stone, an ore freighter hauling iron ore from Minnesota’s Messabi Range to steel mills in Ohio. The ore freighter, only a year old, was owned by the newly formed Mesaba Steamship fleet, which was operating under the management of Pickands, Mather & Company. After serving aboard the Stone for a year, Huyck was given command of the brand new freighter Cyprus, whose job it would be to haul coal and iron ore. The 7,400 ton Cyprus, launched on Aug. 17, 1907 at the American Shipbuilding Company, Lorain, Ohio, measured 420 feet in length and was 52 feet wide on the beam.

Louis Pesha photo of the brand new Cyprus, under the command of Capt. Frank Huyck,  in the St. Clair River, upbound for Lake Superior,  on September 22, 1907. (William Forsythe collection)

Louis Pesha photo of the brand new Cyprus, under the command of Capt. Frank Huyck, in the St. Clair River, upbound for Lake Superior, on September 22, 1907. (William Forsythe collection)

One of three sister ships, the Cyprus’s cargo hatches were covered with brand new, recently patented, mechanical covers. Unlike the old wooden hatch covers, the new patent Brousseau telescoping hatch covers could be mechanically retracted using small on-board steam engines much faster and more economically than the old hatch covers. The new hatch covers were considered so superior to the old wooden ones, that the ships with them were not issued canvas tarpaulins used to securely seal the old wooden hatch covers.

But it apparently didn’t take long before the crews of ships with the Brousseau covers became concerned about them. Cyprus made her first voyage on Sept. 7, 1907, up to Lake Superior to load iron ore, and then back down the lakes to Fairport, Ohio. She loaded with coal and headed back upbound to Duluth, Minn., where she delivered the coal before steaming farther north to load with Mesabi iron ore.

While loading ore at Superior, Wis., Huyck was overheard to declare to the Cyprus’s first mate, John Smith, that “I’ll never make another trip without tarps!” Huyck reportedly complained the patent hatch covers did not seal completely around the hatch coamings, which could be dangerous during one of Lake Superior’s frequent strong storms.

On Oct. 10 1907, the Cyprus with Capt. Huyck on the bridge, steamed out of Superior on her way downbound to the southern lakes with 7,100 tons of Mesabi iron ore in her holds. By 10 the next morning, the weather was worsening. The Cyprus was sighted 10 miles south of Stannard Light, west northwest of Whitefish Bay, where she was observed to be rolling in the light swells. When the Cyprus passed the steamer George Stephenson towing the barge Magna through worsening weather conditions about noon, the Stephenson’s Capt. Harbottle, noticed the discharge from the Cyprus‘s bilge pumps was stained red, suggesting that by then the increasingly rough seas were washing over the ship’s decks, over the Brousseau hatches’ low 6” coamings, and into the cargo holds, where the water mixed with some of the soft iron ore before being pumped overboard.

The surface conditions continued to deteriorate, with ships seeking shelter wherever they could. Huyck apparently decided to try to get to the shelter of Whitefish Bay. But like another ore freighter some 60 years in the future—named the Edmund Fitzgerald—the Cyprus wasn’t able to “put 15 more miles behind her” to reach the bay’s shelter. At 7 p.m., Huyck ordered the crew to prepare to abandon ship as she continued to take on water as waves crashed across her deck. At 7:45 p.m., the Cyprus slowly rolled over into the cold waters of Lake Superior and sank in 460 feet of water.

Wreckage of the only Cyprus liferaft to reach shore with the ship's sole survivor, Second Mate Charles Pitz. Capt. Huyck and two other crewmen clung to the raft until overcome by hypothermia in Lake Superior's frigid waters.

Wreckage of the only Cyprus liferaft to reach shore with the ship’s sole survivor, Second Mate Charles Pitz. Capt. Huyck and two other crewmen clung to the storm-tossed raft until overcome by hypothermia in Lake Superior’s frigid waters.

By about 2 a.m. on Oct. 12, the Cyprus’s only surviving life raft, carrying Huyck, First Mate John C. Smith, Second Mate Charles Pitz, and Wheelsman George Thorne, was within sight of the rocky Lake Superior shoreline, despite being flipped over four times by the high waves. Each time, the increasingly exhausted men had managed to clamber back aboard the raft, but when it overturned a fifth time, hypothermia and exhaustion took their toll and only Pitz was able to get back aboard and ride the raft to shore near the Deer Park Life Saving Station, located a little over 16 miles east of Grand Marais, Mich., where he was rescued. Pitz was the only survivor of the Cyprus.

Lake Superior kept Capt. Huyck’s body until finally giving it up a day later when it washed up at the Two Hearted River Life Saving Station at the mouth of Michigan’s Two Hearted River.

After the sinking other ships with Brousseau’s patented hatch covers were all issued tarps. The covers were soon replaced by other telescoping hatch covers invented by Capt. Joseph Kidd. Kidd noted that his hatch covers, as opposed to the Brousseau covers, were “practically water-tight or as nearly so as possible when in place.” In contrast to Brousseau’s hatches, which featured only 6” coamings, Kidd’s hatches had 9″ to 12” coamings, another feature designed to keep water from washing into ore ships’ cargo holds. Kidd’s hatches, though somewhat modified, are still in use today.

Capt. Huyck’s body was taken back to his hometown of Sheridan, N.Y. for burial, where his wife, the former Helen Samse, moved with her children, thus ending one of Kendall County’s more colorful encounters with sea stories.

In a fascinating historical sidelight on the wreck of the Cyprus and Capt. Frank Huyck provided by William Forsythe,

“In August 2007, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) sent its research vessel David Boyd to perform a side-scan sonar search near Deer Park, Mich., in Lake Superior. They found a solid target and expected it to be the D. M. Clemson, a mystery ship since her sinking in 1908. Everyone was surprised one week later, on August 18, 2007, when the Shipwreck Society’s Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) swam down to film the stern and found the words “CYPRUS FAIRPORT.” The ROV’s dive occurred 100 years and one day after the Cyprus’ launching at the American Shipbuilding Company in Lorain, Ohio.”

For more on the story of the Cyprus and her skipper, go to http://www.boatnerd.com/pictures/historic/Cyprus/



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