The life and times of Lincoln's river
June 4 and June 11, 1976
Everything you wanted to know about the Sangamon River and more. Happily for me, IT in those days was fat enough to provide the pages needed by such extravagances of miscellany. Still, interesting to anyone interested in rivers, history, Illinois, or the environment, which isn't as many people we might hope.
The original ran as separate pieces in two consetive issues of the paper but is here combined. The original text also has been polished up a bit.
By most measures the Sangamon isn't much of a river. At 215 miles it's a lot longer than most people think it is, but it still isn't much more than a big creek. It's not particularly wide, and neither is it deeper than other streams its size. It has no rapids, no falls—nothing, in fact, to set it apart from a hundred other prairie streams. As has been noted by poet Edgar Lee Masters (himself a Sangamon valley boy), the Sangamon is "not navigable, not noted for its commercial activity, not distinguished for majestic scenery, nor for a battle, nor for a single historic event." Its chief claim to the world's attention is its connection with the life of Lincoln, who rafted on it, and camped beside it, and lived around it for thirty of his fifty-six years. If the Sangamon has been remarkable for anything at all, it is for its ability to remain so much itself, to retain its own personality, to survive attempts by men to make it into something it's not.
Rivers are often thought to be eternal, so much do their lives exceed the memories of men. But rivers are born and live and die like humans, only on a different time scale. The Sangamon is no exception. It was born roughly 25,000 years ago, the child of the Illinoian glacier, the third of the four ice sheets to invade Illinois. The river wasn't a river at first, just flood water slipping off the lip of the receding ice. The flood water chewed a channel a hundred feet deep into the deposits of glacial drift and loess left by the Illinoian glacier's predecessors; this channel became the modern Sangamon.
At first the Sangamon was only a narrow gash in the landscape, but bit by bit, over 25,000 spring floods, the river carpeted its valley floor with rich alluvium, and the Sangamon valley took its present shape.
Though geologists are reasonably sure how and when the Sangamon was created, no one knows exactly where it begins. The sources of rivers—even so modest a river as the Sangamon—are as elusive as they are sought-after (witness the decades spent searching for the headwaters of the Nile and the Amazon). Geographers have decreed that the Sangamon begins in McLean County a mile or two south of Harpster. But the river there is already large enough to deserve a name. Its real beginning is farther east, in the dozens of rills and gullies that wash down out of the flatlands around Guthrie, Foosland, and Saybrook. At one time or another the counties of McLean, Ford, and Champaign all have claimed the Sangamon, but the river, no respecter of human boundaries, draws strength from all three.
Top to bottom
The Sangamon weaves a familiar track across central Illinois. Like most rivers of its age it is crooked—"crookeder," as a Springfield fisherman once described it, "than a politician." To the consternation of mapmakers, the Sangamon has changed its course many times in the 200 years since white man started keeping track of it, and its valley is littered with orphaned oxbow lakes and backwaters. Even now, only a century-and-a-half since he first floated down it on a flatboat, Lincoln would have trouble recognizing parts of it; its terminus on the Illinois River, for example, is fully two miles south of where it was in the 1830s.
The Sangamon used to enter the Illinois opposite Browning, roughly six miles north of Beardstown. Before it was forced into a straighter, man-made channel, it didn't so much flow into the Illinois as seep into it. The old confluence of the two streams is a great low marsh, one of the last of its kind in the state, that covers 7,450 soggy acres. There are enough sloughs and mud holes to cheer any homesick Louisianan—places with names like Duck Slough, Carp Pond, Hog Slough, Ash Swale, Boujan Swale. The marsh has been purchased by the state and set aside as a conservation area. It's called "Sanganois" after the rivers that made it.
Just south of the Sanganois, the river runs through the Sangamon Bottom, as the Sangamon valley is known in those parts. The grain farmers and stockmen of Cass County have been farming the Bottom since the 1830s, betting their muscle and luck against the floods and mosquitoes that plagued the lowlands. The Bottom is fringed on the south by steep water-carved bluffs, who stand more than 200 feet above the floodplain in some places. The road that runs through the Bottom from Beardstown to Chandlerville runs along the shoulders of these bluffs, where are nestled prosperous-looking houses and barns of the men and women who farm the flat, black-dirt fields that stretch from the bluffs down to the Sangamon. The Sangamon Bottom, is as unexpected as it is beautiful, a piece of New England on the prairie.
Few people know when the Sangamon was born and fewer still know where it begins; perhaps its best-kept secret is how it got its name. Most guesses have been imaginative—and wrong. One writer opined that Sangamon had been derived from the Algonquin for "good earth," while another insisted that it had been the name of a Kickapoo chief. The president of Springfield's Sangamo Electric Company (which had adopted the name upon the firm's organization in 1899) thought it derived from an Illini chief, and former Gov. John Reynolds argued, in a flight of poetic fancy, that the word meant "the country where there is plenty to eat" in the language of the Pottawatomie.
Reynolds' explanation, like the others, was "romantic nonsense," according to Virgil Vogel, author of Indian Place Names in Illinois. Vogel argues that the name is a cognate of the Michigan word saginaw. which means "place of the outlet" or "river mouth." The French explorer Charlevoix wrote in his journal in 1721 of passing the river "Saguimont;" it seems likely to Vogel that one of Charlevoix's Indian guides pointed to the mouth of the Sangamon, and called out "river mouth" in his own language. Charlevoix, "mistaking this for the name of the stream itself and committing what he heard to French orthography," recorded it as Saugimont, the name which survives today (in slightly altered form) as Sangamon.
For half a century after white settlers came to the Sangamon valley, Sangamo was the accepted form (the result, according to Vogel, of the nasal "n" and silent "t" of the French). By the 1870s it and Sangamon were being used interchangeably, and within a generation after that the terminating "n" became a permanent fixture.
Whatever its origins, the name is as common as cornfields throughout the Sangamon valley. Two private clubs, a construction company, a manufacturing firm, a packing company, several streets, a bank, a savings and loan association, a university—all have taken the name of the river as their own. The name Sangamon even appears in geological texts, listed under "Sangamon Interglacial Stage," a warm period between the lllinoisan and Wisconsin glaciations named after the deposits characteristic of the period which were first found in the Sangamon valley.
In at least one case, an imaginative explanation for the name caused real awkwardness. During World War I, an English competitor of the Sangamo Electric Company in New Zealand started the fiction that Sangamo was a Japanese name. As Robert C. Lanphier, then-president of the firm, later explained, “so great was the prejudice there against Japanese goods that we had to make out a sworn statement as to the origin of our name."
In the Sangamon valley the ghosts are piled up like driftwood. There are less than a half-dozen towns scattered along the length of the Sangamon, and only one of them, Decatur, ever amounted to much. For every town like Mahomet, Monticello, Riverton, Petersburg, and Chandlerville that survived into the twentieth century there was another—Portland, Sangamo Town, Huron—that did not.
Until the middle of the last century, travelers who wanted to cross the Sangamon either waded across at a ford or paid to be ferried across. The Sangamon didn't have many natural fords—Roll's Ford and Mussel Shell Ford were two—because the river ran fuller and wider then. There were, however, several places along the river where ferrymen would raft people, horses, and wagons to the other side.
Ferries were natural gathering places, and thus were the scenes of a lot of political stump-speaking and calling-down-of-the-wrath-of-God. Peter Cartwright, a circuit-riding Methodist preacher from Pleasant Plains who used to "howl salvation" from one end of the Sangamon valley to another in the early years of the nineteenth century. Cartwright had several of what one biographer called "obstinate combats with the rough pioneer people." One of the most celebrated took place at a Sangamon River ferry during a pro-slavery rally where he persuaded a recalcitrant ferryman of the wisdom of prayer by repeatedly "sous[ing] him down under the tide." Cartwright's was a most muscular kind of Christianity.
Miller's Ferry was located on the north bank of the Sangamon a half-dozen miles downstream from Petersburg. Miller's Ferry was the crossing point for stagecoaches that rattled over the 100-mile post road between Springfield and Oquawka in the 1830s. It wasn't much of a town even by Sangamon valley standards. But, for a while at least, it looked like Miller's Ferry was going to go places.
Commerce in Illinois at that time was crippled by the lack of roads and navigable waterways. The General Assembly had resolved to furnish what nature has neglected to provide, and so in 1837 approved a staggeringly expensive program of internal improvements. One of the projects planned was the construction of a twenty-mile canal between Beardstown and Miller's Ferry.
The canal would open a vital water artery between the state's midsection and the market cities of St. Louis and New Orleans. It would also open for Miller's Ferry a future as a trading and transportation center. Land speculation in those days was a favorite recreation among the well-to-do, and some of the more ambitious planted new towns the way their neighbors planted corn. A group of Springfield investors (which included such notable
citizens as John T. Stuart, Stephen Logan, Simeon Francis, and Gershom Jayne) were quick to realize that the canal would do for Miller's Ferry what acquiring the county seat had done for Springfield. They bought up as much land in the area as they could—much of it was government land, which sold for $1.25 an acre—and laid out a new town. The site, which had been surveyed by Abe Lincoln from nearby New Salem, was situated thirty miles northwest of Springfield at the head of Pecan Bottom. They called it Huron.
But the internal improvements scheme, which had been touted as Illinois's salvation, nearly proved its ruination. Under-financed and over-promoted, the program collapsed of its own weight, bringing down the get-rich-quick dreams of Huron's backers with it. The Sangamon River canal was never built, and Huron never became anything more than some lines on a map, a place remembered only because Abe Lincoln had surveyed it.
Sangamo Town is another of the Sangamon valley dreams, more celebrated than Miller's Ferry but just as dead. The town once was considered for the county seat with Springfield, and could, with luck, have been the state capital, had it not been cheated of the chance by a backwoods trick. The story's been told many times by Springfieldians who praise in Andy Elliott, its main character, what they profess to condemn in his modern counterparts.
It happened like this: In 1825 the general assembly appointed a special five-man commission to study the claims of three towns vying for the permanent Sangamon County seat. The chief contenders were Springfield and Sangamo Town, the latter "a small cluster of cabins . . . beautifully situated upon a high bluff overlooking the Sangamon River about seven miles northwest of Springfield, an altogether more congenial spot, many people thought, for a city than Springfield."
The commissioners arrived in March to make their inspection. They were shown Springfield, which was then a muddy hamlet better suited to pigs than to people. They then arranged for Elliott, a local woodsman, to act as guide on the trip to Sangamo Town. As one history describes it, Elliott—deliberately, at the suggestion of Springfield landowner Elijah lies—took his charges "by a circuitous course, across Spring Creek, and through thickets, sloughs, and marshes, which were almost impassable.'' Though impressed by the site, the commissioners feared that Sangamo Town was too difficult to reach, a judgment affirmed by the return trip to Springfield, which was, if anything, more tortuous than the first. The decision against Sangamo Town was firm; for Springfield it was, as historian Paul Angle understated it, "a good day's work."
Springfieldians have been congratulating themselves on this coup for so long that it seems almost churlish to point out that Springfield was probably chosen because it was the only one of the contending towns that could furnish county officials, circuit-riding lawyers, and others the supplies and lodgings they needed.
Today, every once in a while, a plow blade will turn up a scrap of pottery, part of a plate or mixing bowl perhaps, from the kitchen of one of the 250 people who once lived in Sangamo Town. Those occasional relics—and the dream—are all that's left. [For more about Sangamo Town, see The Sangamo Frontier: History and Archeology in the Shadow of Lincoln by Robert Mazrim (University of Chicago Press, 2006) and "Sangamo Town" at Sangamon Link.]
Before the railroads came to central Illinois, farmers often had more trouble selling their crops than they had raising them. There weren't nearly enough mouths in their families to consume all they were able to produce in a good year, so selling the surplus was essential. But hauling grain by wagon to river ports for shipment by steamer to St. Louis and points south was expensive; the trip from Springfield to Beardstown, for instance, cost a farmer as much as the rest of the trip combined. Floating down the Sangamon to the Illinois and thence south via the Mississippi often seemed a better bet. To be sure, if a farmer floated his produce downriver he risked its loss by accident. But if he didn't float it downriver it was a loss for sure.
So they went. The boxy flatboats were intended to make only one trip, so they were flimsily built of unfinished boards, broken up in New Orleans, and sold for lumber. In fact, it was said that every shack and store in the town of Algiers, Louisiana, had been built entirely of lumber floated down the Mississippi. But many of the flatboats never made it as far as Algiers. Most of their pilots were more accustomed to handling a plow than a rudder. Some of the boats broke up on sandbars or got caught on submerged snags; others simply capsized. The result in any case was the loss of a whole year's work.
Young Abe Lincoln made the trip once, in the spring of 1831. He was taking a load of salt pork to New Orleans when low water stranded his boat on the mill dam at New Salem. Its stern was awash and taking on water; it nose was forced high into the air. To free it, Lincoln drilled a hole in the forward deck, shifted the cargo enough to tilt the boat forward and drain the water out of the hole, plugged the hole, and nosed the now-dry craft down off the dam. Experiences like this one led to his invention in 1848 of a patented device for floating riverboats caught in similar predicaments.
Once in New Orleans the farmer was at the mercy of the middlemen, and many an "Illinois bucolic" started back toward the Sangamon having been "fleeced by the sharpers of the gulf metropolis."
The need to establish regular water traffic between mid-Illinois and New Orleans led to at least three attempts to navigate the Sangamon by steamboat. The first, and most celebrated, occurred in 1832. In January of that year, when the Sangamon was still frozen hard as iron, Captain Vincent Bogue announced his intention to bring the steamboat Talisman upriver to Portland Landing north of Springfield. The idea was, as the Sangamo Journal recorded, considered "chimerical by some, and utterly impractical by others."
The good captain was undeterred. In late March the Talisman chugged toward the landing after a number of "somewhat tedious" days spent sawing and hauling snags and logjams from the route upriver from Beardstown. The Talisman was met by thousands of people who had gathered on the riverbanks to cheer its arrival with "loud acclamations and full demonstrations of pleasure."
The pleasure, alas, was short-lived. While the city was celebrating its transformation into a river town, the level of the Sangamon was steadily falling By the time the ship was ready to leave, it couldn't turn around in the narrow channel, and had to back up all the way to Beardstown.
This was only part of the humiliation visited upon Springfield as part of the Talisman episode. The captain of the Talisman had had the foresight to bring along female companionship, a "somewhat gaudy" woman he introduced as his wife. But at the ball given to celebrate the day's events, she (as Paul Angle describes the scene) "exhibited too great a fondness for 'Jabez's gude liquors' and became unduly demonstrative in her relations with the captain. The next morning the truth got out—the 'quality' of Springfield had had as its guest a woman of easy virtue."
The Talisman wasn't the last steamboat to try to best the Sangamon. In 1836 the ship Utility crept up the river as far as Petersburg, where, predictably, it became trapped in shallow water. The exasperated owner sold the ship to John Taylor, who promptly dismantled her. Its windows were installed in a Petersburg house—the first in the village—and its boiler was harnessed to Taylor's mill. Utility may have failed as a steamboat, but it lived up to its name. Ignoring precedent, the steamer Wave tried another assault on the Sangamon in 1853, failing once again to bend the river to the will of man. Today, a modern-day version of the old Talisman hands tourists a cautious quarter-mile from New Salem and back, a tiny and hollow tribute to the ambition of Captain Bogue.
To the people who knew the Sangamon well, talk about the navigation on the river always seemed a little far-fetched. Whatever the river was made for, it wasn't commerce. As Springfield nature writer Virginia Eifert once noted, the river was "chiefly known for its exaggerated and often violent high water and somnolent summertime lows." Unpredictable in mood, the Sangamon "sometimes . . . was only a shallow creek running over stones, at other times a rampaging brown torrent." Most locals would agree, though they usually express it differently. "The trouble with that river," a Springfield native once explained, "is that its attitude is all wrong."
The Sangamon's been that way for a long time. Runoff from melting snow and spring rains bloat the river every year, and an especially quick thaw, or, more usually, an extra-heavy rain can force it up several feet overnight. When that happens, coffee-brown water spills so fast over the banks and into the low places it sounds like a freight train.
People curse the river every time it floods, but the flooding is a habit for which man, not nature, is responsible. Land close to the river was highly prized by early Illinois farmers, and they stripped the land of its absorptive cover of timber and prairie grass and plowed it for crops—in some places right up to the water's edge. The denuding of the watershed accelerated after 1875, when underground drain tile carried away enough sub-surface water that farmers could plow land that may close to the riverbank.
The stream bed
When rain falls upriver faster than the bare earth can soak it up, the excess—billions of gallons—runs quickly off the surface, swelling the rills that drain the Sangamon valley, surging inexorably toward the narrow bed of the Sangamon itself. Rainwater collects in city streets even faster, and municipal storm sewers add to the river's burden. Finally, there is too much water for the river to handle. It spills what it can't carry onto the land around it, turning puddles into ponds and cornfields into lakes.
The Sangamon floods nearly every year. Some years it’s little more than an inconvenience, out in others it has washed out crops and even roads and bridges. The Army Corps of Engineers has straightened and dredged and cleared or "channelized" some stretches of the river in an attempt to increase its flow capacity and thus reduce flooding. A few years ago, in fact, the corps wanted to channelize the Sangamon all the way from Decatur to the Illinois River as part of its now-abandoned Oakley Reservoir project. That project, which was intended to provide a 11,000-acre auxiliary water source for Decatur and vicinity by damming the river near Oakley, was obstinately opposed by farmers and conservationists appalled at the reservoir's cost both in land and damage to places like Allerton Park near Monticello. The channelizing—a sort of ecological lobotomy—would have changed the lower Sangamon from a living river into a 110-mile water-filled ditch.
The loss of natural cover along the Sangamon is responsible not only for floods but also for making it a muddy river. When rainwater falls on bare ground it scours the earth, picking up topsoil by the ton and carrying it into the Sangamon. An 1823 guidebook noted that at Springfield "the current of the Sangamon is brisk and the water clear"; poet William Cullen Bryant, passing through on horseback a few years later, made a similar observation. The river ran dirty in the spring, of course, but in calmer seasons it was clear from Harpster to Browning. Now even modest rains fill the stream with more silt than it can carry, and clear water in the lower Sangamon is rarer than a cool breeze in August.
Much of the hundreds of tons of topsoil washed into the river every year settles onto the channel bottom, clogging it, burying the natural pebble and sand stream bed and choking the fish. There have been springs when the water was so thick with silt that corn could have grown there if it had stayed in one place long enough. Even in low water seasons a person can stick a hand into the river and see it disappear less than a foot beneath the surface.
The Sangamon eats into its dirt banks during high water, chewing away the earth in which the bankside cottonwood, willow, silver maple, and sycamore trees are rooted. Their anchors cut away by erosion, they lean crazily across the river until they eventually fall in. If that happens during high water they're swept downstream, like soda straws being washed down a gutter, until they sink or are trapped in a jam. In tight spots, this flotsam almost blocks the stream; timber that isn't caught in jams lies on the bottom, plain enough during low water but an invisible menace to boaters when the water is up.
People who live beside the river are used to the high water. And, although most of them don't like it much, a few even profess to welcome it. A Riverton native who lived for years in a small house on the Sangamon once told how the spring floods improved the fishing. "We'd just open the kitchen window," he explained, "and them fish'd swim right into the skillet."
The Sangamon's erratic flow and its debris-choked channel—along with quicksand bogs, whirlpools, potholes, and crumbling mud banks—make it a treacherous neighbor. In flood the Sangamon's power is plainly and frighteningly apparent, but it is during slack water days, when the river wears a deceptively placid face, that it is most dangerous. Every year, five or six people refuse to give the river the respect it deserves, and every year five or six people die as a result. No one knows for sure how many people the Sangamon's killed over the years (the total includes one careless Springfield mayor) but the number is considerable. Understandably, the river's acquired something of a bad reputation. One longtime Springfield resident swears, only partly in jest, that he travels to Chicago via Terre Haute just to avoid crossing it.
For a hundred years the Sangamon River has stubbornly refused to cooperate with man's efforts to "improve" it. As the hapless promoter of the Talisman voyage proved in 1832, it makes a lousy transportation system; it later proved only slightly more successful as a water supply.
Springfield first drew its water from wells and springs like the one in John Kelly's field that gave the city its name. But these wells were dug perilously close to outhouses and livestock pens. Contamination by seepage was common, and death-rates from water-borne diseases was high.
In the 1860s, the city built a pumphouse on the banks of the Sangamon north of town, and river water was delivered direct—and unfiltered—through city mains. The water wasn't much better than what was being drawn from private wells. It smelled of fish, and was so silt-laden that people complained that they had to brush off the dust after bathing in it. In 1884 a well was sunk into the riverbank. The water from this well was filtered naturally by subterranean sands and gravels, and galleries added to this underground system enabled Springfield to meet its water needs for another twenty years.
Most of the time, that is. The Sangamon runs as low in the summer as it runs high in the spring, so low that people continued to call it a river more out of sentiment than conviction. When the Sangamon ran dry the city's wells couldn't fill even the fifteen-inch main that supplied the city, and river water—what there was of it—had to be pumped directly into the water system to keep the pressure up. During the humid corn-growing summers, when the weather was the hottest, city water was the worst. During those weeks even a teetotaler, if he got thirsty enough, would rather drink booze and risk the wrath of Heaven than drink Sangamon River water.
Decatur has been more fortunate in trusting the Sangamon to ease its thirst. There are no major cities upriver from Decatur, for one thing, which meant that the Sangamon was a cleaner, safer river to drink from. The city built Lake Decatur in 1922 by expanding an old mill dam on the river south of the city. (The reservoir's been enlarged since, to keep pace with Decatur's growth, until it now covers some 2,600 acres.) Silt settled out of the still water, and while the river was no more dependable a water source at Decatur than it was at Springfield, the impoundment evened out the fluctuations in water level and thus guaranteed a steady supply of water year around. As a solution to the city's water problem it was at once elegant, cheap, and (because it offered new recreational opportunities) popular.
The lesson of Decatur's lake was not lost on her sister city downstream. In 1923, the year that Lake Decatur was finished, city planner Myron West recommended the construction of a municipal reservoir on the river northeast of Springfield. The fifteen-square-mile impoundment would ring the city's east side, stretching from Riverton twelve miles south to a point just east of Bunn Park. It would hold in excess of twenty-five billion gallons, enough to last a city of 200,000 three years without replenishment.
The plan looked good on paper, but there were problems. Because of the shape of the river valley east of the capital, the lake would be very wide but very shallow, with an average depth of no more than seven feet. Evaporation losses would be considerable because of the high ratio of surface area to water volume, and ups and downs in the water level would complicate recreational and residential development of the shoreline. Public health officials were concerned that the water trapped in Springfield's lake would be fouled by sewage dumped into the river from upstream cities like Decatur. Finally, a number of new auto and railroad bridges and dividing dams would have to be built.
That didn't stop real estate men from speculating in property along the proposed lake. While engineers were still studying the proposals, developers were hustling lots for "lakeside cottages." But no lakeside cottages were ever built, because no lake was ever built—not on the Sangamon, anyway; the river site was just too expensive. The speculators, like their great-grandfathers who had backed the Huron promotion, had bet their money on the Sangamon and lost.
Fish and game
Early settlers in the Sangamon valley sometimes took sick, sometimes fell off horses or into rivers, occasionally even froze to death. But no one ever starved to death. The valley floor and the terraces that flanked the river were a nearly perfect habitat for the human species. A man handy with a gun and a snare never had to work very hard for a meal. In his reminiscences, Elijah lies, cofounder of Springfield, described a typical meal in the 1820s: "It consisted of . . . honey, venison, turkey, prairie chicken, quail, squirrel, fish, and occasionally for variety we had pig, together with all the varieties of vegetables raised in this climate." Deer were so plentiful that they used to "trail through the town . . . halting in a grove where now stands the governor's mansion." Iles recalls that if his party wanted fresh venison for breakfast, "the Kelley boys would go to the grove early and kill a deer."
There was little thought given to farming by pioneer settlers like Iles and the Kelleys; there was no need for it. Hunting, trapping, fishing, and beekeeping furnished all the food the tiny band needed. The timber that crowded the Sangamon along most of its length was home to bear, wolf, elk, fox, mountain lion, beaver, bobcat, and deer, and while only the deer were valued as food, the presence of so many predator species suggested how rich was the variety of prey animals that humans also found tasty. The grassy uplands harbored bison and game birds by the thousands, and the river itself provided crayfish, mussels, and fish of all kinds.
But the fertile soil quickly attracted what one historian has called "more enterprising citizens" from the South and East, farmers mostly, more of them than could be supported by hunting alone. The forests were leveled, the marshes drained, the prairie plowed under. The bear, wolf, and elk were hunted for their pelts or poisoned as pests and their habitat was destroyed. Today those animals live only in the names attached to the creeks and towns of the Sangamon valley, names like Panther Creek, Buffalo, Wolf Creek, and Elkhart.
Modern hunters prowl the few remaining patches of wild country along the Sangamon—most of which are on private land—for a chance at a raccoon, pheasant, rabbit, groundhog, or squirrel—meager fare compared to the prey of their ancestors. With most of the large animals extinct in Illinois or under the protection of the law, most of the hunting done along the river today is for duck and geese.
The best duck hunting in all the Sangamon valley, maybe in the whole state, is in the Sanganois; until recently, catering to out-of-town duck hunters was one of Beardstown's major industries. Farmers in the Sangamon Bottom rented blinds and cabins to sportsmen from as far away as Chicago and Milwaukee, and many a farmer picked up a dollar or two working as a guide after his crops were in. But pollution and drainage has taken its toll even in the rich duck country of the Sanganois, and the hunting, though not as bad as it was before they started cleaning up the river, is nothing like it used to be.
There are still fish in the Sangamon, of course. But siltation, channelization and chemical and bacteriological pollution has reduced the proportion of game fish like largemouth bass, crappie, and bluegill, and increased the relative abundance of "rough fish"—carp, suckers, buffalo, drum, and the like. Rough fish are not nearly as fastidious as the bass and its kin. They're hardy, adaptable creatures which will eat almost anything and can live in water too dirty for any other fish. The ubiquitous carp has an especially bad reputation. Its messy feeding habits have earned it the name "river hog," and it's infested a lot of what used to be good game fishing waters, including the Sangamon. The success of the river hog, distasteful as it is to many fishermen, was the inevitable result of men turning rivers like the Sangamon into pig sties.
Having largely failed to make a profit from the river, people along the Sangamon have visited the final indignity upon it: they use it as a garbage dump. Car tires, washing machines, and ordinary trash someone was too lazy to get rid of any other way—are part of civilization's stain on the river.
Occasionally the garbage dumped into the river is not only offensive but deadly. In the summers of 1962 and 1963. for example, poisonous acid mine waste was washed into the South Fork of the Sangamon from Peabody Coal Company's sprawling No. 10 mine near Pawnee. The poison flowed from the South Fork into the Sangamon itself. The result was something like 22,000 dead fish.
Mine waste isn't the only poison vented into the river. Upriver from Springfield, the city of Decatur, along with dozens of hamlets and houses in between, uses the Sangamon to carry away their sewage. The load of human and industrial waste thus poured into the stream is substantial. Even in 1914, public health experts were arguing against Springfield using the river as a water supply because the pollution upstream made it dangerous to drink.
Five times in the recent past, sewage contamination in the Sangamon has been bad enough to kill the fish that live in it. The kills totaled approximately 170,000. Most of the damage was done when improperly treated sewage was dumped into the Sangamon by Decatur. In the decade since then both the capacity and the efficiency of sewage treatment facilities in the Sangamon watershed have been upgraded—at the cost of much grumbling and many millions of dollars—and there hasn't been a fish kill in the river since 1968. But dumping still goes on, and chemical and bacteriological pollution still goes on too. The Sangamon may not be much of a river, but even not much of a river deserves better than that.
In 1970 there was discovered another threat to the Sangamon and the people who live beside it, a threat more subtle in its effects than sewage or mine waste. In the spring of that year a water sample was turned in to the Decatur Health Department for a routine test for nitrate content. Nitrate is part of a nitrogen compound essential to the growth of food crops like corn. By itself it is relatively innocuous when taken into the human body. But certain intestinal bacteria can change nitrate into nitrite, which, by converting the blood's hemoglobin into methehemoglobin, has been known to cause asphyxiation and death in infants.
One Decatur water sample showed a nitrate level of slightly more than the forty-five parts per million (ppm) generally accepted as safe. This was not unusual; many wells in the Sangamon valley are contaminated by nitrate seeping into the ground water from farmer's fields. What was unusual about this sample was that it had not been taken from a well but from Lake Decatur. Follow-up tests revealed fluctuating levels of nitrate in the Sangamon (and the lake formed by it); levels were low in the summer and fall, but rose dangerously close to the 45 ppm maximum in the spring and winter.
The problem attracted the attention of environmentalist Commoner at St. Louis's Washington University. The university's Center for the Biology of Natural Systems studied the problem in detail and confirmed what Commoner and Decatur officials had already suspected—that the source of the nitrate was the artificial fertilizers being used by the thousands of tons on the cornfields of the Sangamon watershed.
The problem first identified in the Sangamon has since turned up in California, Israel, and Germany, and has become the subject of intensive study to determine exactly how much of a threat high nitrate levels in public water supplies are to human health.
Good and useful lives
The only full-length biography of the river, The Sangamon, was written by Edgar Lee Masters, author of the much-regarded Spoon River Anthology, and published in 1942 as part of Farrar & Rinehart's "Rivers of America" series. The New York Times observed that the book "meanders now and then, like the river itself, and is almost too local in spots, but it is really evocative writing, touched with a deep, filial devotion to the prairie neighborhood and its people." It's a fair description, although for all its twists and turns the Sangamon runs a straighter course from its beginning to its end than does Masters' book. Still, Masters delivered what may stand as the Sangamon's best testament:
Not navigable, not noted for its commercial activity, not distinguished for majestic scenery, nor for a battle, nor for a single historic event, distinguished for nothing but for good and useful lives lived along its shores, and for the beauty of its prairies that sleep and bloom and wave their grasses to the passing wind.
There are still good and useful lives being lived along the Sangamon, and a lot that aren't much of either, all of them as varied in their character and as unpredictable in their course as the Sangamon itself. The river, of course, is indifferent to human fates. It has—for the geologic moment at least—a life of its own. ●
Sidebar: A Sangamon compendium
The modern Sangamon River was probably formed by outflow from a sprawling proglacial lake located southwest of the Buffalo Hart Moraine that snakes through eastern Sangamon County. This lake, which geologists have dubbed Lake Williams, was itself created during the Jubileean substage of the Illinoian glaciation more than 30,000 years ago.
The newly-born Sangamon carved its channel into terrain shaved smooth by the southward march of the Illinoian ice. Thirty millennia of floods, ice, and wind have shaped that original channel into the Sangamon valley of today. The valley ranges thirty to 100 feet deep, and from the river's headwaters in McLean County [elevation 865 feet] drops roughly two feet per mile as it makes its way toward the Illinois River [elevation 435 feet].
There is no single accepted figure for the length of the Sangamon. Estimates vary from the 195 miles offered by geologist James Miller (a figure that encompasses the main valley only) to the 250 miles claimed by an anonymous expert writing in the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. A length of 215 miles, accepted by the state Department of Conservation, seems most accurate.
Along its lower reaches, in the vicinity of Sangamon County, the river averages 114.5 feet in width. At its deepest it is fourteen feet deep: it averages only three feet. (The average depth of Lake Springfield, by comparison is 15.4 feet.) During normal flow the Sangamon moves toward the Illinois at an average rate of 0.8 feet per second; flow rate during floods is many times that. ●
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.
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