Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

The Draining of the Kankakee Marsh

(from the Mar. 31, 1998, Lowell Tribune, page 20)

For almost two decades, the "Pioneer History" column has featured interesting stories about our Kankakee River, many of them written years ago by early settlers.

One of those, John Brown, wrote the following in the History of Lake County, 1884: "The number of acres in this wet land in the Kankakee Valley in Lake County is about sixty thousand, and in the seven counties through which it flows in the State [it] is about six hundred thousand. Various projects have been proposed for draining this vast body of rich land, but up to this time [1884] very little has been accomplished."

Oscar Dinwiddie, son of a pioneer, wrote about the Kankakee Marsh in the hard-cover publication Report of the Old Settler and Historical Association of Lake County, 1911, where he detailed the draining of the marsh: "Between 1850 and 1860, my father John W. Dinwiddie often discussed the draining of the wetlands with General George Cass and others, a group which attempted to secure an appropriation to drain and reclaim this large body of rich land."

The early statutes of the state show an Act of Congress which provided that money from the sale of swampland would be used for draining and reclaiming, but the politicians decided to use the money for other purposes. A few small ditches were made, with very little result.

Oscar Dinwiddie told how his father excavated the upper portion of the Eagle Creek Ditch in 1855, using plows and scrapers pulled by horses, as well as laborers with shovels, for there were no dredges there at that time. Nicholas Sherer (or Scherer) and his crew were working on the remainder of the Eagle Creek Ditch, working up to their knees in the swamp with shovels.

The plan was to enter the Kankakee River about a mile east of the Illinois State line. With only a slow current and a slight fall, the ditch kept filling up with grass and sediment.

Dinwiddie continued: "About 1870, William F. Singleton, who was related to General George Cass and owned many acres of the swampland, planned the beginning of the drainage system, which resulted in the digging of the Singleton Ditch in 1873. This Singleton ditch has taken the place of that part of the old Eagle Creek ditch which had become nearly or quite filled up. Some of the way the old line was used, but for the most part an entirely new ditch was dug near the old one."

The Singleton Ditch connected with the Eagle Creek Ditch about where John Dinwiddie's early contract commenced back in 1855. It was dug with a steam dredge, which was a combination of powerful machinery aboard a large wood flatboat, moved along in the water as the ditch is dug. By 1911 the Singleton was cleaned and enlarged at least two times so the flood water of several creeks and ditches could easily be carried to the river.

In 1885 the big Brown Ditch was dug south of and parallel with the Singleton Ditch, varying from one to two miles away. The Brown Ditch emptied into the Singleton in Section 29 of West Creek Township (northwest of Schneider), close to where the Bailey #2 Ditch meets it from the north.

A few years later the Griesel Ditch was dug to take the waters of Plum Creek and Spring Run Creek to the Singleton at Section 13 of Cedar Creek Township, less than a mile east of where the Cedar Creek Ditch empties. Both Cedar Creek and West Creek were dug out and widened, and along with the Ackerman Ditch, drained a large parcel of land in Cedar Creek Township.

Dinwiddie wrote: "Some years ago [earlier than 1911] a large ditch was dug to carry the waters of the Singleton across the Illinois state line into Bull Creek, a few miles down river from the old outlet. Also a few years ago after a tedious legal fight, a large ditch was built to construct a levee or dam to prevent the flood waters of the river from overflowing."

This was started in Eagle Creek Township near the county line, went along the north bank west to the railroad bridge crossing the river, and was later extended to River Ridge, higher land located just east of the Town of Schneider.

The level of the river has lowered seven feet by the removal of the old mill dam at Momence, Ill., and years of hard work followed to secure an appropriation for the removal of part of the ledge of rock in the river at that Illinois town. This was prevented during those years by the townspeople of Momence, as well as by the officials of the Eastern Illinois Railroad. This rock ledge was called "the rapids" by many of the early explorers and was a good place to get across the big swamp.

Oscar Dinwiddie credited pioneer John Brown for his work in promoting the removal of the rock and the construction of many of the ditches and named him "one of our most public spirited citizens."

Many more ditches were dug through the years and many miles of tiling have been laid to further drain the wetlands. Among the ditches also shown on a 1941 plat map: Jesse Little, Vannatti, Tully, Clark, Bruce, Lateral #2, Fuller, Bailey #1, Main, Stony Run, Buckley, McConnell, Foss, #4, and the "Marble Power Ditch," which is the Kankakee River with over 80 miles of curves taken out in Lake and Porter Counties.

How terrible it would be if all the lakes, streams, ditches, marshes and rivers which flow from Eagle Creek Township south and southwest to Illinois and beyond were contaminated by a landfill. The hopes and dreams that our pioneer ancestors had for us would all be shattered.

Last updated on April 3, 2003.

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