The Kankakee River was formed by the release of waters from the Wisconsin Glacier approximately 17,000 years ago. By 10,000 BC people were present in the Kankakee River Valley and firmly established by 7,000 BC.
In 1679 Cavelier de LaSalle was the first white man to travel and describe the Kankakee River. Fur trappers were the first commercial group to immigrate, next came farmers. France, Spain, England and finally the United States possessed the Kankakee region.
In 1816 Indiana became the 19th state to enter the Union. Growth was slow in Northwest Indiana because of the large Kankakee Marsh. It has been referred to as the Everglades of the North because of its size and density. It was thought that if the marsh was drained new and fertile farmland would be created. The next problem to be conquered was a means to get crops to market. This was solved when railroads were built through the region during the Civil War.
The Baum's Bridge area of Porter County was strategically important because it was a relatively narrow point in the marsh and it held its banks. It was the most reliable crossing spot between South Bend and Momence, Ill. This is why we find so great a presence of people in such a small area. A ferry was established in 1834 and a succession of bridges were constructed and destroyed until Enos Baum's, built in the mid 19th century, succeeded.
Around 1880 a number of hunting clubhouses were erected at Baum's Bridge. Most were built by wealthy businessmen, but local trappers and rivermen also had dwellings near Baum's Bridge. The Collier Lodge is the last remaining structure at Baum's Bridge from the clubhouse era.
Elwood and Flora Collier established their combination lodge and store in 1898 and the Collier family kept possession until 1952, when their son James passed away. It was purchased by the South Porter County Conservation Club in 1959 and eventually passed ownership to KVHS in 2002.
During the period of 1906-1918 the federal government "straightened" the Kankakee River in Indiana. The Kankakee was reduced from a 270 miles meandering river to a 90 mile straight ditch. The wildlife was immediately adversely impacted and drastically reduced. There has been a continuing effort since the early 1930s to restore some areas of the river to its former beauty.
Historian Richard C. Schmal (1916-2010) often stated that he "quakes at the thought of all that happened at this small spot at Baum's Bridge."
The Kankakee Valley Historical Society is dedicated to promoting awareness and preservation of the Kankakee River Valley. A major project is the restoration of the historic Collier Lodge. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is our hope that continued articles and stories about the river — in this column — will create an interest in the Kankakee River and draw public involvement in the Society's efforts.
John P. Hodson is founder, president of Kankakee Valley Historical Society Inc. This column solely represents the writer's opinion.