Learning about river towns

2014-05-02T00:00:00Z 2014-05-06T17:13:10Z Learning about river townsJohn Hodson Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
May 02, 2014 12:00 am  • 

I find the evolution of river towns a fascinating subject. Baum's Bridge in south Porter County is an exceptional example of the birth and life of such a town.

Through archaeological work, we know that people have resided there for over 10,000 years. After Native American occupation, the first white men were the hunters and trappers. Farmers arrived next. When the railroads were built through this area sportsmen from around the world discovered this "Everglades of the North."

By the mid-1880s, a number of large and small clubhouses were built at Baum's Bridge. I can document that Presidents Cleveland and Harrison spent time at Baum's Bridge. Authors Gen. Lew Wallace and James Whitcomb Riley were club members at Baum's Bridge. The Studebaker brothers are just one example of successful businessmen and club members. Trapper and hunters shacks, along with some residential homes, were built around the clubhouses.

River towns and communities sprang up all along the Kankakee. Most simply died off. An example of a few that remain today are Shelby, Thayer and Sumava Resorts. Other communities planned near Baum's Bridge were Roosevelt, Riverside and Riverview. The Baum's Bridge area should have had the best opportunity to evolve into a successful river town, but it too failed.

Around 1870 the village of Mayville was laid out a little north of the bridge on some high ground near the present intersection of 1050 South and Baum's Bridge Road. I believe the plan was that Mayville would be the town center of the community and the area around the bridge was for the clubhouses, support workers and other associated facilities.

William Wallace, writer of the Stroller column in The Vidette-Messenger, wrote a piece on Mayville. Wallace wrote that Mayville "was one of those unfortunate places were evil seem to be prevalent. Malaria, swamp fever, tuberculosis and cholera visited the settlement between the incidents of violence. There was no explaining the sinister cloud that seemingly hung over Mayville."

At the time of Mayville's conception, James Pugh owned all of the land around Baum's Bridge and leased parcels to the clubhouses. Pugh owned and ran a sawmill where the Collier Lodge is now located. He hired men that were not very competent and many accidents occurred in its operation. Pugh sold his property after his daughter's dress caught fire while she was burning off marsh hay. She is buried at the Spencer Cemetery near Kouts.

Baum's Bridge Road was once an important country highway, but as Wallace wrote: "the speeding tourist seldom knows that he is passing over historic ground that was an Indian campsite, explorers' encampment, hideout of criminals, famed hunting ground and a pioneers attempt at establishing a town site."

The Kankakee Valley Historical Society seeks to create an historic park at Baum's Bridge. Please contact me if you would like to be part of this undertaking at (219) 766-2302 or jophod@gmail.com.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion.

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