Lumbering in the Kankakee

The big trees of the Kankakee Marsh started attracting attention from all over the country. The entire valley was covered with hardwoods, including white oak, red oak, beech, American Elm, butternut and more on the islands and sand ridges. On the lower elevations were white ash, black ash, maple and blackberry. Growing in idea conditions, with copious amounts of moisture, the trees competed for the sunlight, grew tall and straight. Sawmills opened from time to time, but made only minor inroads in the marsh.

In 1868, the Indian Island Sawmill Company was formed. This was a stock company, whose prominent stockholders included John Bissell and Ira Cornell. Their sawmills were busy, and to facillate getting the lumber to market, they built a steam boat with two barges or three barges to haul the lumber downriver to Momence. It was named the White Star.

Photo Above: Water Valley. You are looking at the CI&L trestle, but to the right side of the photo is the Ahlgrim Family Saw Mill. Max Ahlgrim founded and operated just one of many such mills in the marsh. -Greg Jancosek Collection-

1871 was known as a bad year. One of the driest in history. There were several diasterous fires that swept through the dry marshes, roaring over the islands and destroying lots of prime timbers. The fires burned to the subsoil, smoldering for many days. Then on October 9, 1871, a cow in Chicago kicked over a lantern and the Great Chicago Fire devasted the City of Chicago. The city began the long rebuilding process and the fine quality of lumber from the Kankakee created a strong demand. Up and down the river, lumber operations sprang up. Also timber theives were operating in the marsh, cutting and rafting logs, then moving on quickly to another location.

The 1893 Columbian Exposition, or Chicago World's Fair came and as a result timber from the Kankakee was again in great demand. Sawmills were reopened and so came the timber thieves. Kankakee area lumber was used in the construction of many of the buildings erected for the exposition.


Photos (Left and Right) The powered launches provided many services to the clubs. They transported passengers and guests fromn the railroad depots, hauled supplie like coal wood and dry goods. Pictured here is one of the Alhgrim's launches moving a log barge along the river. Beside a camping resort, the Alhgrim Family also operated one of the many sawmills and lumber operations of the Kankakee Marsh. -Marc Buhurmester Collection-


The Dredging Of The Kankakee.

What happened to bring the Grand Kankakee Marsh and the hunting and sporting clubs to their end?

The idea of draining the Kankakee swamp lands probably first occurred to the pioneer because of the lack of access to the river. The river could be reached only at far away landings, or during the very dry or very cold seasons. Then came the land speculators, with their dream of the reclamation of thousands of acres of good soil, more productive than the soft prairie lands and clay hills. For many years, there were arguments for and against the draining of the swampland, with petitions and remonstrance's bearing names on both sides. The first important drainage ditch was dug about 1858, with the large land speculator lobbying to secure legislation action for the benefit of his thousands of acres. But the little upland farmer had little chance to fight the tax attached to his land for the purpose of digging the ditches, even though his land was miles from the river. In 1873 the Singleton Ditch is dug using steam shovel and connected to the Eagle Creek Ditch.  By 1911 the Singleton was cleaned and enlarged at least twice so that the flood waters of several creeks and ditches that connected to it could be carried to the river. In 1885 the Big Brown Ditch is dug south of and parallel to the Singleton varying from one to two miles away.  The Brown empties into the Singleton Northwest of Schneider.


Dredging operations on the Kankakee in St Joseph County. -Walkerton Are Historical Society-

Dredging on Pine Creek in St. Joseph County. - Verl Hagg photo. Walkerton Area Historical Society-


Photos: Left: Typical Kankakee River dredge along the shore at Burrows Camp near Dunn's Bridge. -Northwest Indiana Genealogical Society Collection- Right: A dredge working on a drainage ditch in LaPorte County -unknown collection-

In 1884, after a meeting in South Bend, plans were made for more drainage ditches. Later in that year, steam dredge boats dug a series of lateral ditches. George W. Cass and William F. Singleton each operated a dredge in this county in 1884. In 1910, Luce and Gidley, a firm from Hebron, Ind., was working on the levy ditch. Other ditches finished before the river was dredged were: Tully, Brown, Singleton, Griesel, in addition to many smaller ditches named after the owners of the land, some dug with teams of horses.


Photos (Left and Right) Just two examples of dredges working on the Kankakee. Unknown locations. -Kankakee Valley Historical Society-


The fate of the Kankakee was at stake, but very little was done to stop the drainage project from being shoved through. Eventually, the Kankakee Marsh was drained almost dry. in 1917 the dredging of the Kankakee river began, the final blow to a great natural game preserve.

The dredging of the Kankakee River was completed about 1922, shortening the length by many miles, with over 80 miles of curves taken out in Lake and Porter Counties This sealed the fate of the hunting and sports clubs of the Grand Kankakee Marsh. (Photo Right) Channelized Kankakee. -Unknown Collection-

Around 1900, land speculators moved in.  The Lacrosse Land Company, Tuesberg and McWilliams Land Company, Strauss Brothers of Chicago, B.J.Gifford of Kankakee City and several smaller concerns accumulate nearly 100,000 acres of swampland with 40 miles of river front. Thousands of acres of marsh are now prime farm land. The draining of the marsh and straightening of the river gave the land another use, farming. Turning marsh land into rich fertile farm land is what attracted Benjamin Gifford to the area. Gifford advocated draining the marsh. He then built a railroad in hopes of transporting all the produce to markets like Chicago. His railroad plan never reached it goal, but his desire to turn marsh into farmland was realized.


Photos: (Left) The Lewis Family farm near Kersey. This farm was once marshland. -Lewis Family Collection. (Right) Hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland were created by draining the Kankakee Marsh.


When the dredges and heavy equipment were done, the river had been changed. From a winding, slow moving river, with three large lakes, to a straighter, narrow channel. Much of the former marsh became farm land. The area had lost its identity and reputation as a hunters paradise. Sportsmen still come, but not like during the late 1800s and early 1900’s. Which is why a straightened Kankakee channel is now listed on some maps as the Marble Power Ditch. ( Photo) Northwest Indiana Genealogical Society Collection




Photo Right:The steel bridge which replaced the wooden one at Baum’s Bridge. Supply or coal barges can be seen on the other side. Northwest Indiana Genealogical Society Collection






Portions of the old channel still remain and they are easy to find on Google earth. This section, in the photos above, show the old channel at Baum's Bridge. The new, straightened channel is about 100 yards south of this section.


| The Beginning | Continue The Journey |

@2010 TWK and Five Toes Productions

Email The Webmaster