The Kankakee River is a much abused and misused tributary. This stretch of water is a mere shadow of its former majesty. The Kankakee Marsh sprang from the Wisconsin glacier meltwater 24,000 years ago. This large freshwater sea broached its banks and the resulting "Kankakee Torrent" formed what was later known as the Kankakee Marsh. This large river basin has been referred to as the "Everglades of the North."
The first Paleo-Indians were making their presence felt 11,000 years ago, but it would take another 3,000 years for them to be firmly established. I can only imagine the beauty and wonder of the Kankakee Marsh then. At this time the human footprint was only lightly felt, but that was not to last.
The earliest documented exploration of the Kankakee by white men was in 1679 by Robert Cavelier de La Salle and Henri de Tonty.
France, Spain, England and finally the U.S. claimed the Kankakee River Basin. Indiana became the 19th state in 1816. During Indiana's pioneer stage a number of ambitious public works projects were initiated. One of these projects was to solve the nagging problem of enticing farmers to settle in the large marsh area that existed in the northwest corner of the state.
The Erie Canal, opened in 1825, was found to be successful for transportation of crops and settlers. The thought was that if a canal was dug through the Kankakee Marsh it would drain the marsh, open up new farmland and through the sale of the recovered marshland fill the state coffers. Great in theory, but human greed reared its ugly head.
Through mismanagement and corruption, Indiana was left near bankruptcy. The construction of the railroads in the 1860s solved the problems of transportation, but not the marsh issue.
From 1850 through the early 20th century many efforts were made to drain the swamp. Some were successful and some were not. In 1918 a major push was successful in draining the Kankakee Marsh.
Within a few years it was observed the waterfowl migration that formally darkened the skies no longer passed over the Kankakee River. Without the tranquil breeding grounds of the Kankakee the migration moved farther west.
It was at that time groups were formed for private restoration work along the newly channelized river. The Isaac Walton League passed a resolution to restore the Kankakee in 1934. Since that time there have been many private and public restoration efforts along the Kankakee.
A good deal of money has been spent attempting to fix the damages inflicted on the Kankakee River. One main reason for the successful destruction of the Kankakee Marsh was the lack of value placed on wildlife areas.
The attitude was: If you can't build on it, develop it or populate it, what good is it? It seems to me that this is the same attitude taken with a number of present day projects being proposed.
The Kankakee River channelization of 1918 shows us we have an obligation to protect our environment. As stewards of the land we have a responsibility to balance progress with conservation. When will conservation be valued as equally important as development?
John P. Hodson is founder, president of Kankakee Valley Historical Society, Inc. Visit www.kankakeevalleyhistoricalsociety.org. This column solely represents the writer's opinion.