This is a story of "places" along the Kankakee, "River of History;" places where ancient animals were discovered; where the mound builders buried their dead; where the Indians lived and hunted; where early French traders and explorers trod; where pioneers moved into the wilderness; and places for the early settler, the hunters and the fisherman.
Places for the Mastodon, sabretooth tiger, giant beaver, large elk, and other ancient animals were in the swampland all along the Kankakee River, many bones being dug up during the ditching and the dredgeing operations. Some of these bones are on display at the Deep River County Park.
The bones of one huge animal, identified as a hairy Mammoth, were unearthed in the south end of Porter County in 1911 on the farm of Mrs. Sazza Cooper. It was reported a few years ago that bones similar to these would be found at the Porter County Historical Society Museum.
Explorer LaSalle wrote in his journal of capturing a buffalo in December, 1679, during his trip along the Kankakee, and added that large herds had passed going southward.
Places of the Mound Builders were many along the Kankakee. Many of the mounds found everywhere throughout the valley have been leveled by years of cultivation.
No doubt some of the mounds were the burial grounds of the Indians who followed the first builders. A few years ago, one historian wrote: "More Indians were buried along the Kankakee from Starke and LaPorte Counties down to the Illinois line, than there are white people who now fill the cemeteries in the same area."
The Mounds in some places were huge piles of earth, varying in size and formation. Often the dirt for the mounds was carried from a great distance. One theory is that the mounds were built to enable the families to live nearer to the river, on highter ground, for protection. It is supposed that they were Indians of considerable culture, their disappearance a mystery.
Places of heavy population of Indians dotted the shore of the Kankakee. The natural water highway, the fish, the wildlife, climatic conditions, springs, and the easily cultivated soil attracted the Indians to the Kankakee Valley.
The Potawatomi, last of the various tribes to live in the valley, came from Michigan about 1725 to escape the cold. This tribe was more highly civilized than the earlier tribes of the Algonquin.
Some places along the river occupied by the Indians were Red Oak Island, White Oak Island south of Orchard Grove, and because the marshland then covered the area to where the town of Lowell is now, a large number of Indians lived just south of the town. All the streams running toward the river were places to hunt and trap for the Indian. Many artifacts are still being found, including arrowheads along West Creek, and even in this writer's yard in Lowell.
Places for the French traders and trappers were many, including the islands mentioned above. Many Frenchmen lived with the Indians, had Indian wives, and ran trading posts. Now, almost any town or village anywhere near the Kankakee Valley has residents who are descended from these adventurous French.
Places to cross the river were few. The early pioneers found it almost impossible to cross the Kankakee, and many of them detoured to Momence, Ill., to cross on the limestone rapids. A few found their way across at the old Indian Ford at the site of Baum's Bridge in Porter County.
One of the early bridges built over the Kankakee was in line with the old Chicago-Vincinnes trail, about five miles west of the Indiana-Illinois line. This bridge was built in 1842 by Bonnie Bordman, using white and burr oak for the timbers.
The first iron bridge in this area was Dunn's Bridge, evidently built soon after the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, as it was fashioned from iron salvaged from the dome of the Administration Building at the fair. [NOTE: see the "Pioneer History" column for Jan 28, 1997, for more detailed information on Dunn's Bridge, including the fact that it may, indeed, have been constructed from the original giant Ferris wheel constructed for the 1893 Chicago Columbian Expedition.]
Places settled by the pioneers along the Kankakee were generally on the high ground near the edge of the great swamp. Thomas Childers, an early pioneer of 1834, built his first cabin just north of the present town of Schneider in School Grove, later known as Oak Grove.
Some other pioneers who settled close to the swamp were Charles Kenney, Thomas Dinwiddie, Nehemiah Hayden, George Foster, Peter Hathaway, Charles Marvin, James Brannon, George Belshaw, Melvin Halsted, and many others. Some of the early settlers moved closer to the river after the lowlands were drained, most of them having large and successful farms in the valley.
Almost all of the islands were occupied by trapper's cabins, or by men who for some reason wanted to live by themselves. Even criminals were hiding out in the Kankakee swamps, and, because officials had little luck in flushing them out, a vigilante group was formed, and some of the crimials were found and executed.
It had been estimated that the amount of money made by trappers along the river was about three million dollars.
The islands so important to the Indian, the trader, the trapper and the pioneer were scattered all along the great swamp. Islands on the east side of Lake County were Jerry's Island, Little Beech Ridge, Walnut Knob, Honey Locust, Big Beech Ridge and Warner's Island.
Fuller's Island, probably one of the best known, is the high ground on State Road 55 on the road to Shelby south of State Road 2.
Most of these are in Township 32, Ranges 7 and 8. White Oak Island stretches for three miles in Township 32, Section 30, eastward, west of Shelby, and north of the Fuller Ditch.
The islands on the western part of the swamp area of Lake County were Sugar Grove in Township 32, Section 29 and 30, west and a little north of the town of Schneider; Ash Swamp was north of Sugar Grove in Section 20; River Ridge in Township 32, Sections 33 to 36, running east and west near what is now 241st Ave.; Stave Shanty, north of River Ridge in Sections 34 and 35, east of Schneider; Wheeler's Island, northeast of Schneider; South Island located north of Wheeler's Island; and School Grove Island, due north of Schneider.
After the Civil War, the great swamp became famous as a sportsman paradise. Celebrities came from all over the country and some from overseas to hunt ducks and geese during the migration season.
Many of these sportsmen organized clubs and built lodges or club houses along the river. The Louisville Clubhouse, the White House Hunting Club, both built in 1878, and the Rockville-Terre Haute and Indianapolis Clubhouse, built in 1879, were all at Baum's Bridge in Porter County. Others were Cumberland Lodge, north of Schneider, and the hunting and fishing clubs at Shelby, the Diana Club, Fogli Hotel and Ahlgrims.
A few of these buildings are still standing, mostly now used as residences. One of the better known clubs in this area was the Cumberland Lodge on School Grove Island.
John Hunter, an early settler on School Grove Island, was by occupation a hunter and trapper. He camped on many of the islands in the earlier days, and then bought six acres of land on School Grove Island.
Heath and Milligan along with eight other men from Chicago, built in the grove in 1869, building a hunter's camp called Camp Milligan, run by E.M. Shaver and his family. An entry in the record book kept by the humters at the camp showed that eight hunters shot 66 snipes and 513 ducks in a few days. Shavers killed in one year 1,100 ducks.
In 1871 two men from England, Williams Parker and Captain Jerome Blake, purchased land on School Grove Island and built buildings for a combined farm and hunting camp which they called Cumberland Lodge. The lodge, which burned in 1946, will be remembered by some of our readers.
We have written a few of the "thousand tales" about the "River of History," the Kankakee, the waterway that was turned from a crooked, wild river to a straightened one now called on some maps of the area the Marble Power Ditch.
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