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The Kankakee

by Ira M. Fry

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(L-R) Ira V Fry and Ira M Fry

This is the story of a bridge - not just any bridge, but a very special bridge, conplete with a history, and one which played a vital part in the development of our country.

From its source near South Bend to its junction with the Des Plaines, the Kankakee River, with its wide marshes, formed a formidable barrier to the westward and northward expansion of the early settlers. Their Conestoga style covered wagons and early ox-drawn pack trains could not negotiate the soft mud beneath the shallow surface of the marshes. Innocent in appearance with waving reeds and cattails, embellished here and there with vast patches of wild rice; accented by Red-winged blackbirds swaying to and fro atop a reed as they fed; or muskrats sitting atop their mound shaped houses, calmly chewing on a cattail root or tuber, they were a most effective barrier.

In the early days of the pioneer, there were those, who upon finding this treasure trove of fur, fish, and game, elected to settle here at some point, to trap and enjoy a home in the midst of the cornucopia of wildlife, unique in the entire world. There were deer, buffalo, partridge, grouse, prairie chicken, passenger pigeons, and many more. Ducks, geese, and other waterfowl were present in teeming millions. In the river were pike, bass, channel and bank catfish, many varieties of panfish, the American or native carp, also dogfish and other scavengers. Those who stayed became known as the river men. From them and their exploits sprang many of the legends about which we hope to dwell upon.

However, the tide moved on toward the west; families eager to carve out for themselves a way across this swampy barrier, they discovered that the Indians had such a crossing that they had been using for perhaps hundreds of years.

It was known by several names, Pottawatomi Ford or simply “Indian Crossing.” With the advent of the white settler it was to become known as Baum’s Bridge, and it is the subject of our journey into history.

The Indian trail led along a long, thin ridge of sand and gravel deposited by the vagaries of the great glacier, almost to the southern edge of the river, while to the north of the river the marsh narrowed greatly. A natural ford, it saw the passing of the Illinois, the Miamis, an occasional raiding party of the warlike Iroquois, the Sauk, and lastly the Pottawatomi, more given to peaceful pursuits - tillers of the soil.

As more and more of the white man’s wagons began to appear, it was inevitable that this crossing would become a point of commerce.

The first man to seriously make an impact at the ford was a settler named George Eaton, who with his family came here in 1836. He built a cabin on the right bank and established Eaton’s Ferry. It was without question a major undertaking, for during spring flooding it was necessary to negotiate some one and on-half miles of open water. During other seasons of the year the soft, mucky marsh had to be traversed as well as the river itself. Early accounts indicate that the travelers were taken across by boat, propelled by a boatman using a push paddle.

Two years later, in 1838, history records the removal of the Pottawatomi from the entire area by the Federal government. These Indians of the Kankakee were rounded up and made a part of. a large group which was assembled at a point near Plymouth, Indiana. Accounts vary as to the size of this group, some sources putting the figure at over 700, while others range as high as 850 persons.

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Ira M Fry 2nd from left abt 2001

They were marched under guard to a reservation in Kansas. A monument depicting the event has been erected at the site near Plymouth. On it is inscribed, “Here began the Trail of Tears.” Here also began one of the blackest days in American history. An area historical society tells of the tragic event - of the Pottawatomi being taken from their homes, in many cases the homes being burned as they watched. The elderly, the infants, the ill, the expectant mothers; all were taken without exception, and those who were unable to keep up were left to die beside the trail where they had fallen. Most accounts agree that one-fifth of the band died during the long march. Those “children of the forest” who survived faced a life on an arid, treeless plain.

In 1847 the United States government established a mail route between Rensselaer and Michigan City. George Eaton was awarded the contract for that section across the Kankakee at the ferry.

In 1849, Mr. Eaton constructed a bridge at the ferry, the first and only bridge across the river between Momence, Illinois, and English Lake. However, one year later it was destroyed by fire. There were rumors that the fire had been deliberately set, possibly by someone resentful of the fact that it was a toll bridge. The ferry was then reactivated and was operated by George Eaton until his death in 1851. Upon his death Mrs. Eaton took over the operation, proving quite equal to the task.

In the year 1857, Mrs. Eaton died, and a Mr. Sawyer became the owner. He promptly built another bridge, replacing the ferry. The bridge however, was of a design that did not take into account the battering by driftwood, and consequent water pressure during annual periods of high water (or so some early accounts relate). At any rate the following spring the bridge was swept away; and once more the ferry was in operation. In addition, Mr. Sawyer established a sawmill nearby. He continued to carry the U.S. Mail across the marsh as had George Eaton, under contract.

In 1860 Sawyer sold the whole of his holdings to Enos Baum who operated the ferry and sawmill for several years, then built a bridge. Quite evidently of sounder construction, this one stayed in place.

At the close of the Civil War, under pressure from an increasing population, the boards of commissioners of the counties of Porter and Jasper took over the maintenance of the bridge and eliminated the current toll charges. It had become a “free bridge,” and a road was constructed by the placing of a fill leading to each end. The little community from this time forward has been known by its present name, Baum’s Bridge.

The big trees of the Kankakee were attracting the attention of the country at this time. The entire valley was covered with hardwoods - white oak, red oak, beech, American elm, butternut, and more on the islands and sand ridges, while on the lower elevations were white ash, black ash, maple, and hackberry. Growing in ideal conditions, with copious moisture, the trees competing for the sunlight, grew tall and straight. It was straight-grained prime timber, a virgin forest. Small sawmills operated from time to time, but made only minor inroads in the supply.

Then in 1868, the Indian Island Sawmill Company was formed. It was said to have been a stock company, whose more prominent stockholders included John Bissell and Ira Cornell. Their sawmills were busy, and to facilitate getting the lumber to a market, they built a steamboat with two or three barges to haul the lumber downriver to Momence. It was christened the “White Star.” In his book, “Pioneer Hunters of the Kankakee,” J. Lorenzo Werich relates that his father, John Werich, made several trips up and down the river as pilot, while John Bissell acted as captain.

The venture, however, was not the financial success that had been anticipated. Consequently, according to early accounts, it was sold to a group from Momence and operated as a passenger service on trips up and down the river.

There is an interesting side light in regard to the “White Star.” Fry’s Island and Fry’s Landing are located some three and one-half miles downstream from Baum’s Bridge. The “new river” had been dug past this point, but the old channel, with its abrupt bends, still carried a reasonable amount of water on a day in the early 1920’s when my father, my brother, and I were walking along the old channel when we noticed an object protruding from the bank. It at first glance appeared to be a large bolt, perhaps one foot in length and somewhat smaller than a man’s wrist; threaded on the end. Brushing back leaf mold an sand, then some heavier silt, we uncovered the “bolt.” It was some five and one-half feet in length, and to it was attached a flat, rectangular steel plate, perhaps four or four and one-half feet each way. The entire object was pitted by rust and black from chemical action of the soil. As we stood gazing at it my father said, “Boys, I believe we have found the rudder of the “White Star.” We carried it to our cabin where it was locked in the garage as a prized possession. Sadly, it was stolen during the frenzied search for scrap iron at the onset of World War II.

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(L-R) Ira M Fry and Ray Craft at Fry Island

1871 was known as the driest year in history. Early accounts tell of disastrous fires sweeping the tinder-dry marshes, roaring over the islands; destroying prime timber stands. It burned to the subsoil, smoldering for many days. This caused the formation of ponds, even small lakes, as the burnouts later filled with water.

On October 9th of the same year, a cow belonging to a certain Mrs. O’Leary kicked over a lantern, and the great Chicago fire devastated that city. As the city began the long rebuilding process, the fine quality of lumber from the Kankakee, as well as its proximity, created a strong demand. The area around Baum’s Bridge saw unprecedented activity as the loggers moved in. There was also activity of a more sinister nature - timber thieves were cutting and rafting logs, then moving on quickly to another location. Efforts were made to control the practice, but it persisted in varying degrees until the boom subsided.

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(L-R) Ira M Fry, Charles Fry, Ira V Fry, Mrs. Anna Fry, ?

In 1878 a new day dawned for the Bridge area. A group of sportsmen from Louisville, Kentucky, who had been frequent visitors to the area, formed a hunting club and erected a clubhouse near the bridge. It was known as the Louisville Gun Club, and had as its caretaker, Parker (Doc) Rice of Hebron. Rice and Aaron Fehrman, also of Hebron, were the guides.

In the same year the Pittsburgh Hunting Club, a group of sportsmen from the Pittsburgh vicinity, built a clubhouse not far from the bridge. Shortly after completion of the building, they brought in a small steamer, or steam launch, named “Little Rhoda.” It was used as passenger service for the most part, but also carried small items of freight plying between English Lake and Long Ridge. Caretaker and guide was George Wilcox.

In 1879 another clubhouse came into being near the bridge. A group, about whom little is known, erected this lodge, calling it the “White House Hunting Club.” In some accounts the name appears as the Valley Gun Club, but it must be presumed that both names refer to the same club.

Also in 1879, the Rockville, Terre Haute, and Indianapolis Gun Club was built; a large two story building with basement and a verandah on three sides. It fronted on the river with a number of wooden steps leading to the water. A narrow pier ran the length of the front. At any given time several of the familiar “Kankakee boats” could be seen attached to the pier, the property of club members. The Kankakee River boat was a uniquely designed craft, of a special pattern suited to the marshes, puckerbush, and other conditions encountered while duck and goose hunting along the river. Most were locally built, many by my father, but the story of the riverboat is best told in another place.

With the gun club era, fame came to the Kankakee. The Pittsburgh, Rockville, and Louisville clubs were especially the meccas for some famous name sportsmen. General Lew Wallace - soldier, author, statesman, and sportsman - acquired a piece of land along the river, and brought his houseboat. This became a familiar sight along the river. Accounts differ as to the name of the craft. One account states that it was called simply “The Thing.” However, most say that it was named “The White Elephant.” He was known to stay occasionally at the Pittsburgh and Rockville clubhouses, and spent much time on the houseboat where, rumor has it, a portion of his book Ben Hur was written, as well as the greater part of another of his great books, “The Fair God.” My father spoke of having seen the houseboat on the river on different occasions.

Benjamin Harrison also spent time on the river, relaxing as he enjoyed the hunting; resting from an arduous campaign, just prior to assuming the presidency. The Studebaker brothers of South Bend were also guests from time to time at the Rockville Lodge. There were many others of national prominence as well. There period from 1865 through the turn of the century could be called the hey day; the most glorious era of the river. Many of the local hunters and river men were associated with the various shooting clubs in the capacity of guides and/or caretakers. There were days when waterfowl hunters, for the most part, used brass cased ammunition, which could be hand reloaded. This furnished additional employment for the guides, who often trapped during the off-season.

In 1893 the Columbian Exposition - the Chicago’s World Fair, came. As a result, timber from the Kankakee again was in great demand. So too, came once again the timber thieves, proving to be as difficult to eliminate as ever. However, lumber from the area was used in construction of many of the buildings erected for the exposition. Curiously, some of the steelwork, girders, I-beams, etc. from the Kankakee to be used in the first steel bridges to span the river.

The early years of the twentieth century witnessed the passing of most of the hunting lodges. The dredges were approaching from upriver, foreshadowing the end of an era. An ominous figure with a long beard and leaning on a scythe was also entering the scene; a long bony finger pointing to the eclipse of the Golden Age. The members of the various gun clubs were aging and bidding good-bye to the marshes. The clubs were not attracting youthful potential members in the shadow of the swinging dredge booms.

The Rockville Club House passed into private ownership in 1909 or 1910. One of the early owners was James Donley, who with wife Laura, converted it to a hotel. The upper story was devoted entirely to guest rooms; the lower contained a large dining hall and kitchen, with guest rooms making up the balance. The basement was outfitted as a bar.

The Donley’s were Mrs. Fry’s grandparents, and Ruby recalls the visits there with her parents in the family buggy or carriage. She recalls, too, the childish curiosity concerning the basement. Her efforts at exploring it were invariably frustrated by her grandfather who would meet there at the door, give her a bottle of strawberry pop and direct her, with her baby sister, to the stairs!

Another granddaughter, now Mrs. Robert Kalina of Batavia, Illinois, also has fond memories of similar visits there. Her most vivid memories are of dashing across the road (as soon as the initial greetings and hugs were over) to Collier’s store, where the wooden swing on the lawn awaited. Fascinating also was the row of large glass bowls containing brightly colored pieces of candy, arranged along the counter near the door.

Both granddaughters remember seeing their grandmother come down to the pier in her wide brimmed straw hat with the ribbons tied down under her chin, and carrying her fishing equipment. She would step into the boat and paddle her way upstream, to return iii an hour or two with a very attractive string of fish.

The Donleys operated the hotel for a number of years during which time many sportsmen used it as a home while hunting on the marsh. Included were, as before, some well known public figures. It was widely rumored that one of these wore his hat at a jaunty angle, had a large mustache, and spoke now and then of his associates in the “Rough Riders.”

Some years later James Donley sold the hotel and purchased a home a short distance north of the bridge. In the years that followed, the hotel had several owners until it passed from existence in a fiery finish. Thus the last vestige, save one, of the great sportsman’s paradise disappeared in the flames that destroyed the Rockville. Terre Haute, and Indianapolis Club House. Collier’s store still remains, remodeled now, less the wide front porch, but with an upper and lower porch on the side overlooking what once was the great Kankakee River, but now is called ‘the old channel.”

On the site of the old clubhouse another and smaller one story building now houses an attractive restaurant, operated by Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Griffey, known as the Baum’s Bridge Inn. And the bridge, the earlier structures have been replaced by a shorter concrete bridge encompassing metal culverts that span the narrowed channel. Just north of the Inn and almost on a level with the surface of the ground can be seen the concrete footings outlining the location of one of the former clubhouses. Nearby is a small garage-like building giving every indication of having been used in earlier days as an icehouse.

Shortly before beginning this account it was our privilege to visit with a very gracious lady who has lived in the community since childhood and a descendant of the well-known and respected Morehouse family, “Aunt Mary” Thatcher who very recently observed her 94th birthday.

Revealing a remarkably clear and concise memory, she talked fluently and with ease of the early days. She mentioned trips down a trail through the big timber to the bridge, a distance of several miles to visit the Donley’s daughter, Laura. The girls were of the same age and fast friends. She spoke of the “White Elephant”, and recalled in detail the last days of that link to the past. The boat had been pulled up near the bridge and came into possession of a local man who remodeled it, added a room, and used it as his home. It later deteriorated, and one night caught fire, being entirely destroyed. She expressed her disappointment at not having an opportunity to secure a small bit of the famous craft as a souvenir.

The story of Baum’s Bridge does indeed span many decades. From Indian Crossing; through ford and ferry; to the bridges and the days of the hunting lodges and inns; to the hosting of the nation’s great, it saw also the passing of a great river and concurrently the eclipse of its own day in the sun. The incredible wheel of time turning ever so slowly, yet surely.