Lemont Waterways: The River – How it Got Its Name

This is a view of the Des Plaines River taken in August 2015, when the water was low. Note the calm ripples and vegetation mid-river. Note the shallow banks. Imagine how this same spot would look with the river at flood stage and how much of the surrounding area would be covered.
This is a view of the Des Plaines River taken in August 2015, when the water was low. Note the calm ripples and vegetation mid-river. Note the shallow banks. Imagine how this same spot would look with the river at flood stage and how much of the surrounding area would be covered.

Native Americans called the Des Plaines River She-shick-ma-wish-sip-pe, or “soft maple tree river.” I for one am glad that name didn’t stick. Most of the earliest non-native explorers spoke French, and historians propose the river was named after the plaine tree, a type of maple which lined the banks of the river. I would suggest another possibility, based on the experience of our old friend Father Marquette. I use the word “old” meaning that we are long familiar with him, not that he was aged, as he died just shy of his 38th birthday, on May 18, 1675, not long after the experience below.

Father Marquette well knew the river’s reputation for overflowing its banks, and in 1675 recorded this experience:

“On the 28th (March 28, 1675) the ice broke up, and stopped above us. On the 29th, the waters rose so high that we had barely time to decamp as fast as possible, putting our goods in the trees, and trying to sleep on a hillock. The water gained on us nearly all night, but there was a slight freeze, and the water fell a little, while we were near our packages. The barrier has just broken, the ice has drifted away; and, because the water is already rising, we are about to embark to continue our journey… (March 31). The very high lands alone are not flooded. At the place where we are, the water has risen more than twelve feet.”

A French word for “high water” is “plein”. I don’t know about you, but I like this story better than a “plaine” old maple tree, as it gives the river credit for its troublesome behavior. Take your pick.

Before we leave the river and move on to the I&M Canal next week, I wonder if there are a few of you who still remember the days before refrigeration was generally available and our kitchens depended on ice boxes. I lived on the south side of Chicago as a child, and I can remember when “the ice man cometh” for his weekly visit to the few homes that still needed ice. The children would flock around his truck begging for chunks of ice to nibble, and he usually obliged. I had no clue then where the ice came from, but I bet you know what I’m going to say – yep, it was local rivers, and perhaps most abundantly from the Des Plaines, particularly a few miles upstream from Lemont near Willow Springs. Huge blocks were cut from the frozen river, weighing about eighty pounds, layered with straw and stored in warehouses near the river banks until needed in summer months. I suppose the river was cleaner in those days, but I still wonder how we survived nibbling on those chunks of ice.

One might also note that, despite our complaints about the miserable winter we had this year, the river did not freeze solid, as it regularly did a hundred years ago. How much more miserable were our grandparents and great grandparents? But if one listened to our weathermen the winter of 2014–15 was one for the record books.

About Pat Camalliere

Pat is a writer of historical mysteries. She lives in Lemont, Illinois.
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2 Responses to Lemont Waterways: The River – How it Got Its Name

  1. paul f says:

    You ended your article with a comment about the weather.
    Your quote from 1675 was made during the mini iceage.
    “Recorded” weather only goes back to 1849 when the Smithsonian gave weather stations to telegraph offices to collect data.

    • Thanks for the comment Paul, and the mini ice age you refer to is interesting. I remember reading that it extended into the 1800s. Although the average annual temperature dropped only about two degrees, that was sufficient to allow the rivers in this area to freeze over solid for most of the winter.

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