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Waves of Change

Illinois's unnatural natural systems

 The Changing Illinois Environment: Critical Trends


The  opening, scene-setting chapter of the summary report of the Critical Trends Assessment Project by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. There's as much history as environment in it; researching it made me wish someone would do a first-rate environmental history of Illinois—that is, the story of how the environment shaped Illinois history—or a first-rate Illinois environmental history—that is, how history shaped the Illinois environment.


From the report's introduction: Humans have always been successful at making the world more habitable for themselves wherever they settled. They have done so by their conscious and increasingly expert manipulation of local ecosystems. In Illinois as elsewhere, landscape disturbance is not a byproduct of human habitation but the point of it.


Change and the environment

The fact of environmental change has been constant throughout the human occupation of Illinois, but how and why people have changed Illinois has varied with time and with people's expectations of the landscape. Natural Illinois has been perceived variously as wilderness to be quelled, destiny to be fulfilled, and progress to be enjoyed.

Beginning roughly in the early 1800s, Illinois has been swept by waves of environmental change as people of successive eras converted the natural environment to economic goods—and did so not always aware of or concerned with the consequences to ecological systems.


Complex in cause and effect, these waves of change coincided approximately with Illinois's presettlement, agricultural, industrial, and postindustrial eras. Each era had a characteristic system of production (and associated pollution), a characteristic artifact, and a characteristic urban form. The economy of each was powered by a characteristic "general engine" fueled by a characteristic energy source.


For example, in the early 19th century, Illinois's mainly subsistence economy ran on muscle and wood; these provided the energy to scattered farmsteads in a society whose general engine was the human body and whose characteristic "urban" form was the frontier trading post. After 1820 or so, the horse (hitched to plows or wagons) powered a still-dispersed society that had come to consist of developed farms linked economically to rural small towns. After the Civil War, horses fueled by hay and oats were replaced by coal-powered steam engines; the railroad and the factory were the typical artifacts of industrial Illinois, and together they made possible the densely built (and densely polluted) modern city. Since 1920, the "automobile subdivision" has become the typical urban form in a landscape whose characteristic urban artifact is the shopping mall, which functions in a society in which petroleum energy and the internal combustion engine are undoing the urban concentrations of the 19th century.

The presettlement era


Beginning some 10,000 years ago, Native Americans of various cultures occupied Illinois. Their economy, during that long tenure, was more closely linked to the local land resource than is that of today's Illinoisans. Summer valley camps, where Native Americans harvested mussels and fish, typically gave way in autumn to equally temporary upland sites, where the people harvested nuts and hunted game, with stops at work camps, where weapons points and tools were fashioned from local deposits of flint.

The European settlers who came to Illinois in the late 17th century were primarily traders, farmers out of necessity rather than training. The focus of their economy was not crops but animals, which they sought as a source of food and furs, or isolated proto-industries such as the extraction of salt from springs in far southern Illinois in the 1700s. What farming they did was subsistence agriculture, using methods largely adapted from the Native Americans. Considered in terms of environmental impact, therefore, the Native American era in Illinois may be said to have lasted until the 19th century.

1820 to 1920: Agriculture takes root


Beginning with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1835 and ending roughly with World War I, railroads and farm machines made farming more efficient and more profitable. The Illinois interior was made accessible to distant urban markets that absorbed the surpluses made possible through efficiency. Trading in resources began to be done at a distance and in bulk.


The farmers who constituted the second wave of environmental change in Illinois were mainly experienced farmers from northern Europe. Unlike Native Americans and early European farmers who relied on the hoe, farmers of the second wave utilized technology (in the form of the steel plow and, later, the railroad) and production capital (in the form of draft animals, barns to house livestock, and wagons).


As farming changed, so did the Illinois landscape. But while the prairie ceased to be prairie, it did not cease to be grasslands for decades after farmers first ventured out of the woods. Some prairie was left as a hay source, and much plowed prairie was replaced by plantings of "tame" grass such as timothy, producing a simplified version of the mixed forest and grassland ecology the farms replaced

The mixed grain and livestock farm of the late 19th century was a productive and sustainable system, adapted from land-short Europe by the addition of corn to the crop rotation in place of the wheat grown by earlier farmers. (Corn, an exotic species imported by Native Americans from South America, was better suited to the more extreme weather conditions of Illinois.) On the basis of that farming system, rural Illinois enjoyed historic population growth and prosperity in the decades prior to 1920.


1850 to 1960: The concentration of power


Industrialization was the third wave of environmental change in Illinois. It concentrated people, productive resources, and pollution on small tracts of land. Chicago was the paradigm, not just for Illinois, but for the world. The centralization of grain trade, lumber, and meatpacking at that continental transportation node transformed that city into a colossus, but other Illinois cities boomed as well.


By the end of the 19th century, Illinois was urban in all but physical form, as its economy, politics, and lifestyles were dominated by cities, especially Chicago. The increased scale of the century's new commercial enterprises led to a scaling up of environmental stress.

The concentration of productive enterprise in the cities drew people off the farms Looking for—and finding—better wages for less labor. Amassing hundreds of thousands of people in one spot meant accumulating the wastes produced by the organisms, biological and economic, that sustained them. Chicago's buildings were blackened by its own coal smoke. The massive dumping of sewage and other wastes into the Chicago River eventually led to equally massive damage to the upper Illinois River after the flow of the Chicago River was reversed in order to divert pollution from Lake Michigan to the Illinois via the Des Plaines River.


The industrialized central city was a product of this era. So was the rural residential suburb, which evolved as a refuge from the dirt and congestion of the central city. Railroads were the means of suburban dispersal, and pollution was the prod, as wealthier families fled to cleaner surroundings on the still unspoiled countryside.


When industrial methods came to the countryside, they transformed it as fundamentally as they had the cities. Beginning about 1920, a series of innovations released farming from the ancient bounds imposed by nature. New, artificial fertilizers meant that agricultural productivity was now limited not just by a farmer's skill in husbanding the soil but by economically purchased nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and sulfur. The old corn-oats-clover crop rotation was abandoned as affordable tractors powered by internal-combustion engines made draft horses and the forage crops needed to feed them unnecessary. The shift from animal husbandry toward specialized row-crop culture simplified farm operations at the expense of concentrated chemical and physical stress on land.


The post-industrial era


Pollution has abated considerably in Illinois since the first quarter of this century. The poor condition of its air and water spurred the state on to take the national lead in programs to improve them, from wastewater treatment in the 1920s to bans on open dumps in the 1960s.


Stricter anti-pollution regulations accounted for some pollution reductions. Others were owed to new technologies and changes in the state's economic base, since many of the state's declining industries, such as steel-making and meat-packing, also had been the dirtiest. Pollution has, in effect, been exported to those other nations and U.S. states that increasingly make the things that Illinoisans buy.


By the 1920s the shape of a new, postindustrial Illinois had become clear. If the mark of the industrial era was concentration, that of the postindustrial age is dispersal, courtesy of the internal-combustion engine. Suburbs as an urban form dated back to the mid-19th century in Illinois, but the widespread adoption of suburbs as a way of life had been interrupted by the Depression and World War II. Beginning in the 1950s, the automobile, the truck, and the highway put rural land within reach of an expanding, house-hungry middle class and, later, of businesses.


The 19th-century steam railroad had not made new kinds of cities possible, although it made it possible to build cities in new kinds of places and at unprecedented densities. The car and truck, however, created a genuinely new urban form—the low-density, dispersed "edge city," exurb, satellite city, whose nascent form was the massive new housing constructed on the urban periphery (most of it on former farmland) during the postwar boom. Neither small town, bedroom suburb, nor city, these new places are now the dominant urban form in Illinois. The result is the familiar Illinois landscape of today, in which the 19th-century industrial cities are surrounded by sprawl that is overtaking the 19th-century rural small towns that survive from the state's agricultural heyday.


As Illinois cities began to spread out, their impact on the landscape grew diffuse as well. In a historical irony, the automobile, which was embraced a half-century ago to escape traffic congestion and pollution, has become a cause of both in Illinois's metropolitan fringes. Attempts to alleviate the local effects of pollution, such as building taller smokestacks, have helped create regional, even continental problems; "downstream" impacts such as acid rain are now defined in atmospheric as well as aquatic terms. And Illinois's dependence, since the mid-1900s, on fossil fuels is a local practice that may be having global effects as a result of emissions of so-called greenhouse gases.


The forces behind change


Different as they were in other ways, successive major changes in the Illinois landscape have been caused by the same basic demographic, economic, and technological factors.

The most dramatic change in the Illinois landscape since the start of its European phase is the fact that there are so many more people on it. Illinois's population exploded from a little more than 800,000 in 1850 to well over eight million a century later. Nearly one million people were added to the state's rolls every decade between 1890 and 1930—a period, not coincidentally, that also saw the most dramatic conversion of natural systems to human use.


Census numbers alone are not a dependable measure of the stress that human populations put on natural systems. Relative wealth matters. Total solid waste output in Illinois has outpaced recent population growth.


Technology matters as well. Roughly the same number of people lived in rural Illinois in 1930—around two million—as had lived in rural Illinois since 1870. But the 1930 rural population had an impact on the land that was disproportionate to its size. Whereas 1870s farmers used horses and manure in a system of rotated crops and pasturage, their 1930s counterparts had begun to use tractors and artificial fertilizers for the near-continuous cultivation of high-yield hybrid grains. The result was the elimination of the secondary grasslands ecology that had replaced the original prairie as the dominant system in rural Illinois.


The exhaustion of one resource tends to "create" others by making the costs of developing alternatives worthwhile. Coal was known to exist in Illinois as early as the 17th century, but it was not until trees grew scarce that coal commanded prices high enough to return the higher costs of mining and shipping it.


Similarly, lower-priced alternatives can deplete the economic potential of resources that remain physically intact. Production from Illinois clay pits shrank by 90 percent between 1965 and 1990 in the face of intense competition from clays and clay products produced in the American South and back-hauled at favorable freight rates on trains making return trips after delivering Illinois grain to the Gulf Coast.


Decisions about resource use usually depend on the prices resources can command. Unfortunately, price is a measure of only short-term value. Some economic historians argue that, in the latter decades of the 19th century, Illinois farmers exported to the East wealth produced by Midwestern soils at prices that did not account for the cost of maintaining the resource. Heaviest among these ignored costs were water pollution and topsoil depletion.


Industrialization complicated the arithmetic by which the costs and benefits of resource development had traditionally been calculated. Until the mid-19th century, pollution was a local phenomenon with local effects. When Illinoisans were able to buy goods manufactured outside the state, they shifted the costs of the pollution produced in making them to distant places. The residues from ores used in Chicago's steel mills poisoned Michigan's streams, not Illinois's, and houses in Decatur were built of wood from forests being leveled in the southern and northwestern parts of the United States.


But the scaling up of enterprises in the industrial era meant that the pollution that was introduced locally was produced on an unprecedented scale. Packing meat in a local plant  for a thousand customers produced wastes that microorganisms in local streams could usually absorb; packing meat for a million customers nationwide produced wastes so voluminous that no stream could remove them, much less absorb them.


The focus of natural resource policy at all levels of government during the last half-century has been the reduction of the worst pollution of the industrial era. Efforts to curb industrial pollution typically lag behind the economic changes that created it, in some cases by a century or more. It takes time for pollution to manifest itself as a threat to human health, and even longer for political systems to contrive remedies. As a consequence, much of the pollution typical of the 19th-century industrial era lingered in Illinois until the 1960s.


Pollution in the postindustrial era is of a different character. The shift of energy sources from wood to coal to petroleum left polluting residues that are increasingly exotic chemically and whose health impacts are not yet clearly understood. Pollution in postindustrial Illinois has become increasingly dispersed and dilute (and thus less visible) compared to that of the industrial era. Reducing pollution from thousands, even hundreds of thousands of separate small sources such as automobiles has proven to be a challenge both politically and economically, although, here again, the trend is toward cleaner processes. However, research suggests that focusing on pollution as the measure of environmental degradation may have obscured the extent to which natural ecosystems have been compromised in Illinois.


The next wave?


Illinois's environment will continue to change as a result of human dominance. Less certain is if or to what extent humans can anticipate and thus control the direction and pace of that change. Perceptions about the Illinois environment vary enormously across eras and across social groups. Change begets change; as each generation of Illinoisans alters the landscape, later Illinoisans see and feel differently about the land, and thus act differently regarding it. Today few Illinoisans—apart from farmers—perceive that their economic livelihood depends on the natural realm.


For the century and a half that Europeans have been present in Illinois, the environment has been seen in mainly utilitarian terms. The only systematic data widely collected about the virgin landscape came from the records of its sale. Large-scale manipulation of the Illinois environment, whatever its very real benefits to the state's human populations, has always preceded our understanding of its impacts. Making Illinois habitable for humans thus has had serious and largely unforeseen impacts on the larger natural world of which humans are a part and on which humans still depend. Having learned that lesson, it seems incumbent on us to try to anticipate the less happy consequences of future change and, through knowledge, to avoid or minimize them while still providing Illinois with jobs, shelter, and recreation. ●

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John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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 Encyclopedia of Chicago


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.

Illinois Great Places

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.

McLean County Museum

of History

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.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


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."

Illinois Digital Archives


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 Illinois State Museum


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

“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." 

Illinois Labor History Society

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. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

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. 

History on the Fox

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

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

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.

University of

Illinois Press

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.

University of

Chicago Press

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

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

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. 


Illinois Center for the Book

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.

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