East-central Illinois’s Grand Prairie
See Illinois (unpublished)
One of the several ambitions I had for my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture was explaining that the most interesting things to look at when traveling through the old Grand Prairie of east-central Illinois are those one can't see. The more boring the views, the more explaining of them had to be done, which is one reason the book became too lengthy to publish. Anyway, here's my attempt to add interest to east-central Illinois.
Much of this material made its way into my history of mid-Illinois, Corn Kings & One-Horse Thieves.
Partly out of the enthusiasm of aficionados, partly out of their duty to make themselves useful to the public that pays its bills, the scientists of the Illinois State Scientific Survey in Champaign occasionally escort car caravans of curious taxpayers into the Grand Prairie countryside on geological field trips. To people accustomed to more theatrical terrain, announcements of such expeditions must at first seem to be hoaxes, like invitations to a snipe hunt.
The landscape that lays atop that part of Illinois, sadly, offers neither drama or grandeur. The stretch of I-55 between Chicago and Springfield would top most opinion polls as the most boring in the state. “A dreary ride for the geologically uninitiated,” warns Raymond Wiggers in Geology Underfoot In Illinois. The geologically uninitiated includes most members of the General Assembly and Chicago-based state agency staff and media, whose historic disdain for Springfield must owe something to the tedium they suffer getting to and from the state capital across the western fringe of the old Grand Prairie.
Illinois is a famously flat state, and the Grand Prairie makes up one of the flattest parts of it. When Englishman Thomas Chitty wrote a novel set in Champaign-Urbana, he renamed it Flatville. His tourist’s geography betrayed him: there really is a Flatville, a hamlet about ten miles northeast of Urbana. Geology has banished gravity as a guiding force from most of the region. Since the landscape falls in no particular direction, water that falls upon Champaign, Ford, and Vermilion counties, for example, collects haphazardly into what becomes no fewer than seven major streams—the Kankakee, Vermilion, Embarras, Sangamon, Mackinaw, Kaskaskia, and Little Vermilion rivers—that together drain a third of the state. Thus is this part of east central Illinois known as the “Headwaters.”
The sea, always the sea
Only parts of the Grand Prairie are perfectly flat, however. Most of it undulates gently, a fact that becomes apparent once the traveler leaves the interstate highways, whose engineers plowed through many such natural bumps. Landmarks in the Grand Prairie were few and seldom distinguishable at a distance, and even they disappeared from travelers’ sight from time to time as the land they moved on rolled and heaved.
Some visitors professed to find the openness liberating. More found it unsettling, if not oppressive. The fine Illinois writer Richard Powers set a crucial scene in his 1988 novel Prisoner’s Dilemma on the Illinois prairie, where his characters “were surrounded by an endless, fenceless detention camp of openness . . . ”
The rolling, featureless landscape was compared more often—indeed, was compared inevitably and repeatedly—to the sea. Unlike most artifacts of the era, that cliché remains in use today. In Edgar County, the Chamber of Commerce of Paris notes that the nearby farmland “has the easy roll of a quiet sea." A man who’d thought to build a chain of lighthouses to guide travelers across these blank expanses might not have become rich as a result, but his name would have been sung as a benefactor around many a cabin when the jug went ‘round.
Poet Mark Van Doren grew up on the Grand Prairie, and in his poem, “No Word, No Wind,” he recalled the effect of slipping across this swelling terrain during his youthful forays in horse and buggy.
. . . the slow buggy, appearing and disappearing,
Slipped in and out of moon and maple shadows, down
Those least of earth’s depressions, up those low,
Those prairie rises.
The grateful traveler owes these variations in the view to ice. Almost all of Illinois has been visited by glaciers, and much of it more than once. The most recent of them overran the northeast third of Illinois, including what became the Grand Prairie. Strata exposed by excavations at the Charleston Stone Quarry Co. in Coles County reveal layers of long-buried soils that once lay at the surface. These soils (“paleosols” in Geologese) contain corpses of spruce trees from one of the several periods when this part of central Illinois was much cooler and wetter. The region enjoyed a boreal, sub-artic climate of the sort found today in central Canada. For long periods, summers were not quite as efficient at melting snow as winters were at producing it, and the accumulating snowpack coalesced into a succession of continental-scale glaciers. Urged by their own weight, the ice periodically pushed out from Hudson Bay toward Illinois as might lava from an oozing volcano vent.
The first of the most recent parade of ice sheets to reach the Grand Prairie arrived about 75,000 years ago. After repeated advances and retreats, the ice retreated for good about 12,500 years ago, chased back north by a climate turned (for the moment) less clement for ice. These events are so recent in geologic terms that, were this a battlefield, the ruins would still be smoking.
Ice “sheet” is an apt term to describe the glaciers from the geologist’s accustomed planetary perspective. A human staring at one from the ground might think “ice wall” to be more accurate. The ice at this latitude loomed 700 feet or so high. So stupendous was this visitation that the Grand Prairie bowed under its weight, and the surface is still rebounding after nearly thirteen millennia—an ongoing earthquake in super-slow motion.
This episode of invasion has been dubbed the “Wisconsinan” by geologists who study the recent past. The old, preglacial landscape was dug up and then buried again. The fact that it happened at rates of inches per year should not conceal the violence of the process. The Wisconsinan ice left behind a wreckage of rocks picked up by the ice as it ground it way south.
A Scots scientist named William Ferguson touring Urbana’s hinterlands in 1855 noted a “curious feature of these prairies” in the form of boulders of highly crystalline reddish granite known to the locals as “lost rock.” More than 600 million years old, these rocks were as alien to this part of Illinois as wildebeest or typhoons. Such rock was not lost, exactly, but marooned. Its origins were in the Canadian Shield in central and eastern Canada whose ancient igneous and metamorphic rocks had been plundered by the glaciers and were pushed or floated south. Known as “glacial erratics,” these boulders were scattered across the area in belts lying northeast to southwest as much a half a mile wide and were numerous enough as to hinder farming.
The Grand Prairie’s erratics also included sedimentary rocks such as limestone and sandstone. In Champaign, Ford, and Vermilion counties, blocks of dolomite (a form of limestone) left by the ice were large enough to be mistaken by confused settlers as exposed bedrock. Their size suggested they came not from faraway Canada but northern Illinois, as such stone is much too fragile to survive more than a few tens of miles before crumbling into gravels or even sand.
Enterprising locals put such gifts to use. Limestone was extracted from what amounted to above-ground quarries, then crushed and burned in local kilns to make cement, or cut into building blocks or grinding stones. Many smaller boulders were removed and used as markers. Such a rock on the Coles County Fairgrounds in Charleston has for years marked the spot of a Lincoln-Douglas debate. Others include the boulder in Watseka that memorializes fur trader Gurdon S. Hubbard, the town’s first settler, the stone cairn on the courthouse grounds in Pontiac whose plaque tells the story of the Ottawa chief after whom the town was named, and the boulder in Kankakee River State Park that memorializes Potawatomi Chief Shaw-waw-nas-see, who lies nearby. Visitors may conclude that the plaques that these stones bear tell no story more remarkable than their own.
Glacial debris ranged in size from these washing-machine-size boulders to fine clays. The larger material lay more or less where it fell; finer particles were sorted by wind and water into sands, gravels, and flour-like dust. Collectively this glacial debris is known as drift. It entombed what was left of the predecessor landscape beneath an average of 200 feet of debris, although this mantle of drift thins in the north and east parts of the region, to as little as 25 feet deep along the Des Plaines, Kankakee, and Illinois rivers.
Too low, no
The Grand Prairie was the last large bit of Illinois to be settled. As late as 1850 there were but two towns between Urbana and the Illinois-Michigan Canal corridor, 90 miles to the north—one reason why two counties that now lay in that tract, Ford and Douglas, were the last to be formed in Illinois. Until the Civil War era one could wander for miles in large sections of the countryside hereabouts without stumbling across a house, much less a town.
Why did Euro-American farmers so long shun what one modern writer calls the “much dreaded prairies”? Many plants and animals found the Grand Prairie’s wetlands to be rich, even lush environments. Snails lived in such numbers that the shells of their dead gave the soil in places a whitish cast.
The problem was that many of these animals found humans and farm animals to be lush environments too. Green flies for example swarmed in open prairies for six weeks or so each summer in such profusion that traveling had to be done at night. "It is impossible to now conceive of the great annoyance of the flies,” recalled one Champaign County historian in 1878. “Instances were numerous of stock being so depleted of blood, and torn by their exertions in fighting them that death resulted.”
As for mosquitoes—if people could have ground mosquitoes into flour or fed them to livestock, Illinois farmers could have fed themselves without ever hitching a horse to a plow. Mosquitoes would have been merely a nuisance like the green flies but for the fact that they carried the dreaded ague, or malaria. For a time the ailment was blamed on low ground, or on the miasmas that emanated from it; that was as close to correct as most 19th century guesses about disease ever got, as wet spots are the insect’s preferred habitat.
Malaria was to 19th century Illinois what boredom is to the late twentieth, meaning so many people suffered from it that nobody noticed it. You could tell an Illinoisan in those days by the way he shook—not the way he shook hands, but the way he shook all over, from the ague. The effects of the disease were insidious. ”[Ague] was a disease that induced a feeling of despondency,” wrote one local historian, “and took away that strong will and spirit of enterprise which enabled the settlers to endure the hardships of their lot.”
Drinking water also was scarce on the open prairie. Nature had not had enough time to carve much of a drainage system, so permanently flowing streams were relatively few and far between, which meant that drinking wells had to be dug before land could be settled. Breaking prairie sod imposed another development cost. One Vermilion County settler recalled that when his oxen team turned the earth there for the first time it was “like ploughing through a heavy woven door-mat,” as some of the grass roots were as thick as his arm. Doing it required teams of draft animals pulling special equipment—a job for expensive specialists.
The lack of trees was yet another obstacle to settlement. Access to wood for building and fuel before the 1850s was as crucial a development factor to a town as access to an interstate is today. Not until trains began to haul in lumber from Chicago did building in the Grand Prairie became affordable. Wood also was needed for fencing. In early days, the prairie was used as open range, and fences were needed to keep cattle out of crop fields. (It was the necessity for cheaper fencing that mothered the invention in 1873 of barbed wire by a Grand Prairie innovator, W. H. Glidden of DeKalb.
It was not in the wide open spaces that farmers eventually settled, therefore, but near the stream bottoms and groves where the region's trees huddled. Historian James Davis has calculated that in 1834, nearly all towns platted in the twenty-six counties roughly between Beardstown and Danville and Decatur and Ottawa lay west of a line from Decatur through Bloomington to Ottawa. It was in these reaches that wooded land was plentiful (Danville and Urbana were notable exceptions). Furthermore, Davis found, virtually all of these towns had been platted near the timber-prairie edge.
Correcting nature so such land could be farmed was as much a triumph of technology as pluck, pioneer reminiscences to the contrary. Four inventions proved essential. One, already mentioned, was cheap, easy-to-maintain fencing in the form of barbed wire. Another was a self-scouring steel plow capable of slicing cleanly through sticky prairie soils. The role these products played in building Illinois is well-known; even guidebook writers have heard of them.
A third invention has been less celebrated but was no less crucial to the Grand Prairie’s development: the ceramic field drain tile. In the 10,000 years or so since the glaciers last retreated from this part of Illinois nature has not had time to carve an efficient drainage system. The heavy growth of grass also held precipitation where it fell, and clay-ey subsoils repelled rather than absorbed water, keeping it near the surface.
Water naturally settled on former glacial lake bottoms and in river floodplains. , but wetlands also pocked the uplands in the form of prairie potholes, the depressions left when chunks of buried glacial ice melted. Grand Prairie wetlands included marshes, potholes, backwater lakes, sedge meadows, swamps—virtually all the ways that fresh water can gather to be inconvenient to humans.
The wetlands sprawled across hundreds of square miles of the Grand Prairie. The land that became Champaign and Ford counties was typical. Scientists estimate that 40 to 45 percent of the area as a whole was once wetlands, including what is now downtown Champaign, which was a slough.
“Swamp” is widely used metaphorically to describe much of the Grand Prairie, but the vicinity of modern Kankakee the term was all too accurate. Limestone outcrops formed a natural dam across the Kankakee River near Momence and backed up water into the river’s upper basin as far as South Bend, Indiana, like water spreading out over a basement floor from a stopped-up drain. Water up to four feet deep lay atop 400,000 acres for as much as nine months of the year. The result was “the allmost impassible swamp of the Kankikee”—one of the largest marsh-swamp basins in the U.S.
As recently as one hundred years ago the Great Kankakee Swamp or the Grand Marsh was an immensely rich animal factory. Forty-pound buffalo—the fish common to Illinois waters, not the bison—were common. Trappers took an estimated average of 20,000 to 40,000 muskrat pelts per year for fifty years after 1834. Migrating waterfowl were easy prey for market hunters who harvested ducks by the hundreds each week to feed Chicago. The bottomland forest in the Grand Marsh consisted of hardwood trees of immense size that attracted hunters of wood. Such behemoths could only be floated downstream on the Kankakee to saw-mills in Illinois.
The river wandered through a maze of some 2,000 meanders and oxbows over some 240 miles; when it was later straightened by engineers, the Kankakee's original 240-mile course shrank to only 90 miles. Today, fewer than 30,000 acres of wetland can be found within the Kankakee basin. The biggest remnant of that remarkable riverine maze is the 1,600 acres of sloughs and swamps that stretches six miles along the Kankakee River from east of Momence to the Indiana border. In the late 1980s, county, state, and federal agencies began to restore some of the Kankakee’s lost wetlands by (for example) repositioning levees to allow the river to flow into parts of its former floodplain.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has drafted a controversial plan to further re-marsh the marsh by recreating a 30,000-acre Grand Kankakee Wildlife Refuge upstream from the Illinois border. The Indiana Nature Conservancy has begun by acquiring 7,300 acres of agricultural land that gradually will be restored to wetlands and prairie and added to adjacent lands already under protection—what the Conservancy calls one of the largest such projects in the country.
An ambitious farmer encountering that vast and swampy tract must have felt like an idealist considering a career in Illinois politics. Bogged-down wagons, flooded fields—the problems caused by poor surface drainage had no end. Etymologist Virgil Vogel insists that proprietors of the Champaign County town of Tolono may have made up a history to explain their choice of name, about how a band of Indian hunters declined to camp here after their chief surveyed the flat, marshy terrain and declared: “Too low; no.” The tale came to be “devoutly believed” by the town’s oldest inhabitants, and no wonder. Anyone who had tried to farm thereabouts would have found it plenty plausible after trying to plant corn.
Some immigrants to Illinois brought experience suited to the task of settling such a soggy paradise. The Iroquois County village of Danforth was settled by thirty families from the Netherlands who had been induced by a promoter to settle on some of his 27,000 acres of swampland. German East Frisian immigrants who settled near Flatville and Gifford in Champaign County also had learned how to farm such land at home. But most immigrants lacked the capital to ditch and tile large tracts. Drying out the prairie did not begin in earnest until 1879 when the state legislature authorized the creation of drainage districts empowered to tax local land to pay for such work. In Champaign County alone, some 120 drainage districts eventually covered 85 percent of the county.
The wetlands' enemy was drain tiles of baked clay which, buried along the perimeter of a field, carried off water that seeped into them to nearby drainage ditches. Chicagoans were to brag some years later about their genius in reversing the flow of the Chicago River, but Downstate farmers have a boast or two to make when it comes to rearranging nature. To drain his 7,500 acres in the 1880s, one Champaign County landowner had to lay an estimated 2,500,000 tiles.
Such was the demand for tiles for a time that extensive tile and brick manufactories were probably more common in Grand Prairie towns than public libraries. Big ones opened at Kankakee, Grant Park and St. Anne but even small towns had one—Harristown and Maroa in Macon County, Newman in Douglas County, many others. In the south Macon County town of Blue Mound alone, two plants turned out 61 miles of tiles per year.
Today whole townships are underlain with tiles, which empty into an extensive network of surface drainage ditches. The names of the “streams” on a modern map of the Grand Prairie—bearing such names as Ditch No. 3 or Hammond Mutual Ditch—suggest the degree to which the stream system has been augmented by humans. Also, more than half the stream reaches within some parts of the Grand Prairie have been cleared of fallen trees and “channelized,” or straightened, to facilitate the movement of water of the land.
Thanks to such re-engineering, swamps became pasture, and pasture became cropland. Similar miracles were performed across much of Illinois, but as the Grand Prairie was the widest and the wettest to begin with, the transformation there was the most thrilling. Macon County’s Niantic Township was typical. “This territory, formerly classed under the head of swamp lands, was practically donated to Macon county, because it was regarded as absolutely worthless,” reads an 1880 history, “while today it ranks among the best agricultural townships.” The noted historian Carl Van Doren grew up in Urbana. “My grandfather, driving a yoke of oxen to a wagon loaded with farm tools, almost lost them crossing an unbridged stream at the spot where Urbana later built the high school in which I, still later, peacefully studied,” he wrote in his autobiography. “A boy shouting at his oxen mired down in the ford. A boy reading about the wars in Gaul. The same place, and only fifty years between.”
How dry I am
The Grand Prairie, once one the wettest places in Illinois is now one of the driest, at least as measured by the scarcity of wetlands. In the drainage of the upper Sangamon River, wetlands of all types cover only 1.5 percent of the area (most of that is wooded land in the floodplain of the Sangamon River) compared to more than three percent of Illinois as a whole. Human disease rates dropped as mosquitoes’ breeding habitat shriveled—one of the happier consequences of ecological change from a human point of view. Alas, less problematic species have declined too. The eastern newt no longer is found in the state's central counties due to the draining of prairie marshes. Two other once-common denizens of the Grand Prairie, the Blanding's turtle and the massasauga rattlesnake, now occur so seldom that both species have been put on the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' “watch” list of species at risk of extinction locally.
Water still lingers where it is not hurried off the surface, especially in towns. Boneyard Creek is a tributary of the Saline Branch of the Salt Fork River that runs, sort of, through much of Champaign-Urbana. Its basin of nearly 5,000 acres was the site of the original town of Urbana (including part of the University of Illinois campus) and much of what was early Champaign. Today, the Boneyard is essentially an open storm water drainage creek. Wadeable ninety percent of the year, it swells after heavy rains to flood sections of the U of I’s north campus. The creek has made itself a public works priority; recently more than $7 million worth of detention basins, floodwalls, and new pipes were built and the creek bed was widened here and deepened there.
It was however the creek’s waywardness that endeared it to generations of universitarians such as songwriter John Cheesman, who composed a nostalgic ode to the creek that includes these lines:
She's not the Missouri, the Wabash or Sioux,
She's not the Potomac, the Hudson or New,
Urbana's not Berkeley, she's sure not the Bay,
Still I want to go back to the Boneyard, today.
More on moraines
Approximately 15,500 years ago the Wisconsinan ice, prodded by warming temperatures, began a leisurely retreat that took some 3,000 years. Occasionally, the rate at which old ice melted at the southernmost leading edge of the ice sheet was matched by the rate that new ice was being pushed forward from the north. While constantly slithering forward, the mass of ice was, relative to the land, going nowhere. Ice-borne debris piled up in ridges along such stalled ice fronts.
The surface of that part of the Grand Prairie known to scientists as the Bloomington Ridge Plain is decorated by a succession of these glacial middens. Known as end moraines, they lie in nestled arcs across the land in piles as much as one hundred feet above the surrounding surface. As its name suggests, Moraine View State Park near Bloomington-Normal offers what Raymond Wiggers regards as one of the finest views in central Illinois of an end moraine, whose ”long, high rampart” suggests something of the scale of the Wisconsinan ice.
Iowa writer Michael Martone noted once that a moraine is ”a highlight of the road trip . . . that could be missed if you were fiddling with the radio dial.” Moraines in this part of Illinois range in height from eleven to 65 yards and in width from one to 12 miles. The biggest is the Shelbyville Moraine that forms the Grand Prairie’s southern and western boundary. The fast-flowing Wisconsinan ice dawdled to build up moraines in most spots in the Grand Prairie usually for tens, seldom more than a few hundred years; the ice stopped for a thousand years where the Shelbyville moraine system now stands, which explains its relative majesty, topographically speaking.
Most area moraines are much more modest. “It is not the equivalent of a line of snow-clad mountain peaks,” writes Wiggers about the Minonk moraine in Livingston County, which lies south of Pontiac. Indeed. Moraines like it, or the Gilman Moraine that arc across central Iroquois county, would not be flattered with its own name on a map in many other places. In the Grand Prairie they are conspicuous enough to serve as landmarks.
As is true of so much about Illinois, moraines’ plain appearance belies their complexity. The term “pulsating” often appears in the literature of glacial studies, which seems an odd word to apply to ice sheets that raced across the landscape at speeds of inches per year. The climate was cooler overall back then but no less variable, and the ice advanced, retreated, and re-advanced many times. Many older moraines were buried by new debris dumped atop them by subsequent advances of ice, but sometimes new ice lobes rode up and over a stalled ice front. Deducing the precise origins of a given feature in a landscape of such complexity is a bit like trying to trace the career of a bill in the General Assembly. The larger of moraines, such as the Shelbyville, are probably better thought of as moraine complexes rather than single structures.
The crests of moraines offered Euro-American builders both prospect and dry footing for buildings and roads, so it is no surprise that so many towns in the old Grand Prairie were built atop them. Shelbyville and Bloomington each stand atop eponymous moraines. The latter also is home to Danvers; nearby Lexington is so situated atop the El Paso moraine. Warrensburg in Macon County sits on the crest of the Shelbyville Moraine which here stands about 90 feet above an outwash plain that stretches to the north and west. One observer wrote that many of these oases, big and small, came as close as any place in the Grand Prairie to making real the Puritans’ longed-for “city upon a hill.”
The bottom becomes the top
Each glacier refigured the surface twice. It did so once when it passed over it as the ice crushed and then gathered up the local surface and carried it off, frozen in its flanks. It did so again when the ice melted and moving water sliding off the receding front edge of the ice rearranged the debris. Flowing meltwater smoothed these piles of mud and rock as a trowel might smooth a blob of concrete.
Occasionally meltwater flowing away from the shrinking ice was blocked by lobes of ice or by piles of debris left along the ice front. This meltwater backed up in glacial ponds that merged to form glacial lakes. On such flat terrain a little water will spread over a lot of ground. Glacial Lake Wauponsee obliterated temporarily what became Will and Grundy counties. Lake Watseka backed up behind Chatsworth Moraine near Hoopeston and all but covered today’s Iroquois County; when Lake Watseka overflowed it filled the northern Vermilion River valley, forming another lake, Lake Pontiac, which sprawled across the western half of Livingston County. To the south, meltwater ponded behind the Arcola Moraine to form Lake Douglas, which covered much of County Douglas.
The gathering weight of water eventually caused it to burst through the walls containing it. The sudden liberation of so much water produced a series of “meltwater events.” The name is inadequate. The floods of backed-up ex-glacier were sometimes powerful enough to re-engineer the landscape as far as one hundred miles away.
Evidence of the power of water to move rock can be seen across the Grand Prairie. The valley of today’s Sangamon River, one of the main streams to drain today’s Grand Prairie, is much more impressive than could have been created by the poky stream that today ambles through it; it was carved instead when meltwater ponded behind a moraine near Champaign broke through and gushed downstream.
Southern Michigan was drowned by water that ponded behind a dam of ice as the Valparaiso glacier hurried—by glacial standards—to reveal what is now the site of Chicago. When that dam failed, water surged across northwest Indiana and northeast Illinois on a front five to 12 miles wide. The Kankakee and Illinois river valleys were overwhelmed by a torrent that ripped fist-sized chunks of limestone from exposed bedrock and carried them downstream, where they piled up along channel edges like sand; some of these rubble bars can be seen, lying parallel to the river, on the south side of the Kankakee River along Route 113 near the Warner Bridge.
In geologic terms these lakes were little more than puddles. They usually lingered for a few dozens of years at most, but that was long enough for substantial deposits of silts and clays to settle out of their murky waters. (The former presence of such lakes can be deduced from the slightly mucky black soils of their former lake bottoms.) Some twenty feet of such silts from glacial lakes constitute the subsoils of much of Kendall and Grundy counties. In other places, glacial lakes are memorialized by the sand dunes that are the surviving bits of beaches.
The steady rain of fine sediments from lake waters left behind some of the flattest large expanses of ground in the state. The Iroquois River, which drains the old Lake Watseka today, falls a mere half-foot per mile across its lower 80 miles. Locals swear the new grain elevator built in nearby Gilman around 1952 could be seen from the second floor of St. John's Lutheran School in Buckley, 12 miles away.
Like they say, flat. ●
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