Lemont Waterways – The River

Correction: In last week’s article, in my desire to point out the reason the golf course and Argonne laboratory could not exist side by side, I inappropriately referred to Argonne as a “secret atomic bomb complex”. This shortcut to making a point resulted in an inaccurate statement, as I should have explained that the experiments done at this site were to set up and build a nuclear reactor and create a sustained and controllable nuclear reaction. The use of that research to create a nuclear bomb was done at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, not at Argonne. Argonne is a highly respected facility and good neighbor, and has always been devoted to the peaceful uses of energy, of which nuclear energy is only one source.

Lemont Waterways – The River

This picture of the Des Plaines River was taken by me in the fall of 2014. I selected this photo so you can see the hillocks, calm flow, and low banks of the river at this time of year, compared to how the river would appear after heavy rain.

This picture of the Des Plaines River was taken by me in the fall of 2014. I selected this photo so you can see the hillocks, calm flow, and low banks of the river at this time of year, compared to how the river would appear after heavy rain.

I get excited when I talk about the Lemont waterways, because they are so important to the growth of the entire Midwest, and the only place they all come together is Lemont. They started here, as a glimmer in the mind of Father Jacques Marquette in 1674, and today the junction that finally made his ideas work is in Lemont.

Scores of books, or more, have been written about the canals, and I’m not going to repeat all that here, but I do want to share some of the excitement and interesting facts.

Before the canals there was the river, the Des Plaines River, running through the Des Plaines River Valley, and creating bluffs that are unique to the Chicago area, as well as the only canyon in Cook County, Sagawau Canyon off Route 83 near Route 171. Native Americans made their villages along the river, notably the Potawatomi, the predominant tribe when the first white men came to the area.

Potawatomi and other Native American tribes depended on rivers not only for food and water, but as the primary way of getting quickly from one place to another, by canoe. Although trails, developed along deer paths for the most part, existed, these were not as convenient nor as fast as rivers and streams. The Des Plaines River was heavily traveled, as it connected south and west to the Illinois River, flowing into the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico, and north and east it connected, after only a short portage (short land area between two waterways) to the Chicago River, then to Lake Michigan, to the Saint Lawrence River, and the Atlantic Ocean.

This was not a perfect system. The Des Plaines River was greatly affected by seasonal, climatic, and weather changes. In the spring or during heavy rains, the river rose up to twenty feet, flooded its banks and became a raging torrent that was difficult to navigate. In the summer it dried up to the point that it became unnavigable swampland, full of mosquitoes and disease. In the winter it froze with treacherous mushy spots, making it unfit for either canoe or foot travel. Despite that, the natives learned the moods of the river and how to profit from them.

When Father Marquette explored this area in 1674, he is said to have stayed at or near what is today Saint James at Sag Bridge Catholic Church, off Route 171 near Route 83. Can you picture him, standing on a bluff overlooking both the Des Plaines River Valley and the Sag Valley, having been shown by local Indians the portage between the Chicago River and the Des Plaines, and conceiving of an idea to build a canal to create a water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico?

Father Marquette’s idea refused to die, but it was not until 1822 that the federal government finally set aside land for the creation of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which would link the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan, and not until 1836 that sufficient funds were found to break ground. Lemont would become a major player in its construction.

As canal construction began, the population of Chicago mushroomed from 350 to about 2000 in anticipation of an expected boom. Lemont’s population was similar, in anticipation of a need for canal workers.

To be continued …

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

  1. Edward (Ed) Meisenbach says:

    In the 1950’s we would walk down to the river from town (Lemont) with our rifles or shotguns and hunt in the flood plains east and west of the north bank. Sometimes, after the river flooded and then receded, we would visit the quarry on the east side of Lemont rode and gather the fish caught in the receding pools of water. Some fishermen, not knowing of the pools, would buy the fish (mostly carp and catfish) from us rather than spending their time trying to catch fish using bait and a hook. That was a close to a “Tom Sawyer” experience a kid could get. Try that today and you wind up in jail. But some say that is progress?

    • Thanks for adding this information Ed. I love it when people can add details based on their experience. I wish I had grown up in Lemont myself, but have to content myself with the last 18 years. It is stories like this that excite me about Lemont’s history, why it is such a unique place, and why I feature Lemont in my books.

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