Soon after the Kankakee River was channelized in 1918, it became obvious the action destroyed most of the Kankakee marsh's ecosystem. The Kankakee marsh was the main stopping point for waterfowl migration that followed the Mississippi Flyway route.
Where once waterfowl darkened the skies now only pitifully small flocks are seen. The hunt clubs were already in decline with the passing of members due to old age. The Kankakee ditching was the final nail in the coffin for the clubs.
At this time the few clubhouses remaining were sold into private ownership. Some were repackaged as resorts—a good example is the Indianapolis Clubhouse at Baum's Bridge became the Donely's Resort. The Collier Lodge was always a private enterprise.
Soon organizations were formed to restore areas along the Kankakee to their former glory. A good example is the Izaak Walton League and its 1934 resolution, passed in support of a federal migratory bird refuge on the Kankakee River.
"There are now a number of organizations and government programs with the common goal of wetland restoration," William Cameron noted. "I have placed 100 acres of my property along the Kankakee into wetland restoration programs; excavated 7 acres of shallow water areas and planted 34 acres of native grasses. The result has been a dramatic increase of wildlife and wildlife habitat."
Cameron is an outstanding example of a resident working to restore a large area along the Kankakee to its original condition. Cameron was born in 1873 in Scotland and immigrated to the U.S. in 1897. He formed the Cameron Can Machinery Co., which was enormously successful.
Cameron was an avid outdoorsman. In 1926 he purchased 1,300 acres along the Kankakee River in Lake, Newton, Porter and Jasper counties. When the Kankakee was channelized in 1918 it left high embankments on both sides of the river. Cameron used those embankments to contain the marshy area he owned. He worked from 1925 to 1934 developing the area, naming it Indian Gardens Game Preserve.
His plan was to cut a ditch into the newly channelized Kankakee upriver from his property and dam up the downriver end. With the use of floodgates and pumps he was able to regulate the water flow to his property to its pre-channelized speed and volume. After reading about his plan and how he accomplished it — I see the simplicity and genius of his restoration project. The end result was an 800-acre marsh in Newton County. Find the full Cameron story at the Kankakee Valley Historical Society website under Kankakee River History.
There is no denying that the straightening of the Kankakee River created a vast amount of new farmland in Northwest Indiana, but at what price? I believe greed was the driving force for ditching the Kankakee.
Fortunately, there is a new breed of man today giving long overdue respect to our environment. I encourage you to support wildlife and conservation efforts.
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.