After Northwest Indiana was surveyed in 1834, it took 24 years for the first shovel to dig in along the Kankakee River, a river that owed its birth 17,000 years ago to the Wisconsin Glacier. For many millennia its abundance of fish, water fowl, and wild game sustained human and natural life.
Last week's column told how the Kankakee Torrent, an epoch flood, tore through northern Indiana and east central Illinois. Melting glacier waters breached the moraines near modern day South Bend, forming the Kankakee's channel, marshes and wetlands, carving out what is now Illinois' Starved Rock State Park and filling the Mississippi River's ancestral bed in central Illinois to become the Illinois River. The Illinois Glacier rearranged the Mississippi 132,000 years ago west to its present channel.
Northwest Indiana was the last part of the state to be widely settled. The Kankakee's dense underbrush, swamps, quick sand, and swarms of mosquitos and gnats deterred homesteaders from heading northward. The federal government was also slow to extinguish the Potawatomi's claims to the land.
By 1858 the Kankakee Valley Drainage Association formed in Indiana to clear and drain a large section of land. Hunters and homesteaders vehemently objected. The project languished until 1870 when another ditch was dug despite open hostility and public opposition. It demonstrated the promise of thousands of acres of incredible rich soil for farming.
Indiana legislation in the 1880s and the invention of the steam dredge led to the Singleton Ditch dug north of the Kankakee River. Its success turned attention to the river itself.
In 1902 work began in earnest to straighten, deepen and widen the river from South Bend to the Indiana state line. A network of drainage ditches connecting to the river - soon to typify a canal - followed in Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties, draining more than 400,000 acres of swamp and marshland and freeing up many thousands of acres of rich farmland. Lake County, ostensibly known for its heavy industry, is one of Indiana's greatest agricultural producing areas.
The draining of Beaver Lake, a 16,000-acre body of water within the old Kankakee Marsh, is a story in itself. Located in Newton County just south of the river, the lake and its sandy islands figured historically in the early 19th century for John Jacob Astor's fur trading wealth and as a haven for the Potawatomi during the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe and U.S.-announced plans in 1838 to remove the tribe to Kansas.
In the late 1880s, Illinois businessman Lemuel Milk owned 40,000 acres in the Kankakee marshes, including Beaver Lake. To capitalize on the submerged rich soil, he channeled the lake to the river, practically draining the lake. The surrounding marshes went dry and within 20 years the whole lake bed was dry. He deeded the property to his daughter, Jenny M. Conrad, yet another story.
Today the Kankakee is two rivers - one in its natural state in Illinois and one engineered in Indiana. More about the Kankakee's future in later columns.
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