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History

Cut Away the Dam

Cut Away the Dam

PLANS TO DRAIN KANKAKEE BASIN ARE OPPOSED IN MOMENCE
(Chicago Daily Tribune – July 29, 1893)

 

Momence, Ill., July 28. (Special)- From South Bend, Ind., to Momence, Ill., by an air line the distance is not more than ninety miles. Measured by the sinuous winding of the Kankakee River the distance is more than 250 miles. Through this space the river twists along a flat, marshy valley of from five to twenty miles in width, broadening occasionally into a lake or breaking into numerous branches and inclosing low, willow fringed islands. The soil is an alluvial sandy loam and offers little resistance to frequent changes in the river bed, and the absence of banks allows the river to spread over wide areas. In the spring the stream is not infrequently five miles wide through the Indiana marshes.

Nearing Momence the character of the country changes. Rolling prairies and wooded groves take the place of the wide expanse of the marshland. The river channel grows narrow and is confined between grassy banks under laid with limestone. One mile above this city a limestone formation runs under the river bed, and the hitherto sluggish stream flows for several miles over this ledge, with an average fall of eight feet to the mile. At the point where the ledge is first struck by the water the bed rapidly rises, so that in 200 yards the elevation is as much as nine feet. Formerly above this natural dam the water from ten to thirty feet deep, but of late years, owning to the numerous dredge ditches cut through the marshes, the river bed has been rapidly filling up with sand, so that deep water is now rarely encountered.

It will be seen that this ledge confines the water to the great marsh basin above. The quantity of water that will flow over it is limited and the barrier of sand keeps piling up behind it until it defeats all efforts to drain the country. The ledge has been termed the key to the drainage of the Kankakee Valley, and for years the land-owners along the river have sought means to cut through it. Several times the Indiana Legislature has been appealed to and two appropriations have been secured amounting to $65,000.

Expense Greater than Appropriation

The expenditure of this money was placed in the hands of three Drainage Commissioners, appointed by the Governor of Indiana. This commission was created at the time of the first appropriation four years ago. It was at first intended to carry the cut from the beginning of the ledge to Miller’s Island, two miles below Momence, making a fourteen foot cut through the city. This was soon abandoned on account of the estimated expense being not less than $250,000. Finally estimates were made for a cut extending from the beginning of the ledge to a point one mile below, making an average cut of a little more than three feet in depth and 200 feet wide for that distance, a total excavation of 65,000 cubic yards of stone.

The expenditure of this money was placed in the hands of three Drainage Commissioners, appointed by the Governor of Indiana. This commission was created at the time of the first appropriation four years ago. It was at first intended to carry the cut from the beginning of the ledge to Miller’s Island, two miles below Momence, making a fourteen foot cut through the city. This was soon abandoned on account of the estimated expense being not less than $250,000. Finally estimates were made for a cut extending from the beginning of the ledge to a point one mile below, making an average cut of a little more than three feet in depth and 200 feet wide for that distance, a total excavation of 65,000 cubic yards of stone.

In addition to this natural dam the stream has been further obstructed by two artificial dams. Just above the city limits the stream breaks into two equal channels inclosing a wooded island of forty acres, oblong is shape and known as Island Park, owned and used by the Chicago and Eastern Illinois railroad company as a picnic grounds. In the north channel of the town, is a dam eight feet high, originally built for the water power. At the head of Island Park a dam has been thrown across the south channel to counterbalance the other dam and to maintain the equal division of water in the two channels. Some years ago the late Gen. Charles W. Cass, owner of 30,000 acres of the Kankakee marsh land, purchased the Momence water power, including the mill sites and Island Park, for the purpose of controlling it for the future drainage of the river. Six years ago Gen. Cass sold that part of the island above the lower dam to the railroad company, reserving the water privilege in the deed.

Open Artificial Dams

Two years ago the Cass heirs, in the interests of the Drainage Commission, opened the artificial dams. The railroad company promptly closed them and obtained an injunction restraining any one from interfering with the dams. This led to a year’s litigation, the Supreme Court finally deciding that the correspondence between Gen. Cass and the Eastern Illinois railroad company relating to the sale of the island showed it to be the intent that the railroad company should have a stage of water for boating purposes, which could only be maintained through the dams. This decision permanently enjoined the Cass estate from removing the dams, but left it open for other landowners above to have them declared a nuisance. Finally the matter was compromised on the basis of lower dams and other considerations for the betterment of the railroad property, to be made by the Drainage Commission, and the railroad permitted the removal of the dams.

Fifty Men Now at Work

This, incredulity lasted after the contract was let; lasted after the contractors arrive; lasted through the preparations, and exists to some extent yet, although fifty or more men are at work. But with the beginning of the work Momence awakened to a new opposition. Instead of taking the north channel, as had been expected, the cut runs off into the south channel. The effect of this will be to throw all the water into the south channel during the summer season and leave the north channel to grow up in weeds, a noisome slough in low water. All the business houses are located along the north channel, together with 2,500 inhabitants, while the south side population is less than 500. With such conditions the north side population has worked itself up to a high pitch of excitement. Injunctions and shotguns have both been threatened, but so far none have come into use. The local papers have added fuel to the flame, one paper giving the plans of the drainage commission and claiming that the work would be a benefit to the city, while the other declares that the work must be stopped or the whole community will be swept away with a pestilence.

Meanwhile the Drainage Commission and the large landowners give assurances that by means of dams plenty of water shall be kept in the north channel, and the Cass heirs have agreed to clear the north channel of the soil that has drifted in during late years and improve the water power if no molestation comes to the work from Momence. They claim they will maintain permanent dams that can be opened readily during high water, but will preserve a large body of water during low water. This assurance, together with the fact that the work promises to employ several hundred men during the fall, is beginning to quiet the opposition here.

Opposition on the Increase

At Kankakee and other points below, however, the opposition is on the increase. It is argued that cutting through the ledge will release immense quantities of sand, which, drifting down the river, will fill the milldams at Waldron, Kankakee, Altrof, and Wilmington and render their fine water power worthless. It is further claimed that the destruction of reservoir above by the removal of this ledge will tend to destroy the uniformity of flow that at present is a characteristic of the Kankakee; that there will be destructive floods in high water and stages of low water when there will not be enough to turn a mill wheel or to supply the various towns and the Kankakee Insane Hospital with water. Statistics tend to support this belief, in as much as the average American streams show a variation of flow between extreme of high and low water of seventy-three to one, while at Momence the extremes of high and low water in the Kankakee are given twenty-eight to one. It is believed by some that with the river bed constantly filling with sand and with the removal of the rock ledge, flood waters will in future do great damage along the Lower Kankakee and even in the Illinois Valley.

On the other hand, Engineer Whitten of the Indiana Drainage Commission now maintains that the removal of the rock at Momence is not essential to the drainage of the Kankakee marshes; that with the proposed straightening of the channel from English Lake to the Illinois line they get a fall of eleven inches to the mile and can force down the sand and flood waters regardless of the rock cut, and that the latter is essential to Momence’s future existence.

Necessary for the Town’s Existence

If they are not permitted to make the cut, he says, Momence will afterward be compelled to make it to avoid being washed away. A drainage district is now forming for the purpose of straightening the river channel, backed by Nelson Morris, the Cass heirs, John Brown of Crown Point, and ex-Gov. Lander of Indianapolis, who, together, own more than 100,000 acres of land affected. They will work wholly in Indiana, and say no one in Illinois can prevent them draining their lands through a natural water course.

Out of this sea of threats and promises and predictions of good and evil the average citizen of Momence draws the inferences that best suit him. Many are hoping the Kankakee Hospital and the Kankakee water works will persuade the Springfield authorities to do something. Others want the work pushed; believing the development of the country above will bring increased trade while the lowering of the water will give the city sewage and outlet in high water. Today the impression prevails that no one in Momence will interfere with the work, the Board of Alderman having declined to interfere at their meeting Monday night.