The Kankakee

River of history

Brian Capouch

Quick Resume

  • Grew up on a mint/vegetable muck farm
  • Spanish major in college "soy bilingüe"
  • Did ag tech consulting and owned a soil test lab
  • Bought a microcomputer in 1978
    • Taught CS at Saint Joseph's1982-2016
  • Since 2003 a history freak
    • I own several historic structures in Medaryville
    • Presentations on a variety of local historical topics
    • 2018: The Sunny Crest miracle occurred

I'm omitting more material than I am going to be showing you


  • Geological formation
  • Draining and Channeling Timeline
  • The river today

Timelines are of the essence

I. Geological History

i.e., What caused such a special and unique place?

What do I mean "Kankakee?"

  • The Kankakee Valley proper
  • Iroquois and Yellow Rivers are tributaries
    • Iroquois/Pinkamink "sort of" the same
  • Big Monon Creek (tributary of the Tippecanoe) 

My headwaters past

  • Gehring Farms
    • Pinkamink/Iroquois
  • Elmer Gumz Farms
    • Kankakee
  • Arthur Gumz/Danny Overmyer
    • Big Monon Creek

Soil-forming forces in nature

Let's look at some recent history . . .

The Wisconsin glaciation began about 75,000 years ago

Reaching its maximum extent about 22,000 years ago

Each "lobe" of the glacier got a name

Glaciers advanced and retreated as the climate cooled and warmed

When glaciers stop, they leave end moraines

By this time the glacier's long gone

Materials in inconceivable quantities are moved as till, also creating ground moraines

Ground moraines, also known as till plains, refers to the material under the glacier

It is called "till" because the glaciers act like mammoth bulldozers

Huge amounts of meltwater were discharged below the end moraines

The meltwater carried with it materials swept up by the advance of the glacier

The material moved by glacial drainage is called outwash, and creates outwash plains

A glacier gone as far as it can go

The sandy outwash in the Kankakee Valley is notable for its massive extent

The meltwater also created many glacial lakes

The "lower" banks of glacial lakes were often formed by older end moraines

The Kankakee Torrent was a catastrophic flood ca 19,000 years ago

It was caused by a sudden breach in glacial Lake Chicago, precursor to Lake Michigan

It formed the basins for the later channels of the Kankakee and Illinois rivers 

The canyons in Starved Rock State Park were formed by the Torrent

Meltwater then created Lake Kankakee about 14,000 years ago

Its bounds were (roughly) the Valparaiso Moraine to the north, and Iroquois Moraine to the south

It drained about 13,000 years ago after the further retreat of the glaciers

The flat Kankakee's discharge was "dammed" by a limestone ridge near Momence, Illinois

Till plains and outwash plains were both initially scoured of all vegetation

Lack of vegetation left the soil subject to erosion--just like it does now--but far worse

Finer soil particles washed into the lake and "graded" themselves as they settled

Sand dunes formed along the south-ish and east-ish banks of the lake

Summary of specialness

  • Geologically recent
  • The torrent was responsible for basic shape of basin
  • All four soil-forming processes played a part
  • The vast amount of sandy outwash was highly permeable
  • The glacial lakebeds were almost flat
  • The rock ledge held back the water to create the marsh

Here's where that web link shines!!

Kankakee River/Marsh Stats

  • Original fall approx 6" per mile
  • Over 2000 bends, oxbows, and meanders, etc. 
  • Approx. 85 miles as the crow flies
  • ~250 miles counting all the bends
  • Marsh extent 400,000 acres (or more)
  • 3-5 miles wide

II. Draining and Channeling

In 1850, Congress passed the Swamp Land Act, the first of a series of such laws

It gave ownership of the swamp lands to the states, and made provisions for the swamps to be drained

In Indiana, widespread, notorious scandals resulted in virtually nothing done

Jasper County was the poster child for this corruption

In 1870, The Kankakee River Draining Company was formed

Short bio of Fr. Stephan

  • Immigrated from Germany in 1847
  • Went to the seminary in Cinncinatti
  • Came to Indiana in 1858, founded All Saints Catholic Church
  • In 1870 became chief engineer of the draining company
  • Helped found the Saint Joseph's school in Rensselaer
  • 1870s served as a missionary in the Dakota Territory
  • 1884 became head of Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions

Fr. Stephan was responsible for all the early surveying work done on the Kankakee

In 1882, John L. Campbell, Indiana's Chief Engineer, issued a report on the river

The biggest impediment was the Momence Ledge

But Indiana had no sovereignty there

In 1889 and 1890, $65,000 in state funds were allocated for removing the Ledge

A complex, contentious project

  • Illinois asserted sovereignty, Indiana's locals revolted
  • Various remonstrances, bills, lawsuits, etc.
  • Indiana quietly bought easements in Illinois
  • The ledge was finally cleared in 1893
    • 8649' x 300' x 2.5'
    • 66247 cubic yards of rock removed

The first 7 miles at the headlands were straightened in 1896, by private parties

The Upper Valley drained by 1906

  1. 1896: 7 mi. privately done
  2. Miller Ditch 7.75 mi.
  3. Kankakee Improvement Co. 5.5 mi.
  4. Place Ditch 9.1
  5. 1906: Kankakee River Reclamation Co. 16.7 mi.

The cutoff was the western boundaries of Starke and Laporte counties

In 1909, C. G. Elliott of the USDA reported on the situation

In the report, he noted on a situation that constituted a practical emergency

One map in the report depicted the work done on the Upper Valley

Another map laid out the proposed new straightening and channeling in detail

Work was completed to the Illinois line by 1918

  • Original 250 miles -> 80 miles river length
  • 400,000 acres -> 30,000 marshland
  • Illinois was hostile; left their side untouched

III. The situation today

The dredged channel is stable; feared return to meanders etc. didn't occur

Huge amounts of sand are being eroded downstream

Most worrisome, severe flooding has become a problem

  • Formed by Indiana legislature in 1977
  • Representatives of all 8 counties in the basin
  • Recently an "action plan" was developed
  • Delicate and complex, like all things Kankakee  

Illinois and Indiana, for the first time, are now committed to working together

In February, 2018 the Kankakee suffered from record flooding

Frequently flooded areas on the Kankakee

Gauge heights @Shelby, 1923-present

Gist of the proposed plan

  • Bank stabilization, esp. on Yellow River
  • NO new channelization!!!!
  • Flood "easements" on existing farmland
    • States would buy "right to flood"
    • Landowners would retain title
    • Land could not be used for farming
  • Cost will be high; the cost of flooding is high too

What I'm not going to be talking about

Points of Interest

  • Kankakee Mill Race/Coquillard's Folly
  • English Lake
  • Dunn's Bridge
  • The impassable marsh
  • Potawatomi Ford
  • Grape Island/Indian Gardens
  • Beaver Lake/Bogus Island
  • The Momence Arch

Thank you!!!