History of the Kankakee River

When the first American pioneers came to the Kankakee Valley they found a hunter’s paradise in a broad valley lightly timbered consisting mainly of marsh prairie. This vast stretch of territory was dug out over the centuries by the Kankakee River, a remnant of the glacial age, that in centuries past was a swift stream commanding the valley as it flowed from its source a few miles east of the St. Joseph River in South Bend, Indiana southwestward to join the Des Plaines River and form the Illinois River. The Kankakee River that the pioneer encountered was nothing like its swift former self that wore down the soil to create the valley. A limestone outcropping at Momence, Illinois, eight miles from the Illinois-Indiana border, slowed down the river’s current. The river in the 1830s was a sluggish, meandering waterway. The Kankakee River, from South Bend, Indiana, to Momence, Illinois, was slow and crooked. The marsh was an area stretching between three and five miles on either side covered for parts of the year with between one and three feet of water. It is these six hundred thousand acres of flooded wetlands that were known as the Kankakee Marsh.

Countless muskrats and other mammals inhabited the swampy land along the banks of the Kankakee. The mammals were overshadowed, however, by the number of waterfowl in the region. Ducks, herons, and other creatures lived amongst the marsh grasses, providing a livelihood for the pioneer homesteader as they had for the Indian years before. This isolated section of the Midwest, remote because of the physical hardship in traveling amidst the marsh, would soon lose its remoteness as improved transportation infrastructure crisscrossed the valley in the late nineteenth century. Increased transportation, occurring at a time when the romantic appreciation of nature was growing in the United States, promoted the Kankakee Valley to the national attention of conservation-minded sportsmen. In the literature of environmental history, improved roads and the construction of railways have often been cited as a prelude to the destruction of natural space. The history of the Kankakee Valley during the late nineteenth century belies this oversimplified assumption by illustrating how a new connection with Chicago and the rest of the world brought the once-remote Kankakee Valley to the attention of preservation-minded sportsmen who—though they lost the battle for the preservation of the Kankakee—drew national attention to the scenic and ecological value of wetlands at the turn of the century, decades before the first successful preservation of wetlands in the 1930s.

The Kankakee Valley, called “the land that God forgot to finish” due to its marshes, has also been forgotten by historians. Not only has the Kankakee Marsh vanished from the physical geography of the state of Indiana, but it has also vanished from its history. James Madison’s The Indiana Way, the most comprehensive work of the history of Indiana, gives scant mention to the Kankakee. Only once does Madison mention the Kankakee Valley, and then only as part of a laundry list of features of Indiana, stating that the valley was unsuitable for agricultural purposes by either Indians or pioneers. 

Hugh Prince, in his outstanding work Wetlands of the American Midwest, deals with the recreational use of wetlands in the upper Midwest (Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin). He reports that drainage efforts failed to reclaim large tracts of wetlands in the period from 1900 to 1920. In these areas, recreation-minded individuals used public game preserves, wildlife refuges, and conservation areas for deer-hunting, partridge-shooting, and summer vacationing in the twenty years after 1930. This increase in recreational use of wetlands is explained by the increase of paved roads, allowing easy access for inhabitants of urban centers with their private automobiles, something that also saw an increase during this time. 

The history of the Kankakee Valley is similar to that of the wetlands of the upper Midwest with which Prince is most concerned. But this study shows that both the period of mobilized reclamation and the effort to drain the Kankakee started nearly two decades earlier. This means that scholars of environmental history must push back by at least twenty years the period when the need to preserve the wetlands in the United States arose in the national consciousness. Unlike the wetlands of the upper Midwest, the Kankakee was successfully drained for the agricultural purpose to the point that in 1937 ninety-four percent of the original marsh was cultivated. The fight over the preservation of the Kankakee Marsh did not, therefore, successfully preserve the region. But the failure to drain and reclaim for agriculture the wetlands of the upper Midwest was due, in part, to increased awareness raised by the fight over the Kankakee. 


On December 3, 1679, French explorer LaSalle left Fort Miamis at the mouth of the St. Joseph River to explore the Illinois Country. He traveled down the St. Joseph River until it reached the south bend of the river, where the city of South Bend, Indiana stands now. LaSalle and his men, with the help of the Indian guide White Beaver, portaged their canoes through the old Indian trail five miles between the St. Joseph and Kankakee Rivers. This route had been used for years by the indigenous Indians. For them, the Kankakee River was just one leg of a water route that connected the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River.

The Kankakee Marsh was inhabited by the Pottawatomie Indians when La Salle first explored the region in the late seventeenth century. A few permanent Pottawatomie settlements dotted the marsh on islands ranging in size from an acre to twenty acres, but the majority seasonally inhabited the wetlands, migrating in the wet spring and summer months to the uplands north of the river and returning in the winter to marsh islands. The river and its marshy margins allowed the Pottawatomie to paddle by canoe in any direction. In the 1830s, however, when American pioneers began entering the Kankakee Valley, there were few Frenchmen or Indians. The pioneers came through overland routes, from the east and southeast into the great valley. The first of these American settlements were on the highlands surrounding the marshy lowlands adjacent to the river. The last Pottawatomie inhabited the swamp in the early 1840s. Two treaties, one in 1832 and another in 1836, gave the Kankakee Valley to the United States and the Pottawatomie were transferred to a western reservation.

Most American officials and pioneers saw the marshlands of the Kankakee Valley as disease-ridden and nearly worthless as it was then. Land surveyor Jeremiah Smith exaggerated slightly in his 1832 survey of the region. In his surveyor’s notes, he spent two pages comparing the Kankakee River and ‘the dreary regions’ around it to the River Styx. He felt that this marginal, flooded land would remain “a most dreadful swamp” unless a drainage system was developed. Twenty years later a drainage system and subsequent cultivation of the marsh had not taken place. Horace Greeley, the founder of the New York Tribune and Congressman from New York, offered a similar description of the Kankakee in 1853. He noted not seeing a “building and hardly a cultivated acre” during his thirteen-mile journey across the eastern portion of the marsh. He suggested, like Smith, that efficient drainage was the only thing stopping the Kankakee region from becoming, “one of the most productive in the world”. He was echoed by Henry Ward Beecher in 1845, who proclaimed of the Kankakee, “without doubt, [it] will one day be drained and form the choicest land.” Drainage was slow to come. Owing to the financial troubles of the state of Indiana, the state could not afford to conduct a proper survey of the land, nor expend money on public projects. Also, the sparse population of the region made reclamation of the lands for agriculture impractical; fertile farmland was still abundant in the central part of the state.  

However, not all observers had pessimistic views of the Kankakee Marsh. Solon Robinson, an Indiana political figure and agricultural editor known throughout the region speculated in the mid-nineteenth century that while the swamp contained tracts of land that could be cultivated in its present state, eventual drainage projects could bring even more land under cultivation. He also noted vast stretches of valuable swamp timber along the lower river that could eventually lead to a lucrative business venture. The river did slowly, by degrees, become colonized by small farmers and squatters in the last half of the nineteenth century. The farmers built permanent homesteads on the highlands surrounding the marsh, supplementing their diet and income with meats and furs from the marsh. These squatters were inhabitants of the marsh proper, if only seasonally. Like the Pottawatomie before them, the marsh squatters made temporary dwellings on islands within the marsh, from which they hunted fowl and trapped muskrats.

In the 1830s only three roads crossed the Kankakee Valley. These paths through the marsh provided the only connection between the Northwestern counties of Indiana and the state capital of Indianapolis. The roads through the marsh were temperamental, in the spring and the fall portions of the roads would be submerged with several feet of water; during the rest of the year the foundation of the road was waterlogged, the road itself muddy. Owing to these factors of transportation the land north of the marsh had more in common with Chicago than Indianapolis, as is still true today. Of the three roads, a western route bypassed the marsh altogether, passing over the rock ledge at Momence, Illinois. The two other routes of the marsh were within six miles of each other, located at a narrowing of the marsh. The more important of the two was the road from Lafayette to Michigan City, crossing the marsh at the Pottawatomie ford. Fifteen miles south of the city of Valparaiso at the narrowest point of the Kankakee River (some thirty feet across where Indians in years past had crossed the river on foot), the earliest pioneers of the region called it the Pottawatomie ford. In 1836 George Eaton settled on the high ground around the crossing and began to operate ferry service for travelers and pioneers alike. A dozen years later he constructed an ill-fated toll bridge that was soon burnt by envious neighbors. After Eaton’s death, Enos Baum took over the operation of the ferry for three years. In 1863 Baum constructed a bridge across the river which was purchased by Porter and Jasper Counties two years later. This area, known as Baum’s Bridge, was subsequently the site of many hunting lodges owing to its high ground and road through the marsh.

Sporting Clubs

The post-war generation gave birth to the “club movement” among American sportsmen and the proliferation of gentlemanly ways of hunting. During the 1870s several national sporting journals were founded. These journals fueled the creation of hunting clubs in New England, New York, and the Kankakee Valley, among other places. A new breed of hunter was moving into the region. Sportsmen were prominent, wealthy men from as close as Chicago and as far away as England. They built hunting lodges and clubhouses on the islands of the Kankakee, staying there for a week or a season, while they shot duck, stalked deer, and caught fish, hiring local guides to take them to the best hunting grounds. In 1873 the first group of sportsmen built a lodge in the highlands of Baum’s Bridge. The Columbia Hunting Club was founded by a group of businessmen from the town of Hebron, about ten miles northwest of Baum’s Bridge. They were soon joined by a group of millionaires from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who erected the Pittsburg Gun Club (sic) in 1876.

During the 1870s a sharp rise in the number of sporting clubs in the Kankakee religion. Heath & Milligan of Chicago who built a resort close by on School Grove Island. Their resort, known as Camp Milligan, reportedly gained such a wide reputation that it was host to visitors from cities across America and abroad. Two such visitors from abroad were Captain Blake, of the British Army, and William Parker, an English nobleman. After their 1871 visit, they were so impressed that the following year they came back to the Kankakee Marsh, not to stay at Camp Milligan again, but to establish their own clubhouse, the Cumberland Lodge Ranch, complete with its own barns, kennels, and hunting dogs.

The sportsmen conducted themselves in a sporting manner that distanced them from other hunters of the region. They followed a code of honor that differentiated them from the market and pot hunter. The market hunter was in business to procure as much game as possible to sell to urban markets. The more fowl he shot, the more profit he made. The pot hunter shot to feed his family. The Mak-saw-ba Club instituted hunting rules for its members. A hunting curfew was placed on hunting ducks at night, when the ducks would be slow-moving, to increase the sport. Further, only one gun per boat could be used, and rifles were expressly prohibited. Taking an example from another club, the Mak-saw-ba started distributing feed for ducks during the hunting season.

The location of sportsmen’s lodgings and clubhouses gives some insight into the considerations they took when choosing a suitable location for their clubhouses. Proximity to the river itself was an important consideration as it provided the hunter and fisherman quick means of traveling to different regions of the marsh on any given day to find a flock of ducks or a suitable fishing spot. But not every riverfront position on the river had a clubhouse. The distribution of the clubhouses was not random, but grouped, usually along with a favorably dry and elevated mass of land and means of easy transportation into and out of the marsh—the crossing of a railway or road over the river. 

Baum’s Bridge is the most prominent example of a cluster of hunting lodges springing up in an area that had both high ground and access to transportation. Water Valley, located about ten miles from the Indiana-Illinois state line, is another area that was host to several such hunting clubs. It was crossed by the Monon Railroad, which later became the Indianapolis & Louisville Railway. Fairfax Harrison, president of the Monon Railroad, was fond of vacationing at Water Valley where he would side-track a special car and spend days fishing with officials of the railway, reportedly catching 72 fish in a single day and proclaiming, “There isn’t a better river for sport in the county.”

The popularity and renown afforded to sportsmen are highlighted by the case of the “king of the Kankakee River and forests”—Hank Granger. When he died in 1916, after years of running a hunting resort in the marsh near Thayer, Indiana, the New York Times published an obituary. His hunting resort, established in the 1870s, was said to be “the most famous in the Middle West and the least advertised.” He hosted wealthy sportsmen from New York, Chicago, and Indianapolis. Likewise, when former President Benjamin Harrison left office in 1893, he planned to promptly go duck hunting in the Kankakee Marsh after he arrived in Indianapolis.

As Chicago grew into a metropolis, rail connections between it and other large cities increased. These railways crossed the Kankakee Valley, traversed the marshy lands along the river, and found their ends in cities as far away as Baltimore, and as close as Terre Haute. Fifty-three years after the construction of Baum’s Bridge—the first permanent roadway across the Kankakee River—over sixteen different regional railways intersected the Kankakee River, most of them running from the Kankakee through Chicago. These same trains that made the Kankakee attractive to sportsmen made wide-scale agricultural production attractive to other parties. Several feet of water covered the fertile soils of the marsh region, but if the water were to be drained from the land, the rail connections would allow easy access of crops to the growing metropolis of Chicago.


Before the 1880s, little work was done to drain the Kankakee marsh. What work was accomplished was done by private individuals to drain their own lands and mostly occurred in the upper portion of the marsh. This early work was handled by teams of men using plows and shovels. These teams waded through the marsh digging ditches to bring the water from the surrounding lands into the river itself. This early work proceeded slowly; manual labor was not sufficient to allow a ditch with an angle great enough to prevent sediment from congesting its path. Since hand digging ditches proved impractical, William F. Singleton purchased a steam dredge to ditch his land. Using the steam dredge to ditch the many acres of marshland he owned, Singleton was to set the model for the future ditching of the Kankakee.

As private lands on the margins of the Kankakee Marsh were being drained by individuals, it was seen that the wetland system of the Kankakee worked as an integral whole. The hydraulic system then acted to undercut Lockean tenets of land ownership; “the very wetness of wetlands means that there will always be a “commons” component to them.” Since the water displaced from privately drained lands affected a neighbor’s property by increasing the wetness and land could not be fully drained while lands upstream were still wet, landowners looked to the government of Indiana to set in place a drainage plan. Only through the coercive force of government, working for what was seen as the common good, was the Kankakee Marsh fully drained and made fit for wide-scale agricultural purposes. Starting in the 1880s, the state of Indiana began to take interest in arbitrating land use in the Kankakee Valley and devising a plan to drain the marsh.

In 1882 the Indiana Legislature directed John Campbell to survey the entire length of the Kankakee Valley, from the river’s source near South Bend to Momence to “ascertain the cheapest and most practical outlets for the drainage of the wet and swamplands of the Kankakee region.” Campbell suggested that by dredging and straightening the Kankakee along with the plowing a series of lateral ditches through the marsh several hundred thousand acres of marshland could be put to agricultural purposes. The cost was estimated at $650,000 with a projected increase in valuation of the valley at $10,000,000.

Central to Campbell’s plan was the removal of the rock ledge at Momence, Illinois. The limestone ledge ran perpendicular to the river, crossed it, and acted as a natural dam, slowing the current of the Kankakee River. The ledge was seen as the main reason for the swampish nature of the Kankakee; the congestion caused by it kept the river upstream calm, leading to an overabundance of sediment and overflowing water. Eleven years after Campbell’s original survey, Indiana spent $65,000 to remove a section of the Momence ledge. Landowners who had started drainage projects on their own land, and hoped to see more state involvement in the drainage, championed the removal of the ledge so that the “useless but fertile lands of the Kankakee” could be cultivated. The channel cut through the ledge increased the flow of water from the marsh into the river below. The sands and sediments which had accumulated behind the ledge were carried away by the now-rapid current. Thus the greatest physical barrier to the drainage of the Kankakee Marsh gave way.

The Kankakee River itself was made into a series of ditches between the years 1899 and 1917. State involvement in the drainage project allowed the river to be transformed from a shallow, meandering river into a straight, wide ditch able to carry water away from the surrounding marshlands and into Illinois. Indiana passed laws allowing the creation of private companies to dredge the river. These companies worked to straighten the crooked Kankakee, assessing the cost to landowners based on the perceived value that the project would bring them. The total cost of ditching was $1,187,536.41 with assessments varying from fifty cents per acre for lands on the extreme edges of the marsh to twenty dollars per acre for the lowest marshland. 

Several enterprises worked to turn the Kankakee River into the Kankakee Ditch. The Miller Ditch Company, the Kankakee River Improvement Company, the Place Ditching Project, and the Kankakee Reclamation Company each worked at dredging the upper river itself, turning the river into a series of ditches. At the close of 1906, the river was canalized from its source as far downstream as the western border of LaPorte and Starke County lines; yet 72 miles of river, from this point to Momence, Illinois, had yet to be dredged and straightened. Work proposed on this channel by the Department of Agriculture would turn the remaining seventy-two miles of river into forty-one miles of ditch. The Marble Ditch began at the western boundary of LaPorte County, channelizing 28 miles of the former river. From this point, the William Ditch continued to the Indiana-Illinois State line. When the William Ditch was completed in 1917, the entire river in Indiana flowed for 72 miles, all of it man-made, straight ditch.

The Kankakee Marsh was originally estimated to encompass 600,000 acres; when the William’s Ditch reached the Illinois state line in 1917, there were less than 30,000 acres of wetlands in the entire state of Indiana. The drastic decrease in the area of wetlands had significant consequences on animal life. Ducks which once were so numerous in the Kankakee Valley; there were reports of flocks so large they blocked out the sun and turned the sky dark, became less numerous. The pioneers who had made their livelihood trapping muskrats found fewer and fewer of the fur-bearing animals in their traps. As the animal population decreased, so did the population of sportsmen and clubhouses.


As early as the 1880s, long-time residents of the Kankakee Valley started voicing concerns over the decrease in the availability of the game. An old duck hunter proclaimed in 1884 that “for the last time” great flocks of geese could be seen in the Kankakee Marsh. As more of the marsh was drained for agricultural purposes, the fears of the loss of wildlife grew. Fishermen, both members of sports clubs who regularly descended into the marsh and vacationers from nearby cities, were coming to the Kankakee Valley in fewer numbers by 1900. The Chicago Daily Tribune, while praising the River’s former abundance of fish, directed Chicago anglers looking to escape the city to head northwest, not southeast, to still remote places like St. Jo River of Michigan and the lakes of Wisconsin, instead of the increasingly barren Kankakee. The destruction of the rock ledge at Momence, Illinois was the main cause of fishermen leaving the Kankakee. It “destroyed one of the finest fishing grounds in this section of the United States.” The ledge had slowed the flow of the river, backing up the water into calm pools, an ideal habitat for fish. With the destruction of the ledge, this ideal fish habitat was now gone.

In 1901 the State of Indiana enacted a duck preservation bill aimed at protecting the duck flocks of the Kankakee. It required all out-of-state hunters to purchase a 25 dollar license to hunt ducks. In response to this, several Chicago clubs began to protest. The law did not affect residents of Indiana and it was seen by several clubs as merely a way to raise money from Chicago sportsmen. Nevertheless, sportsmen begrudgingly paid the 25 dollar fee for the duck license, for the Kankakee Marsh was still the closest hunting ground Chicago. The cost of the license combined with further drainage of the marsh did contribute to a decrease in the amount of sports clubs.

Clubhouses were vacated by sportsmen as drainage in the upper basin proceeded. As waterfowl found new migration paths over other wetlands in the Midwest, sportsmen followed the birds to other hunting grounds. Four thousand acres of land along the Kankakee River (near Davis, Starke County) was sold by the Mak-saw-ba Club of Chicago in 1908, which had run the club for thirty years. The land was parceled and sold as small farms; the land was too valuable to be retained for sporting activities. In the summer of 1906, a resident lamented to the editor of the LaPorte Herald that numerous old landmarks had become unrecognizable, even to the old inhabitants of the region and the colorful names—White Woman Island, Mouth of Mill Creek, Devil’s Elbow, Book Shanty—existed solely in the memories of old hunters and trappers now. 

The way of life for residents and sportsmen was changing just as the physical landscape was changing. While some clubs accepted the fate of the Kankakee Marsh and disbanded, a few made an effort to halt drainage. Just before wide-scale drainage, in February of 1910, Chicago and Indiana clubs employed attorneys to halt the drainage scheme so their clubs would not have to be abandoned. The injunction against draining failed as too much work had already been completed, their voices silenced by the roaring cheers of forward progress. The clubs disappeared from the marsh. By the 1930s, only two recreational facilities of note were still to be found in the Kankakee Valley, both of which catered to families seeking a retreat from the city. The sportsmen traveled to places further afield, setting up new clubs in yet undefiled marshlands of Wisconsin. 

In 1934, after their success in creating the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, the Izaak Walton League of America started promoting the restoration of lands not fully drained along the edges of the Kankakee River. This project, it was hoped, would make it possible for waterfowl to make flights from Canada through the region, as they had once done. Robert Engles, of Gary, Indiana, and director of the national board of the Izaak Walton League wrote many articles for nationally known magazines relating the “past glories and future possibilities” of the region. The Izaak Walton League was founded in 1922, after the majority of the Kankakee Marsh was farmland, to support the conservation of streams and wetlands. Many of the founding members had spent months of their lives fishing and hunting in the Marsh of the Kankakee. Having witnessed first-hand the transformation of the Kankakee “hunter’s paradise,” the league members banded together to protect other, still natural, areas of the Mid-west from drainage.


Dinwiddie, Oscar. “The Kankakee Marsh,” in Report of the Historical Secretary of the Old Settler and Historical Association of Lake County, Indiana, and Papers. Crown Point, IN: The Register Print, 1911

Greenberg, Joel A Natural History of the Chicago Region. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Lake County, Indiana, 1884: An Account of the Semi-Centennial Celebration. Crown Point, Indiana: Lake County Star Office, 1884.

Map. “Kankakee River Illinois and Indiana Showing Marsh Area and Drainage System”

Map. Lake County Indiana, 1890 as in Northwest Indiana.

Meyer, Alfred H. The Kankakee “Marsh” of Northern Indiana and Illinois. [S.l.]: Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters, 1936.

McCord, Shirley S. Travel Accounts of Indiana, 1679-1961; A Collection of Observations by Wayfaring Foreigners, Itinerants, and Peripatetic Hoosiers. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1970.

Prince, Hugh. Wetlands of the American Midwest: A Historical Geography of Changing Attitudes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Reiger, John F.  American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001.

Stephen F. Strausberg, “Indiana and the Swamp Land Act: A Study in State Administration,” Indiana Magazine of History 73 (1977).

United States. Kankakee River, Ill., and Ind. Letter from the Secretary of War Transmitting, with a Letter from the Chief of Engineers, Report on Preliminary Examination of Kankakee River, Ill. And Ind., with a View to Devising Plans for Flood Protection and Determining the Extent to which the United States Should Cooperate with the States and Other Communities and Interests in Carrying out such Plans, Its Share Being Based Upon the Value of Protection to Navigation. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off, 1916.

Vileisis, Ann Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America’s Wetlands Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1997.

Federal Writers’ Project Papers: Dommon, Alice. “Theakiki, the Unforgotten River” 1937, Unkown. “Rare Satire.”, A’Neals, Clyde. “The Kankakee River.” Point of Interest 1936., A’Neals, Clyde. “General Description.” Kankakee River Monograph 1937., Mcharry, Floyd L.  “The Momence Dam.” Kankakee River Monograph 1937., A’Neals, Clyde & Archie Korits. “History and Drainage Facts.”1937., Unknown author. “A Canoe Trip Down the Kankakee”