One of my main goals for this column is to spur people to contact me with Kankakee River stories and pictures. Recently, Gene Curtis, of Kouts, contacted me about a story written by E.W. Erwin.
In October 1869, Mr. Erwin left his home in Chautauqua Lake, N.Y., to go "duck shooting." He bought a train ticket for Chicago and states he "did not know the exact scene of my depredations, but would determine that upon inquiry after reaching Chicago." Erwin was drawn to the commission houses where game taken from the Kankakee River could be purchased. At the Joyce and Cunningham Commission House, he asked about the best place to hunt. The manager told him "You go to Hebron on the Pan-handle railroad about 50 miles from here. There is the greatest duck and goose shooting I know of."
The adventure begins. With "a .5 pound sack of No. 6 shot, and a 6 1/4 keg of powder" Erwin left the station for Hebron. Upon arrival he was directed to "Mr. Harmon Granger, an old duck shooter and trapper, who lived on the edge of the marsh southwest of town." With Granger as guide they traveled to Granger's Landing.
The next morning they entered the marsh. Erwin later wrote "a wild scene met my eyes. A northwest gale was blowing, whipping the tree tops which surrounded an open marsh perhaps three-fourths of a mile across. Ducks and geese were constantly pouring in from all sides. ... In an hour's time we had the three boats loaded with geese and made our way back to camp."
I live by the river and am still taken aback by descriptions of the Kankakee River before the marsh was ditched in 1918. The abundance of wildlife must have been awesome.
Back to the adventure. Granger and Erwin used muzzle-loading shotguns and loading was a mite more involved than the double-barreled cartridge shotguns, which is what most of the market hunters used.
The next morning they were back on the river. Granger pushed the boat and Erwin was the shooter. The boat was camouflaged with hay. The front of the boat contained extra shot and black powder. Erwin's powder flask spring was "broken which let the powder leak out, a small portion being in the bottom of the storage box."
Later in the day "a cloud of ducks came flying directly out over us. I raised up on my knees and fired first one barrel and then another." A spark must have blown into the ammunition storage box and "the pound and a quarter of powder in the extra flask had exploded." The explosion "blew everything out of the boat except the sack of shot and that was burning. It also blew the planking loose from the bowl of the boat and spread it out flat like a raft."
Erwin survived the mishap and returned for many years to waterfowl hunt on the Kankakee Marsh. Erwin was blind at the time his story was taken down for publication in 1934.
Fortunately, many "old timers" Kankakee River stories and pictures survive. I read about what the Kankakee was like and feel the loss of what it must have been. In future columns I will write about preservation efforts being made to restore some areas along the Kankakee River.
John P. Hodson is founder and president of Kankakee Valley Historical Society, Inc. Visit www.kankakeevalleyhistoricalsociety.org. This column solely represents the writer's opinion.