Touring Springfield 150 years Ago
The Town Branch, rediscovered
December 24, 1976
A poor title, really. The subject in fact was the Town Branch of Spring Creek that once watered the site of the future Springfield. The piece was my answer to the many questions that had occurred to me on my walks around the town. Judging from the grateful reception it got from readers, I was not the only local who had asked those questions.
One of those locals was Robert P. Howard, author of Illinois: A History of the Prairie State (Eerdmans, 1972), the one-volume general history of the state that would remain the standard work for 50 years. Bob singled out the piece for public praise, which was gratifying.
There's a place in Springfield that few people who live here have seen, although most of them have visited it hundreds, maybe thousands of times. The place is the valley of the Town Branch of Spring Creek, whose charms seduced a lone hunter named Elisha Kelly into settling there in 1819 and thus founding the city of Springfield.
There's no mystery in the valley's invisibility, unless civilization may be considered a mystery. People who live in cities navigate by man-made landmarks—"peoplemarks," as it were. They lose touch with topography and their sense of terrain. Buildings and paved streets tend to disguise the natural face of a landscape and to confuse unpracticed eyes. It is still possible, though, to see this part of Springfield not as it is but as it was, 150 years ago, when Kelly and those who followed him began settling along the banks of the Town Branch. Retracing the path of that long-forgotten stream doesn't cover much ground—it's a three-mile walk at most—but it covers a long, long way in time.
Paul Angle tells this tale in Here I Have Lived: "[In 1818] a bachelor named Elisha Kelly left North Carolina to settle in Illinois. He built a small cabin in Macoupin County, but since he was very fond of hunting he ranged the country for many miles in all directions. One day he wandered into a ravine in which a small, clear stream ran northward to empty into Spring Creek. Large numbers of deer passed up and down, and Kelly thought it a hunter's paradise."
Kelly came back a year later with his family and built a cabin on a hill overlooking this stream, planting the seed that quickly sprouted into the town of Springfield. Pioneering and poetizing rarely went together in the early nineteenth century, so the stream itself was plainly named the Town Branch. It formed to the southeast of Kelly's homesite, near what is now Ninth and Cook, the child of a dozen unnamed rivulets which drained the grassland there. The branch then flowed in a generally northwesterly direction toward its meeting with Spring Creek, a mile or so north of Jefferson at Bruns Lane.
The exact size of Kelly's "ravine" varied with the describer. An early settler named Zimri Enos, reconstructing the site as an old man, recalled it as '"a mile in length east and west and a half mile north and south"; John T. Stuart, a law partner of Abraham Lincoln, defined it more generously in an 1881 memoir as being two miles wide. Modern topographical maps support Enos's more modest description, though the Town Branch valley spreads out at its westernmost end until it covers nearly a mile and a half from one side to another. But it wasn't its size which attracted that first generation of Springfieldians; what Enos called a "handsome undulating prairie nook" was an almost ideal habitation for humans.
The valley of the Town Branch was, with due respect to Angle, more than a ravine. It was (and is) flatter, for one thing, and more subtle in its shape. Its rolling flanks were etched by tiny feeder streams that dribbled into it every three or four hundred yards. These feeder streams, described by Enos as "never-failing spring branches," drained perhaps three-quarters of the future site of Springfield. One of them sliced across the ground later set aside for the town square, running from the square's northeast corner southwest until it emptied into the Town Branch near where the statehouse now stands. Others acquired names in the usual pioneer fashion—from whose property or what landmark they passed. Kelly's Branch, which ran west out of the high ground around Gehrmann Park, and the Mill Branch were named that way.
You can't see the Town Branch anymore, at least not the part-of it that runs through the city. The stream was filled in when the city replaced it with a sewer pipe years ago. It is still possible, however, to trace its course and, to a degree, even to reconstruct the shape of its valley. The job requires imagination though—an ability to mentally strip the city of its asphalt-and-brick mask, to see cougar and bobcat where only their Detroit-made namesakes roam today—to, in effect, walk backwards in time 150 years.
The trek starts at Ninth and Cook. The ground is fairly level here, approximately 590 feet above sea level in the lowest spots and rising so gradually that a five- or six-block walk north or south will leave you standing no higher than the 600 foot level. This is where the Town Branch was born and began its three-mile journey to Spring Creek.
The stream bed ran west for a block (to Eighth) before veering northwest, cutting diagonally across the sidewalks and parking lots that civilization later put in its way. The low spot at Sixth and Edwards is one clue that the stream used to pass there. The area is still a natural watercourse, as Illinois Bell found out a couple of years ago when heavy rains collected there and flooded out their new electronic switching facility. The valley rims run parallel to the stream bed along this stretch, standing twenty to thirty feet above it. The rise is not abrupt. The highest ground on the southern rim is no closer than Second and Lawrence and the northern side doesn't crest until Ninth and Adams.
The Town Branch continued northwestward, again cutting diagonally across city blocks. It passed the Governor's Mansion on the north along Jackson between Fourth and Fifth; springs that once bubbled up from the woods where the mansion now stands emptied into the stream here. The shape of the old valley is confirmed by a quick glance north and south along Fourth Street from Jackson. The site lies at the bottom of two long, low hills, one climbing roughly twenty vertical feet toward Reynolds, the other rising just as gently toward Canedy.
The grounds of the present statehouse border another stretch of the Town Branch's ancient route, near Second and Monroe. ("Ancient" is used here in an historical sense. Judged by geological time the life of the Town Branch is almost indescribably recent—a second or two on the geological clock.) Elisha Kelly's brother John used to look down upon this spot from his cabin, which was perched on the crest of the bluff upon which Jefferson Street now runs.
From the statehouse the stream continued moving steadily northwest, except for a brief northerly job as it passed Adams Street. There it skirted on its eastern side the eminence where now sit the Internal Revenue Service headquarters and the present Springfield High School.
As the stream approached its terminus west of town, its valley grew more rugged. The greater volume of water washing down through its lower reaches was stronger, more irresistible in its relentless chewing away of the bluffs through which it flowed. MacArthur Boulevard north of Jefferson, for instance, sinks more than fifty vertical feet in the space of two or three blocks. This is "Soap Box Derby Hill," the Town Branch's gift to the children of Springfield.
The land near Douglas Park is more clearly shaped than any since the stream's beginning, in part because, being a park, it has not yet been "civilized." The old stream bed here is easy to spot. The still-wooded hills of the park form its eastern flank; on the other side the steeply-banked valley wall is covered with yards, parking lots, buildings.
The filled-in stream bed itself carries the tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. The B&O, seeking an easy entry into the city from the west, took advantage of the gentle grades along the stream-cut gulleys and laid its tracks there. The B&O runs along the Town Branch from Douglas Park west all the way to Spring Creek—one more favor Springfieldians owe the Town Branch.
When Elisha Kelly pulled his weary bones over the crest of the Town Branch valley in 1819, much of the landscape was under timber. Like most such streams in the new state, the Town Branch was bordered on both slopes by trees. Zimri Enos wrote: "[Springfield was) bordered on the north and west by heavy timber and on the south by a number of beautiful groves of young forest trees, of pin oak, elm, cherry, and hackberry, which were festooned with grape vines and fringed with plum and haw bushes, crabapples, hazel nuts, elders, and blackberries, and encircled by millions of strawberry vines." This was as close as Kelly and his like would ever get to Eden on Earth, and only they got even that close, because within a generation it was gone.
The forests extended "as high as Sixth Street" according to Stuart, and were "the harbor of deer and wolves." It's hard to imagine that time, when oaks grew thicker than parking meters in downtown Springfield. The neighborhood around Washington Street between Lewis and Pasfield, where the village's first log cabin schoolhouse was built in the 1820s, was heavily wooded; the schoolhouse was set in a clearing and children fed its stove with wood collected nearby. And, on what are now the grounds of the statehouse, there rose the "luxuriant" woods of Mather's Grove, a spot which as late as 1865 was described as having "a growth of natural forest trees [which] gives it an air of rural beauty nowhere surpassed."
On the valley's northern wall the timber ended near where Klein Street is today. The first settlement of Springfield took root along the high ground overlooking the creek bottom here. The settlers built along the edges of the timber, where they had easy access to the grassy flatlands for grazing and (some) cultivation without putting too long a walk between them and the woods. This proximity to the trees was essential. Trees offered shelter for animals from storms and summer heat. They provided wood for fires and fences, barrel staves and cabins. They provided food—nuts mostly from hickory arid walnut trees. And they provided game; this was a crucial consideration for men like Kelly, who were unenthusiastic farmers at t best. Elijah lies remembered that "deer were very plenty. They trailed through the town and up the Town Branch, halting in a grove where now stands the Governor's Mansion; and if we wanted fresh venison for breakfast, the Kelly boys would go to the grove early and kill a deer."
A few fragments of these forests survived into the 1880s in a handful of places—like the lawns of the Governor's Mansion—that were immune from the relentless cutting that characterized nineteenth-century Springfield builders. But even those eventually came down. Today the only place left where one can see any part of the Town Branch's original forest cover is in Douglas Park. There stand the few survivors of what was once an army of oaks, maples and cottonwoods, the vanishing guard of a vanished stream. Like the Town Branch itself, these trees are only shadows of what this "handsome undulating prairie nook" once was.
The stream snakes northwest from MacArthur having passed Douglas Park on the north. In the vicinity of Lincoln Avenue it resumes its nineteenth-century form for the first time since its beginning at Ninth and Cook. The Town Branch here still runs on the surface, though it has been partially paved as part of its conversion to a storm sewer. The terrain here actually is a ravine, with steep, sharply-incised sides. The Town Branch turns north, then west, then north again as it passes Addams School and finally joins Spring Creek.
Its water isn't very clear anymore, and its channel, where it hasn't been bricked over and buried, is clogged with junk. But the Town Branch is still there after 150 years. There aren't many man-made structures left that are that old in the city. The old Town Branch may not be pretty anymore, but it's persistent. ●