The Kankakee River Valley
An inventory of the region's resources
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
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The Iroquois County village of Danforth was settled in 1872 by 30 Dutch families whose skills at rescuing farms from water made them perfect citizens of the Kankakee River valley. The region is not wetter than the rest of Illinois, if wetness is measured by the amounts of rain and snow that fall in an average year. But the land is flatter here—the Iroquois River, the Kankakee's main tributary, falls a mere half-foot per mile for its lower 80 miles—and a little water in such a place spreads out to make big puddles.
The flatness of the landscape reflects its youth. Northeast Illinois was inundated by glaciers that retreated only 10,000 years ago—seconds out of the geologic day. Not yet wrinkled by erosion like the older, more weathered parts of the southern two-thirds of Illinois, the Kankakee valley still has a baby's face. Weather has not yet had time to carve into the surface a network of channels that might carry water efficiently into nearby streams. Ridges of glacial outwash and moraines left behind by glaciers that would not be flattered with the name hill in other places—piles of ground-up rock debris like the Gilman moraine that arcs across central Iroquois County—are conspicuous enough that they have been given their own names.
The Kankakee valley, as the term is used here, takes in 2,169 square miles of the Kankakee River drainage. It encompasses nearly all of Kankakee and Iroquois counties plus parts of four adjacent counties in northeast Illinois. Two "mainstem" rivers dominate a setting that otherwise offers little in the way of landmarks—the Kankakee, which flows west across the valley until it joins the Des Plaines to form the Illinois River, and the Kankakee's principal tributary, the Iroquois.
The Kankakee valley is a good example of a practical Illinois landscape. More than three-fourths of the land area is cropland. Another nearly 16 percent is grassland—pastures and hay-fields, idle fields, remnant prairies, and grassy strips along roads and railroad tracks. Forest (which covers 3.1 percent of the land) and nonforested wetlands (another 0.5 percent) are negligible in geographic terms. They are, however, crucial in an ecological sense. Forests and wetlands, along with the open water of the river systems, are the refuges where much of the region's plant and animal life persists.
It cannot be said for certain how the richness of species in today's Kankakee valley compares to the pre-settlement valley; so thorough and rapid was the humanization of the Kankakee valley ecosystem that many local natural communities disappeared before scientists could catalog what lived in them. Some species plainly have fared better than others. However, nature seems to have adapted with some success to human presence.
• The area is home to at least 249 of the 299 bird species that regularly occur in Illinois. Of these, 143 are known to breed or used to breed in the area.
• The watershed supports 84 species of fish, 14 of large crustaceans such as crayfish, and 37 of mussels, of which the mucket, the pimpleback, and the threeridge are most common.
• Limited data suggest that aquatic macroinvertebrate populations—insects, worms, and so on—are more diverse than in many other watersheds in Illinois.
• Two-fifths of all the plants, native and non-native, that are found in Illinois may be found in the Kankakee valley.
However, while the number of species in the valley remains high, recent records reveal that the number of individuals of many species is dwindling. The decline in presettlement habitat is presumed to be the cause of this shrinkage, as farm fields, home sites, and roads replace more ecologically complex environments.
Prairies Virtually all the Kankakee valley lies within Illinois's former Grand Prairie. Here was where the sprawling natural province known as the Prairie Peninsula encroached on North America's eastern forest. More than 90 percent of the valley was prairie (including savannas) when Euro-American travelers first saw it. The experience led many to compare this part of the state to a sea of grass—a description that was more than poetically apt. Like oceans, much of the Kankakee valley's tallgrass country was wet and hard to cross in bad weather and while no one need fear drowning on the prairie, no one on the ocean had to contend with the biting flies that made traveling during the day more perilous than did prairie wolves.
Forests Trees were never widespread in the postglacial Kankakee valley. In 1820's Illinois, 40 percent of the state's landscape probably was covered with trees; in the future Kankakee and Iroquois counties, forest covered 5.6 percent and 8 percent of the land area, respectively. In the 1870's, the want of cheap local wood for fences led to widespread experimental planting of field hedges of osage orange.
Fires on open grasslands like the Grand Prairie kill encroaching trees in their seedling stages. This is one reason (along with extra moisture) why forests in Illinois tend to hug the hollows of streams, or are found in the leeward side of glacial moraines, where fires burn cooler. In much of the Kankakee valley, however, the un-incised landscape offered trees little shelter against prairie fires.
The original forests that lined the two main rivers were filled with hardwoods like white oaks, ash, hickory, and black walnut. These species were quick to fall to the ax. Commercial lumbermen sold them for rails, posts, firewood, and lumber. Most of today's woods are second-growth forest, sprouted from cut-over woods and now themselves a century or more old.
Wetlands Conservative calculations suggest that the presettlement Kankakee valley included 375,000 acres of wetlands of various types. They included wet prairie (one big reason why the old Grand Prairie was among the very last bits of Illinois to be settled), forested wetlands along streams, and low-lying potholes left by once-buried bits of glacial ice. The limestone outcrops that formed a natural dam across the Kankakee River near Momence backed up water into the river's upper basin. Like water spreading out over a basement floor from a stopped-up drain, the water covered 400,000 acres, reaching east into Indiana to South Bend. The result was one of the nation's most spectacular collection of wetlands. The riverine maze that stretches six-miles along the Kankakee River from east of Momence to the Indiana border is a remnant of that remarkable system.
Wetness was the only thing that kept Kankakee valley soils from perfection as farmland. Flat and thus easy to plow (once the prairie grasses' grip on them was broken) its best soils are as fertile as any in Illinois. Most of them derive from ground-up limestone and have lain exposed at the surface for only a few thousand years—not long enough for weather to leach away their mineral fertility. No wonder that more than 90 percent of the region's land is put to some kind of agricultural use, compared to three of four statewide.
Converting virtually all prairie to farms was bound to effect dramatic changes in the landscape.
• Today about 56 acres of prairie survive in the region, or 0.005 percent of the original.
• Relatively more of the valley's original forest acreage survives today (44 percent) than in the state as a whole (30 percent). However, since the region's original forest cover was so scant, today's woods cover only 3.1 percent of the valley.
• An estimated 96 percent of the presettlement wetlands are gone. Only about 236 acres (not counting forests along streams) persist in their presettlement state, and of these, only six acres remain of the highest quality.
In general, relative losses of presettlement habitat in the Kankakee exceed statewide averages. And except for forest and savanna, the ecological quality of what does survive is lower in the Kankakee than in the rest of the state. A survey in the 1970s by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI) found top-quality remnants of presettlement natural communities that included cliffs, three kinds of forest, two of savanna, six prairies, and five wetlands. Counting buffer lands, these sites cover 6,900 acres in all. Category I sites—high-quality natural communities that meet the INAI's most exacting standards—make up 1,228 acres, or less than 1 percent of the valley.
Larger, if less pristine, remnants of the past also persist. A total of more than 10,000 acres of floodplain forest persist, the biggest chunk being in the Momence Wetlands. There, 1,600 acres of sloughs and swamps remain largely as observers found them 70 years ago, rich in "shady nooks and shallow bayous" lined with timber "to delight the eye."
The Kankakee valley has eight state-recognized nature preserves and another 33 state-designated natural areas. These designate rare savannas, dunes, sandy uplands, and bottomland forest of various types. The Iroquois Woods Nature Preserve, for example, is a 47-acre remnant of the old growth forest that once stood along the Iroquois River. Gooseberry Island Nature Preserve is another forest remnant that was protected from logging by its isolation midstream in the Kankakee; more than 70 plant species have been cataloged at the site, including toothwort and starry Solomon's seal.
Much of the quality habitat that does survive in the Kankakee valley is of particular value because it is rare not only locally but in all of Illinois. Consider savanna, the not-quite-forest, not-quite-prairie ecosystem in which scattered large trees (usually oaks) dominate an open landscape of prairie grasses and flowering plants. An estimated 827 acres of high-quality savanna are left in the Kankakee valley—by far the best-preserved undegraded natural community type left in the valley. The savanna that makes up two-thirds of the region's total inventory of high-quality natural community also makes up two-thirds of the high quality savanna that persists in the whole state.
Unusual habitats tend to harbor plants and animals that, adapted specifically to them, are themselves unusual. The northern clearwater crayfish, as its name implies, prefers clear rocky riffles that have become rare in many Illinois streams but which still may be found in the Kankakee valley. On Altorf Island in the Kankakee River, beds of dolomite (a geologic cousin to limestone) lie less than four feet below the surface; soil here is both very shallow and very high in pH, creating an environment in which mainly calcium-loving plants can thrive. An even more demanding habitat is the dolomite cliffs along the Kankakee River where plants like the slender sandwort must cope with highly alkaline soils and drought and must be able to root in crevices rather than soils. At Bonnie's Prairie Nature Preserve near Watseka is found the only sand pond that enjoys protection in east-central Illinois. It brims with wetland plants like the fowl manna grass and yellow pond lily; two very uncommon species of native bee gather pollen exclusively from pickerel weed that occurs there.
Such finely adapted plants and animals tend to be vulnerable to even small changes in their environments. Six species of fish known from the region are listed by state authorities as being endangered or threatened with extinction in Illinois. Of the more than one thousand species of native plants known in the area, 75 are species whose survival in Illinois is considered uncertain, and three plant species—Mead's milkweed, the western wild lettuce and the ear-leafed foxglove—while not rare locally, are rare in the nation as a whole. The Mead's milkweed is so rare that its survival is considered endangered in the U.S.
Neither the Kankakee nor the Iroquois is a particularly wide river. (On an aerial photograph of the valley they look like scratches on a plate.) Nonetheless these streams are decisive features in the landscape in recreational and ecological terms.
The Kankakee River enters Illinois near Momence and runs for 62 miles. It is 200–800 feet wide and 15 feet deep at its deepest. It is in few ways a typical Illinois river. (Indeed, it is not by some measures an Illinois river; most of its watershed lies in Indiana.) For much of its length below the dam at Kankakee the river rolls over sand-covered bedrock. Its surface is agitated by riffles, its bed pockmarked by shallow pools. It falls more than five feet per mile below Momence; travelers who saw it at Wilmington in the 1840s likened it to a mill race. Only near its confluence with the Des Plaines River does it seem to remember that it is in Illinois, and begin to run deep and slow across a bottom thick with silt.
The Kankakee's main tributary is the smaller Iroquois. Neither dammed nor dredged, the Iroquois runs across a bed of gravel, sand, and silt, and is fed in part by artesian wells—upwellings of groundwater under pressure—near Gilman.
In few Illinois places is the relative ecological integrity of such sizeable streams so little compromised by the close presence of humans. Biologists rank most of the Kankakee and Iroquois, along with nine of their tributaries, as "highly valued aquatic resources." Five branches of the Kankakee-Iroquois drainage have been designated as Biologically Significant Streams because of the diverse life they support. Nearly 88 percent of the sampled stream miles in the Kankakee drainage "fully support" appropriate uses as determined by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
No surprise, then, that the largest populations of many species of rare fish to be found anywhere in Illinois are found here. The weed shiner, one of the state's rarest fish, inhabits the Kankakee from north of Wilmington to the mouth of Horse Creek—the only large population left in the state. The Kankakee also is the only stream in which the river redhorse is common. The mucket mussel, the most numerous of the Kankakee valley mussels, is rare in other Illinois streams.
It is easy to exaggerate the ecological dominance of humans—climate and geology remain the ultimate arbiter of species survival—but humans often determine (usually inadvertently) which species thrive and which do not in altered ecosystems. One small example: Spring wildflowers persist in grazed woodlots more abundantly than do many of their later-blooming companions because cattle are usually put into pastures in the spring, and so do not nibble down these early bloomers.
Land clearing and drainage on the township scale no longer go on in the Kankakee valley, if only because most of the land that might be cleared and drained already has been. Ecological change continues on a smaller scale, however, as a result of habitat fragmentation, the modification of natural drainage systems, or the suppression of natural fires. Cumulatively, such changes have large ecological effects that are no less problematic for their usually being unintended.
Fragmentation Construction of roads, fields, and houses divides once-intact forests, wetlands, or prairies into small habitat "islands." The mean size of contiguous forested wetlands in the Kankakee valley is 12.3 acres, and emergent wetlands like marshes average two acres in size. The roughly 56 acres of prairie that remain in anything like their presettlement state are scattered among 14 separate sites; the Loda Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve in Iroquois County, perhaps the outstanding local example of the original moist black soil prairie, covers not quite 3.5 acres.
The entire local populations of some plant and animal species in these splintered tracts may include only a few individuals. The smaller such local populations are, the more vulnerable they usually are to disease and in-breeding stress. Fragmented habitats also are often too small for species such as badgers (among many others) that demand far-flung home ranges. For example:
• Gray squirrels, which need extensive tracts of forest, are rare or absent in Kankakee and Iroquois counties because extensive tracts of forest are rare here.
• The minimum forested acreage thought necessary to shelter populations of breeding songbirds is 500 acres. None of the three largest tracts of savanna—they are found upstream of Momence on the Kankakee and along Spring Creek between Gilman and Crescent City—is bigger than 428 acres.
• Grassland and wetland birds also lack sufficient breeding space within the Kankakee. Fortunately, planned restoration of large tracts just outside the region—at the Midewin National Tall Grass Prairie near Joliet and the Grand Kankakee Marsh across the state line in Indiana—should help replenish those populations locally.
Fragmentation does more than shrink the size of specific habitats. It severs the natural landscape links that connect disparate habitats. Each spring, amphibians like the American toad migrate to lowland areas from upland forests to breed, while each fall, reptiles move to upland retreats to hibernate; fragmentation blocks these natural movements.
Modification The most direct way to disturb ecosystems is to modify the way they work. Construction of artificial drainage systems is (apart from the plowing of the prairie) the most widespread form of ecosystem modification in the Kankakee valley.
The agricultural soils of the Kankakee had been "injured or rendered valueless" by the waters of the Kankakee, in the words of the Kankakee Valley Draining Co. in 1869. Wetness was deleterious to more than the commercial health of the newcomers. Much of its prairie land may have been too wet to grow corn but it was perfect for growing malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The shallow water table made water wells vulnerable to pollution from all the wastes that people and animals leave on the ground. A local historian lamented that drinking from contaminated shallow surface wells in the previous century made diseases like typhoid "alarmingly prevalent."
The cure for both disease and mud was to render the land dry, or at least drier. The Kankakee in Indiana was converted into what is inelegantly but accurately known as a drainage ditch for much of its course upstream from the Illinois border, and much of the farmland in the lower valley on the Illinois side is now artificially drained through the installation of field tiles.
Fire In the Kankakee valley, as across Illinois, the oak-hickory forests of presettlement days are not reproducing themselves. Unless the under-story of such forests burn occasionally, as it does under natural conditions, the forest floor becomes too shady for sun-loving oak seedlings to flourish. Shade-tolerant maples thrive, however, and an oak forest gradually becomes a maple one. This has implications for wildlife—squirrels and chipmunks tend to be most abundant in forests heavy with nut-producing trees like oaks and hickories.
If the absence of fire in an old oak-hickory forest helps destroy it, the absence of fire on the prairie helps create new forest. Fires on exposed prairie keep it treeless. Farmers stopped fires to protect their own fields and buildings, and as soon as 1860 the open countryside in Stockland Township in Iroquois County began to close up as grasslands began to be invaded by trees spreading from adjacent groves.
The Kankakee mallow is a hollyhock-like flowering plant discovered in 1872 and given species status in 1906. Today the plant grows in the wild only on Langham Island in the Kankakee River at Altorf. The Kankakee mallow grows best in places periodically disturbed by fire, which burns off competing plants and cracks open its dormant seeds. The Langham Island population was thriving in the 1940s but by the 1980's the total population at the site was down to 180 plants, and it was listed as threatened. State and federal conservation agencies thus undertook a regimen of controlled burning at the site in 1985. Today the Kankakee mallow's numbers have stabilized and, while still considered threatened, it is in no immediate danger of becoming endangered.
Water Supply Groundwater quality in the Kankakee valley is generally good; contamination, where it occurs, threatens only local wells. Except for the town of Kankakee, which has drawn drinking water from the Kankakee since 1886, most of the area public water systems pump water from the dolomite aquifers that underlie the glacial drift. These rocks harbor vast holdings of water in their cracks. Total groundwater use for drinking water, livestock watering, farm wells, and industry (mainly power generation) was more than 8.5 million gallons per day in 1995.
Many of the Kankakee valley soils are sandy, since most of them evolved from ground rock washed off melting glaciers. Generally less fertile than the loamy, loess-based soils familiar from the rest of the old Grand Prairie, these soils also do not hold water well. Free groundwater beneath the surface and thirsty soils on top makes irrigation of farm fields almost irresistible. As early as 1926 many Kankakee valley farmers had specialized in crops suited to these conditions, such as melons, vegetables, potatoes, flowers, and sod. Today Kankakee County leads Illinois in the number of irrigated acres, each of which received an average of 5.5 inches per year.
Where water quality of local surface waters (mainly streams) has been compromised, it has been a result of routine farm operations that speed the runoff of nutrients and sediments from farm fields. Water quantity is a bigger problem than water quality. On a yearly basis, average flow in the Kankakee River is up by 50 percent since 1966, consistent with the increase in average precipitation in the watershed. But flow in the Kankakee varies enormously from month to month, ranging from one-tenth to ten times average flow. Increasing use of tributaries such as Trim Creek for irrigation reduces the Kankakee's flow. (Indiana farmers take most of their irrigation water directly from the Kankakee.) Groundwater withdrawals also reduce flow since the Kankakee, like many surface streams, is fed by groundwater during periods of slack rainfall. Summer drought thus can leave less water in the river at a time of year when farmers need to take the most out of it. The resulting drops in flow, such as occurred during the punishing drought of 1988, makes for potential conflict among water users.
Recreation While the shallow Kankakee River never became a barge highway like the Illinois, its qualities as a recreational resource were recognized as early as the 1890s. In those days the Custer Bowery Amusement Park drew crowds of summer excursionists from Chicago.
Today, the Kankakee River State Park envelops both sides of the Kankakee River for 11 miles downstream from a spot six miles northwest of Kankakee. (Local government also has provided admirably for riverine recreation; a total of 17 smaller parks line the river up and downstream from Kankakee.) The park is center stage of the region's outdoor recreation, attracting as many as 1.6 million visitors in recent years to hike, camp, hunt, fish, ride horses, watch wildlife, and go boating. In all, state-owned outdoor recreation sites generate an estimated $14 million a year in economic output—a modest part of a local economy measured in billions, but an irreplaceable amenity.
The rivers also support a busy sports fishery. Among the state's best ranked channel catfish waters is the Iroquois River (especially its lower reaches near St. Anne), Beaver Creek, and other tributaries. The Kankakee River is regarded by serious fishermen as Illinois' premier smallmouth bass stream. On days when the fish aren't biting, the Kankakee offers fishermen the rewards of a wilderness experience. As outdoors writer John Husar of the Chicago Tribune once ruefully noted, it is possible to be outfished by kingfishers and osprey when a-boat on the Kankakee.
The hunter's realm in the Kankakee valley is its uplands, 1,609 acres of which have been set aside as the Iroquois County Conservation Area. Hunting is available in certain parts and certain seasons for squirrel, dove, rabbit quail, and deer as well as woodcock, rail, and snipe. Sportsmen spend a disproportionate number of hunter-days in pursuit of pheasant, for which the local landscape is well suited; more than 5,300 hunters took more than 21,000 birds in 1993.
Boating A natural dam at Chebanse causes the waters of the Iroquois River to gather in a pool that reaches upstream more than 26 miles. Access to such an extensive quality water resource is one reason why Iroquois County has higher-than-average boat registrations in spite of the absence of large recreation lakes in the region, and in spite of the fact that the Kankakee is fairly shallow, even dangerous for motorized boating along much of its length.
Many boaters would rather bend an elbow than bend a propeller blade. The Kankakee River is one of the few natural, unspoiled canoeing streams left in northern Illinois. The stretch of water from the Indiana border through the heavily wooded bottomland in Momence is quiet enough for beginners and pretty enough to keep old hands from getting bored. Many stretches of the river appear as they must have when Robert Cavelier, sieur de la Salle, paddled down the Kankakee in 1679. Beaver—which here build dens into mud banks rather than build lodges in open water—and eagles can be seen. The upper Kankakee in particular is considered prime habitat for the river otter, although the animal has not been sighted in the Kankakee since 1981.
Farming The principal economic use of natural resources in the Kankakee valley is, of course, farming. In nine of the area's 25 river sub-basins, 95 percent or more of the land has been put to agricultural use. An estimated 85 percent of the region's land is used for intensive production of row crops.
While corn and soybeans remain the major commercial crops, they are not the only ones. The region has a disproportionate share of Illinois's nursery and greenhouse acreage, and relatively larger acreage planted in such truck crops as sweet corn, melons, dry onions, and head cabbage.
The city of Kankakee remains an important regional agricultural trade, processing, and shipping center. Fewer people may live and work on the region's farms, but many still work for farms by making, moving, or selling the things that farmers use, such as fuel and fertilizer, and by providing the services that complex agricultural enterprises require.
Urbanization Typically for a farming area, the people of the Kankakee valley live clustered in small towns. Regional population density is half that of the state as a whole; towns and other "urban" uses occupy only 2.5 percent of the valley's land. Growth rates are also slower than the Illinois average. The richer soils of the Kankakee valley have always made economical large mechanized farms that require few farm hands—a big reason why agricultural Iroquois County grew only 19 percent since 1870.
People not needed on farms proved eager hands at factory work. Greater Kankakee was one of several regional urban centers that in the 1800s grew beyond making and selling farm goods into a general manufacturing center. The town thrived with, and no longer because of, its farms for decades. A century later Kankakee suffered like most such cities, as its aging industrial infrastructure turned into classic Rust Belt enterprises.
Population trends have followed these shifts in economic fortune. A 32 percent fall in manufacturing employment in the past 25 years helped push net population growth in the region into the red, but an economic revival since the 1980s has spurred a recent upturn. Consistent with trends around the state, population has been shifting within the region as well—urban areas (chiefly Kankakee County) are growing more populous while rural areas shrink.
Farming still dominates the landscape, but no longer the economy. The value of farmland has declined since 1978 and the amount of land in agriculture has been slipping as farms are converted to other, more profitable uses. Both trends are proceeding at about the same rate in the Kankakee valley as in the rest of the state. Farming in 1994 accounted for fewer local jobs than any other major economic sector, and the 8 percent of the region's earnings that farming generated was half that of wholesale-retail trade and a little more than a third that of either services or manufacturing. Nonetheless, farm earnings have declined less in the Kankakee area than in most other parts of rural Illinois, perhaps because per capita earnings in the area are relatively modest compared to the rest of the state, making the relative decline smaller.
As farmland declines in value, it makes up less of the local tax base; farmland's percentage of the tax base dropped across the region from more than 12 percent in 1981 to 4.5 percent in 1994. Farming remains relatively stronger an economic presence in heavily rural Iroquois County, where nearly half the property tax base was farmland in 1994 (although the proportion of local taxes from farms dropped there too, from 67 percent in 1981). Kankakee County, with its more varied economy, relied on farm properties for only 11 percent of its local taxes.
Manufacturing, the other mainstay of the local economy, is on the rebound, growing 15 percent (admittedly from a shrunken base) since 1991. However, in relative terms manufacturing also is losing economic ground. Twenty-five years ago the big local employers processed foods or made steel bar, furniture, tools, or cooking appliances; today only one manufacturer is on the list of the region's top ten employers. Services, health care, and retail are increasingly the way Kankakee valley residents earn their livings; the top 10 employers include two colleges, three hospitals, a book wholesaler, a discount store, and a personal service agent.
The property tax base has declined, in some places dramatically. Overall, the tax base in the Kankakee metropolitan area had dropped 52 percent in value since 1969 (42 percent in the county as a whole), in spite of recent economic rebounds; in Iroquois County, the decline in that period was 68 percent.
In the past, the key to economic success in the Kankakee valley was ultimately geologic—the availability of soils, farmable terrain, and the plants that such landscapes support. Beginning in the 1850s, economic success depended more and more on geography. The Kankakee valley has always been a crossroads. French explorers like LaSalle preferred to get to the Illinois River from Lake Michigan down the Kankakee via Michigan's St. Joseph River. Later, in the early 1800's, the Chicago-Vincennes Road ran through Momence, which became a stop for freight haulers driving wagons. In the 1850s the Illinois Central Railroad linked the Kankakee valley to the wider world, just as Interstate 57 did in the middle of this century.
Each new transport technology changed the way the Kankakee valley used its land. Bourbonnais, a fur-trading center, was the important commercial depot in the region when trade moved by river, but when the railroad came through nearby Kankakee it overtook Bourbonnais as the region's economically dominant city.
In the present era, automobile access drives economic development. Take tourism. Kankakee's Convention and Visitors Bureau reminds a world that may not always know it that their city is "just one hour south of Chicago." Chicago supplies many of the fishermen and hunters (fishing conditions on the Kankakee are regularly scouted in Chicago papers), shoppers (the area boasts 534 antiques dealers), even star-gazers. The Midwest's largest gathering of amateur astronomers, sponsored by the Chicago Astronomical Society, takes place at the 4-H camp outside Kankakee each summer, where hundreds can stare at the sky unblinded by the big city's lights.
The recent boom in Chicago's southern suburbs suggests that the Kankakee valley may become a suburb of suburbs, as is beginning to happen to other once-bucolic Illinois districts like the Rock River. The conversion of local farm fields into rural subdivisions has been underway for years, both in the northern areas closest to Chicago and around greater Kankakee. Urbanization to date remains modest, as measured by increases in vehicle use and rates of land conversion. "Vehicle miles traveled" has grown half as fast as in the state as a whole in the past decade, and only a little more than 5 percent of the land in Kankakee County is urban.
However, the valley's flat farmland is cheap to buy, easy to build on, accessible to job centers, far enough from the city to be appealing but close enough to be convenient. It is as promising a frontier to 21st century home developers as the prairies were to 19th century farm developers. Any of several major new road extensions being talked about—a more southerly extension of Interstate 355 from I-55 to 1-80 at New Lenox, new links between 1-57 and 1-65 in Indiana and between interstates 80 and 57 in Illinois—would speed travel between the Kankakee valley and Chicago's south and southwest suburbs and thus make inter-regional commuting more convenient. If it is built, the much-debated third airport for Chicago on the north edge of the Kankakee valley near Peotone will add even more pressures on land, open space, and outdoor recreational resources.
The Kankakee valley's connection via highway to these burgeoning developments will prove as crucial to its evolving landscape as was the building of the Illinois Central railroad in the previous century. Just as Kankakee and Iroquois county farmers were able to export cattle and grain to Chicago's markets, so the region will be able to export people, in the form of commuters, to jobs in the booming south suburbs and to new industrial parks at sites such as the former Joliet Arsenal, which stands just outside the Kankakee area along U.S. Highway 53.
Much of the resistance to the proposed new airport, and to increased urbanization in general, comes from residents new to the Kankakee valley who already fled south once to escape the congestion, noise, and confusion of unplanned urban life, or who found there house lots that were cheaper or larger than where they came from. The challenge will be to make the region a place that is desirable to live in not only because of what it isn't yet, but because of what it still is.
The conversion of farm fields to house lots would further simplify ecosystems already rendered less complex. Such "cultural" landscapes nearly always favor non-native over native species of plants and animals, partly from the elimination of hedge rows and ditches, partly from the planting of landscape ornamentals, partly from the introduction of household pets that prey on ground-nesting birds. Such conversions also can increase water pollution; homeowners tend to be less sophisticated about the use of fertilizers and bug killers than are farmers, and often use even more of them on a per-acre basis.
The dilemma is by now a familiar one: How does a place accommodate people who want to live there without destroying the things that make it good to live in in the first place? Setting aside wholesale tracts of public lands is not politically or fiscally feasible, even if large tracts were still around. Indiana and Illinois are already experimenting with more integrated approaches to problems caused by urbanization. These solutions transcend jurisdictions, from setting open space standards and protecting wetlands, historic sites, and prime farmland to setting aside greenways and trails and conserving habitat for plants and animals.
Sensible restoration could enhance and expand three large islands of habitat types that have become scarce in most of the rest of Illinois—the upland forests of the Kankakee River State Park, the forested wetlands of the Momence Wetlands, and the savannas and grasslands of the Iroquois County Conservation Area. (Extensive savanna also persist on private lands in the Kankakee Sands area.) This would again make the Kankakee host to large breeding populations of birds of the savanna, forested wetlands, and emergent wetlands.
Smaller tracts of land, including private land, can be managed to support wider ranges of uses. Recent field work has made plain that some damaged ecosystems are not necessarily doomed, even if it is not possible to restore ecosystems to presettlement complexity.
• At the Hooper Branch Savanna Nature Preserve, a major study is underway on the effects of savanna restoration on the nesting success of birds such as the summer tanager, usually rare so far north but whose nests are commonly found there. (Because the principal trees of the savanna are fire-resistant oaks, savannas also are favored stops for spring migrants that feed on acorns.)
• Stream corridors, even drainage ditches, can serve as dispersal corridors for plants and animals. Restored riparian zones, for example, enable amphibian and reptiles like the American toad to move safely from the uplands of the Kankakee where it spends most of its life to lowlands where it breeds. Hedgerows in fields offer similar connecting havens for mammals.
• Prairie remnants in restorable condition may persist along railroad rights-of-way; these have been cataloged by local conservation groups such as the Grand Prairie Friends.
• Shrubs planted alongside drainage ditches provide shelter to birds in otherwise exposed landscapes. They also shade water for fishes and hold ditch banks against erosion.
• Since the aquatic biota of the Kankakee valley is in better shape than in many other parts of Illinois, relatively modest improvements in water quality may make possible the return of species extirpated from local waters.
Urbanization is to the humanized landscape of the Kankakee valley what the glaciers were to the presettlement one. Such massive invasions destroyed what was in their way but they also created opportunities for innovation. In only 10,000 years the living creatures of the area adapted well enough to the new situation to create what European late-comers look back on and declare to have been an Eden, in spite of the mosquitoes and prairie fires. Adapting quickly to a landscape that had been transformed, in some cases learning new ways of living, those creatures left what may prove to be a useful legacy to their human successors. ●
Sidebar: The Kankakee Sands
The Kankakee Sand Area, which covers about a third of the Kankakee valley, is an island in a sea of loamy black dirt. When lakes swollen with glacial meltwater broke out of their beds, successive torrents of water rumbled across the landscape of northeast Illinois. Crushed rock was dumped along the margins of the ancient Kankakee River. Plants were buried on this ephemeral landscape as quickly as they could sprout. Without plant roots to anchor them, the lighter sediments—mainly sands—were carried off by wind and accumulated downwind in dunes. Here and there, dunes were also left as relics of sandy beaches of those same long-vanished glacial lakes.
Sand does not hold water well and is an unstable base for rooting plants. Plant and animal communities of the Kankakee Sand Area thus differ markedly from their counterparts in otherwise identical but unsandy habitats nearby. Prairie grasses that reach as tall as a person in moister black soils generally are less than a yard tall on the sand prairies of the Kankakee valley, and shrubs disdain such areas altogether.
Unusual habitats tend to host unusual forms of life. Botanists know the Kankakee Sand Area as the local natural community richest in rare plants—22 listed species may occur here—and perhaps its most fragile. (Many of these plants found refuge in the nearly 2,500-acre Iroquois County Conservation Area.) The Kankakee sands also have distinct amphibian and reptile populations that include the glass lizard and six-lined race runner.
The presence of sand alters every major habitat. For example:
• In the Iroquois County Conservation Area are a few acres of degraded sand flatwoods—trees growing on level terrain in a yard or so of peaty acidic sand atop a clay subsoil tight enough to restrict root growth. This is a demanding, even punishing place to be a tree. Not surprisingly, sand flat woods were never extensive in northern Illinois. Two listed plant species—Carey's heartsease and buffalo clover—may persist here.
• The largest surviving natural community subclass in the Kankakee valley is sand savanna, growing on ancient sand dunes or beach ridges. The dunes in the Hooper Branch Savanna were formed from sandy beaches of a glacial lake that stood there 14,000 years ago. The dune and swale landscape typical of such sites may have acted as a natural firebreak that limited the reach of prairie fires, allowing trees to mature. The result was savanna instead of the sandy prairie usually found on such soils.
• Fewer than nine acres of dry sand prairie of high quality remain in the Kankakee valley. However, even these fragments may harbor as many as eight listed species of plants, including pink milkwort and the pale false foxglove.
• While one naturally associates sand with deserts, parts of the Kankakee Sand area are wet as much as a third of each year. Wet sandy habitats have always been rare in the Kankakee valley, and they have become rarer still since settlement. Only one acre of high-quality wettish sand prairie exists. The plants that make their home here are bog plants such as the shore St. John's wort and the narrow-leafed sundew, both Illinois-listed plants. ●
Sidebar: Butterflies and Skippers
Somewhat unusually, the butterflies and skippers of the Kankakee valley have been relatively well studied in recent decades, thanks to the amateur and professional entomologists who have been drawn to the sand prairies and sand savannas of Iroquois, Kankakee, and Will counties.
Nothing is known about how many of these fascinating insects dwell in the valley, only whether or not they frequent the area. Sixty-seven species are known from the Kankakee valley, including several rare species like the frosted elfin. Another nine species are thought likely to occur here, because their preferred habitat occurs here.
Butterflies and skippers are highly adapted creatures, found wherever there grow the host plants and nectar sources that each depends on. The giant swallowtail for example feeds on understory shrubs, specifically prickly ash and wafer ash. The spring azure feeds on dogwoods. The gorgone checkerspot feeds on sunflowers of the open prairie.
Not surprisingly, less particular species like the tiger swallowtail, which feeds on a broad range of host plants, are found in towns. The common spot wing, a skipper, feeds on lambs quarters and so is a common visitor to human habitations—one reason at least to be grateful for the presence of a plant most people condemn as the commonest of weeds. ●
Sidebar: The Grand Marsh
There are today two Kankakee rivers—an Illinois one and an Indiana one, a natural one and an engineered one. Two centuries ago there was only one. It rose out of a marsh in Indiana, three miles southwest of South Bend, and wandered through a maze of meanders, oxbows, and sloughs—some 2,000 bends over a course 240 miles in length.
The Kankakee's marsh was more than 10 miles wide, and covered some 500,000 acres with water one to four feet deep for as much as nine months of the year, making it one of the largest marsh-swamp basins in the U.S. The marsh was a refuge for wildlife of all sorts; horse thieves used to hide out on the high sand ridge that stood in the middle of the marsh's Beaver Lake, which was seven miles wide and four miles long.
About 100 years ago the "Great Kankakee Swamp" or the "Grand Marsh" was an immensely rich fishing ground in which 40-pound buffalo were common. Fur-bearing mammals attracted trappers and traders who introduced the first commerce of the modern era to this region; the catch of muskrat alone is thought to have averaged 20,000–40,000 animals per year for fifty years after 1834. It also attracted migrating waterfowl looking for food and rest but found instead market hunters who took ducks by the hundreds each week in operations that were the hunting equivalent of clear-cut forestry.
The bottomland was festooned with ash, oak, maple, and birch trees of immense size. In part to facilitate the transport of these logs to saw-mills downstream in Illinois, the meandering river was gradually channelized, or straightened. Eventually the Kankakee's original 240-mile course shrank to only 90 miles.
In the process of eliminating an economic problem, the draining of the marsh created an ecological problem. The basin supported nearly a million acres of cropland by 1970, but less than 30,000 acres of wetland can be found within the Indiana Kankakee basin today. All that is left of Beaver Lake is the state-owned 640-acre Beaver Lake Prairie Chicken Refuge. Marshes and upland sand savannas survive inside Willow Slough State Fish & Wildlife area, and black oak sand savannas still adorn small sand ridges in the area.
Waterfowl and fish populations have declined in both states at a time when the demand for sport from nearby city dwellers has risen, even as the local market for game animals has dwindled. The geologic conditions that created the marsh in the first place—level land, soils that hold water, high water table—have not changed. Without marshes to collect and hold floodwater that the shortened river channel can't accommodate, water spills into adjacent farm fields and, increasingly, into residential subdivisions. Roughly one-fifth of this land is still regularly affected by flooding.
In the late 1980's, efforts began by county, state, and federal agencies to restore some of the lost wetlands of the Kankakee. The hope was to increase habitat for hunt-able wetland birds and to increase the flood-holding capacity of the river system. Here and there, for example, the levees that once constricted the Kankakee are being strategically repositioned to allow the river to flow into parts of its former flood-plain.
Proposals to further re-marsh the marsh have been made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has drafted a controversial plan to recreate a 30,000-acre Grand Kankakee Wildlife Refuge. This year the Indiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy acquired 7,300 acres of agricultural land that connects existing protected lands to form a 23,000-acre tract near the Illinois state line, which gradually will be restored to wetlands and prairie. The Conservancy calls its "Indiana Sands" project one of the largest wetlands and prairie restoration projects in the country.
The phased recovery of wetlands in Indiana has implications for the river in Illinois. The original marsh stored billions of gallons of water, keeping the lower river from being overrun when weather was wet and feeding it when it was dry. Though confirming data are lacking, it is assumed that the Illinois Kankakee runs higher in flood and runs drier in droughts now than it did before the marsh was drained; restoration presumably would see that pattern change. Also, restoration might abet the return to nearby Illinois habitats of listed bird species such as the brown creeper and American bittern.
Farmers and local governments worried about loss of property taxes and good farm land have objected to many of these restoration plans. But while it may not always be feasible to restore a marsh, it should be possible to return some useful natural function to what remains by nature a marshy landscape. The human ecology of the region has become too complex to be altered without careful planning and public support. Fortunately, conservationists know a lot more today about the risks in manipulating complex systems than was known 100 years ago. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
Politics & government
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