Grand Kankakee Marsh duck hunt with live decoys. [Credit: https://www.pinterest.com/larrycrouch/momencegrand-kankakee-marsh]
THE GRAND MARSH, KANKAKEE RIVER, INDIANA
I don’t suppose there were ever any better duck resorts out of doors for the sportsmen of Chicago than the Fox Lake Chain of Lakes, located about 50 miles north of Chicago; the Calumet lakes, just south of Chicago; the “Illinois Bottoms,” especially at Bureau County and Senachwine Lake, which spanned the Putnam-Marshall County line along the Illinois River, and the Kankakee’s Grand Marsh in Indiana. The Kankakee Marsh along with the Illinois River furnished the highways of all the large flights east of the Mississippi River, with the exception of the coast.
The swamps and marshes of the Kankakee River—called the “Grand Marsh”—stretched across northwestern Indiana from western St. Joseph County into Illinois. The Kankakee River had its course near South Bend, and flowed in a southwesterly direction parallel to, and about 35 miles south of Lake Michigan. It was the dividing line between Laporte and Starke, Porter and Jasper, and Lake and Newton Counties in Indiana. It crossed the line of the state into Kankakee County, Illinois, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago, where it joined with the Des Plaines River, with the two forming the Illinois River near Au Sable, Grundy County, Illinois.
The Grand Marsh was a maze of multiple marshes interspersed with sinuous sandy ridges of higher and drier land. The wild rice and smartweed within were the scenes of countless geese and ducks and other wildfowl, which found there their ideal harvest by day, and in the neighboring swamp their haven by night. In its course along Starke and Laporte Counties, the country was low and marshy; marshes running back in places for two and three miles. These marshes were covered with a rank growth of wild rice, affording fine feeding grounds for waterfowl. This region was long known to the sportsmen for as fine waterfowl shooting as could be found in the country.
This marsh, with a moniker of “Everglades of the North,” at its greatest extent covered more than 500,000 acres of land at a depth of 3-4 feet. However, there were really two sections of the marsh: the “upper marsh” of some 600,000 acres that was usually but not permanently flooded and the “lower marsh,” or Grand Marsh, of about 400,000 acres, which remained flooded throughout the year and was spread out over sections of eight different counties. At the lower marsh, from the prowl of a boat, one could see for ten miles south a level green stretch of water vegetation interrupted only by an occasional upland oak grove on a sandy knoll or ridge, or by a cluster of closely set pin oaks rising out of the water. Here where the ducks bred and here in the fall and especially in the spring when the freshets came, the marsh was full of market hunters and guides with their sportsmen in push boats about 14 feet long and 22 inches broad, using not oars but a push pole, and the song of the shotgun was heard everywhere.
Within the marsh were three lakes: the very large Beaver Lake and two smaller lakes, Mud and English, the former was a widening of the Kankakee River but it had only a slight current so it was really a swamp that varied in size from year to year and filled with thousands of acres of wild rice and other aquatic plants alternating with open water and mud flats. Beaver Lake, as did English Lake, offered not only great duck shooting but also great shooting of the erratic wayfaring snipe. Together, with the marshes, it was a million acres of fish and wildlife paradise. It was North American equivalent of the African Serengeti.
The Kankakee River itself was 240 miles long, but it tortuous turnings and twistings fit into 75 linear miles. Only the Everglades and the Great Dismal Marsh of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina rivaled the Kankakee Marsh in size and complexity. In the olden days, for the market hunters of the Illinois country and beyond, Momence on the Kankakee River was the gateway to the Grand Marsh. As winter progressed, the market hunters followed the Kankakee southward where it joined up with the Des Plaines before emptying into the Illinois River.
Soon after the French explorers passed along the Kankakee, the white hunters, trappers, and traders began to arrive, the land still in the hands of Indians. They lived a life similar to that of the Pottawatomi Indians, spending the winter months harvesting some of the tens of thousands of waterfowl and other game birds along with trapping furbearing animals that inhabited the Grand Marsh.
Gurdon Hubbard, an American fur trader, worked at a winter fur-trading post at present-day Watseka. Speaking of Beaver Lake in 1827, he said, “One cold day in March 1827, I went to Beaver Creek Lake for a hunt. This was a part of the great Kankakee marsh, and geese, ducks, and swans were very abundant.”
Following the trappers and fur trader, frontier settlers began to arrive during the early part of the 1800s. Though deprived of any near source of supplies, they found no difficulty in finding support for themselves. A family brought with them a limited supply of flour, coffee, tea, and sugar. With this stock as a basis, a settler was able to furnish his family with all they needed. Deer were found in great abundance, as well as almost all other kinds of game, such as prairie chickens, plovers, snipe, yellowlegs, woodcock, geese, brant, ducks—in fact, in that early day this part of the country was a perfect Indian and hunter’s paradise. The French settlers called it “Qnin-que-que,” from which the corruption to Kankakee was only natural.
By the mid-1800s, a different breed of individuals were arriving and they wanted to exploit the land, coming as far away as New York by stage coach. Many wanted to drain the swamps and marshes for stock and grain farming and for logging. The railroads would facilitate this movement and also open up the once secluded frontier empire of “fur, fowl, and fin” to the market hunters and sportsmen of distant cities as well as of communities near by. At the Davis Station in Starke County, much of the station traffic was made up of hunters and fishermen and the produce of the Kankakee marsh of uncounted number of ducks, geese, frogs, muskrats, fish etc. were shipped out from this one station.
The idea of repurposing the swamp and marsh dates back to LaSalle, the explorer. In 1683, he wrote, “The land is excellent. It seems only to be waiting cultivation.” About 1853, the first effort was made to drain the lake by cutting a ditch from the northwest part of the marsh to the Kankakee River, but it had little effect and the wetlands withstood their uncoordinated efforts, as the ditching was done by hand with shovel and slip scrapers pulled by livestock. However, this first ditch carried off enough water to cause the shore line to recede about a hundred yards—in other words, it reclaimed a very narrow strip all around the lake.
In the waters of Beaver Lake, there were wild rice for the ducks and “sub-aqueous celery,” sometimes known as “swan celery. ” This was a favorite repast and the swans pulled it up from the bottom with their bills. On Bogus Island, an island in Beaver Lake, a settler said, “I have seen a hundred acres of these swans at a time. At a distance, they looked like a white island and would remain in the same locality for a month at a time, feeding on the water celery. They would then pair off and locate a nesting place in the swamps.” Also located within Beaver Lake and directly east of Bogus Island was Squawk Island named for the squawking of the geese and ducks that stayed on the island.
Just after the Civil War, Chicago sportsmen hunted at the Fox Lake Chain of Lakes and Lake Calumet and its nearby lakes, and these two districts attracted a heavy traffic of hunters. A description of opening day, September 15, 1892, on Fox Lake, and written by Emerson Hough appeared in Forest and Stream in 1892: “The whole cover about Fox Lake was so full of guns that it was actually unsafe. There were dozens, almost hundreds of shooters, and no one got any ducks. One man worked all day and did not get a bird, another got two ducks, and said that he saw no one with more than that.” Regarding Lake Calumet, a hunter, whose sobriquet was “Blue Wing,” published his “Recollections of Calumet” in 1884: “In the days gone by, Calumet was perhaps the finest duck marsh in the Northwest, and I have often heard my mother tell of her father hunting at Calumet forty years ago. What a glorious place it must have been then! I think I can say now that its days are numbered; a year or two longer and the ducks will know it no more, as it is about surrounded with towns, railroads and mills.”
Once Fox Lake and Lake Calumet and its adjoining lakes were on the decline by the early 1880s—crowded out and shot out by sportsmen and market hunters—more Chicago sportsmen turned their attention to the unbelievable number of waterfowl on the Kankakee Marsh, as the railroads were also bringing in sportsmen from more distant cities than Chicago. This gave the settlers a chance to make more money by hosting and guiding some of these sportsmen. As the railroad brought in more hunters, it also moved more game to Chicago and New York much quicker than the old way by wagon. Word spread quickly everywhere, even reaching the east coast that the Grand Marsh was a hunter’s paradise. Hunting clubs soon followed.
An article in the Outdoorsman by Bob Becker provided facts about wildlife along the Kankakee River. The information was based on a letter from Ed W. Irwin, of Chautauquaa, New York, who moved to Hebron, Indiana in October 1869 for the purpose of hunting with a muzzleloader in the Kankakee marshes. Irwin’s letter tells of seeing local market hunters getting game ready for shipments to Chicago: “That morning of 1869, the shipment consisted of five deer, 467 large ducks, 392 small ducks, 22 geese, and 16 brant. The station agent reported that Beaubein and Sargent, Hebron, Indiana market hunters, shipped similar amounts of game always twice a week and sometimes three times a week to game merchants Joyce and Cunningham in Chicago. They devoted their attention to bigger birds, shooting three boat loads of geese and brant in just one hour. The birds were so plentiful that the men used no blinds, but merely shot from the tops of muskrat houses.” The two market hunter used muzzleloading, double barreled shotguns and could load them very rapidly. In an hour’s time, they had their three boats loaded with geese and made their way back to camp. Irwin did not know how many there were but they made the biggest pile of geese he had ever seen together at one times.
For Irwin, at Hog Marsh, near Red Oak camp, he hunted one afternoon in a timber hole with his muzzleloader, having 300 shells. When within about 75 yards of the hole, with a mighty rush and roar, more than a thousand mallards rose in the air. And still they came, out of the hole and out of the timber on all sides. He did not attempt to shoot, but stood quiet until the last bird disappeared. Then he shoved into the pond as fast as he could. The ducks began to return in small bunches. They took a short circle before relighting, and he would kill the two that came in line with the first barrel. When his gun barrels became too hot to hold, he would dip them in the water. Irwin knew he had been in some close corners before, but never anything as fast as this. He could not reload quick enough. His three hundred shells were gone before he realized it. Pulling the boat back into the pool, he commenced gathering up the birds. All of them had been killed within a distance of thirty-five yards, and every bird lay just where it struck the water. When the job was completed, he had twenty-two bunches of six each, and one bunch of four, making one hundred and thirty-six ducks. It would be his last hunt on the Kankakee.
As a 16-year-old in 1869, Joseph A. Engle of Pulaski County took up the trade of market hunting along the Kankakee River. According to his biographer, geese, ducks, prairie chickens, snipe, and plover, in fact game birds of all kinds, were so numerous everywhere that market hunters killed them in very large quantities. Once a party of four, while hunting on the Kankakee marshes, killed 500 birds in one week. Four men could easily kill 100 ducks in a day in the marshes.
During the 1870s, waterfowling was a cash crop for market hunters. One dozen fine mallards brought $1.00 to $1.75 in the Chicago market. Often ducks and geese were slaughtered by the thousands merely for their feathers. Every settler slept in huge feather beds and fluffy pillows filled with the choicest of feathers. Swans were not sold for meat but for their feathers and “swan’s down.” So ducks, geese, and swans were a valuable natural resource for such scarce commodities as down for bedclothes, grease for medicines, and goose quills for writing pens.
Some of the sportsmen reasoned that waterfowling could continue only if its use was restricted. Before the clubs were established, there was continuous hunting pressure in the marsh, mostly by market hunters. By forming clubs, the members felt it was a way to to preserve birds, or at least delay their demise, by managing the marsh restrictively.
In 1872, the Cumberland Lodge Farm, on School Grove Island, attracted hunters to the Kankakee Region. It was also known as Langham Island, a beautiful timbered island that did not overflow. Monroe Heath and W.F. Milligan, of Chicago, bought land on the island. They, with eight other Chicago gentlemen, built a hunter’s home in the grove in the fall of 1869. Hunting parties came from Chicago and other cities. Their game was mostly ducks, geese, and “brants.” The eight members, in a few days, in 1869, shot 66 snipes and 513 ducks. On another day, four of them shot 50 snipes and 515 ducks. A sportsman named G.M. Shaver alone killed 1,100 ducks, besides other wildfowl.
This was the beginning of the heyday of the waterfowling clubs. Several clubs were then located near Baum’s Bridge in Northwest Indiana. Other hunting clubs and lodges that catered to a stream of wealthy visitors were: Mac Saw Ba Club, Nickel Plate Club, Ben Hur Landing, Camp Milligan Cumberland Lodge, Valley Hunt Club/White House Hunt Club, Rockville, Terre Haute and Indianapolis Club, Diana Club, Fogli Hotel, Alpine Hunt and Sports Club, North Eastern Hunting and Fishing Club, Louisville Club House, Pittsburgh Gun Club, White Oaks Shooting Club, Alhgrims Park, and the Grand Colliers Lodge.
In 1872, at the Pittsburg Gun Club, members and their guests got a total of 689 ducks as well as many other birds. Henry Brown and Frank Collins went duck hunting one day on Goose Lake and shot 165 ducks. Brown had to go home and get a spring wagon to haul the birds. He used a double-barreled muzzleloader.
Spring was heralded by the arrival of geese and ducks along the Kankakee Marsh. Early in the mornings of the first soft days of March, their cries and calls made a medley of noises that could not be described. It was a “Halleluiah of the Birds,” not very musical but extremely pleasant to the ears of sportsmen and market hunters. Wild geese, swans, and ducks would rise like clouds and their clamor heard for three miles as they rose from the marsh. Thousands and thousands of jet-fast teal would flirt by and how they kept from hitting each other is a mystery and one of the secrets of wildlife. The term thousands, or hundreds of thousands, failed to adequately express the idea of unlimited numbers of waterfowl so the waterfowl were sometimes counted as numbers of acres instead of just a number.
For the spring migration, ducks generally began to arrive around the middle of February, or as early as February 1. Mallards and pintails were first to arrive, followed by teal and bluebills, then spoonbills, and finally the wood ducks, which came about the middle of March. An old market hunter said, “Sand Hill cranes and brant were plentiful in early spring, and later came the jacksnipe, plover, and the Virginia rail to stay till the water seeped through the sand on the higher marshes, where the prairie chicken could be heard calling at break of day.” At times, there were so many sandhill cranes that they looked like flocks of sheep on a prairie.
Some of the best shooting was in the spring when the ice was breaking up, or had run out of the river. Of course, everybody shot in the spring in the olden days. No one ever had a thought that the myriads of waterfowl that passed their way in the spring and fall would ever be fewer in numbers, for they were there in countless thousands.
Sandy Illicott, a well-known pusher who lived near the Kankakee, described the area as it was being disturbed by one of the fall fires in the Grand Kankakee Marsh in the late 1800s:
And the birds were everywhere, a darkening cloud, jostling each other in mid-air or settling in the reeds for a brief stay and then rising again in mad haste, teal and plump little butter-balls and mallards and swift spirit ducks and wild geese and an occasional swan and bitterns and herons and cranes sailing on ponderous wings; and now and then, a resplendent throng of snowy egret and hawks of every size and species and the osprey and the eagle; and borne along by the feathered tide, thousands and tens of thousands of little birds.
By the 1880s, the Kankakee was the best duck-hunting region on earth. Wild geese, cranes, and the whole list of the varieties of ducks were found there, and shot in great numbers, and were still there in scarcely diminished profusion. The principal varieties found here were the mallard, blue wing teal, widgeon, wood duck, spoonbill, and pintails. As it had by this time become a hunter’s paradise, sportsmen’s clubs were common along the Kankakee. Hunters traveled from around the nation to shoot waterfowl in the marsh, located along the eastern branch of the Mississippi Flyway. European nobility considered it an excellent hunting ground as royalty from all over the world came to the Kankakee Marsh to hunt waterfowl at the end of the 1800s. At that time, the number of ducks killed annually by hunters exceeded 250,000 birds. One man alone reportedly shot 2,300 birds in a single year, and it was common for a amateur sportsman to shoot 50 ducks in a day. In addition, there was plenty of small game and as good fishing as any one could ask for.
The clubhouses were scattered along the river banks from Riverside to Aurora, and sportsmen from all over the land came there in the fall to hunt waterfowl. Clubs, with members from New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Boston, had their own shooting boxes. Here Presidents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt and Civil War General Lew Wallace came to hunt, leaving Indianapolis several times a year on a hunt. Wallace became a member of the Crawfordsville Club House at Baum’s Bridge. President Harrison lived at Indianapolis and frequented the Kankakee when he could to duck hunt.
About 320 market hunters made a business of hunting on the Kankakee marsh, poling their way into the swamps with barrels of gunpowder and shot, bagging an average of 200 ducks each, shipping trainloads of ducks and geese to Chicago and New York. This would give 64,000 for a season. That this was not by any means an over-estimate was easily believed when it was known that two men had killed and bagged 280 ducks in a single day, and one man had killed 2,300 in a single season.
In 1882, Indiana’s chief engineer recommended draining the marsh entirely. However, late in the 1880s, the pristine surroundings of the lake remained practically unchanged. Most outsiders who came to hunt acknowledged that the waterfowl shooting around the Chesapeake district did not compare with that along the Kankakee. Beaver Lake in Newton County, Indiana, in the southern portion of the marsh, contained about 36,000 acres of water and marsh. Even into the late nineteenth century, its waters were completely covered with waterfowl at times during their migration. From the years 1850 to a point of time as late as 1885, the Beaver Lake region was a perfect mecca for hunters, some coming from as far east as New York City. Others came from Louisville, Nashville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Boston, and other large cities in the west and south.
In 1885, at the English Lake Shooting and Hunting Club, Jesse Cummings, a member of the English Lake Shooting and Fishing Club, with John Taylor as pusher, took out 128 shells, and brought back 93 mallards by two p.m. In this case, the boat was level full of ducks, and sat so low in the water that only the combing of the deck stood out. Moreover, the year of 1886 was considered their best year since its organization, while 1880 was it worst.
For the spring of 1889 at the 5,000-acre Cumberland Club, on March 30, member W.W. McFarland telegramed other members, “If any of the boys ask about shooting, tell them there is good shooting here. C.D. Gammon and I have in three days killed 350 ducks, 21 geese, 2 sandhills, and a lot of jacksnipe.” On another day, McFarland, Gammon, a Mr. Wolfred, N. Low, and one other shooter killed over 150 ducks on Cumberland Marsh. For the spring season, Martin Discoll, caretaker of the Cumberland Club, reported that W.W. McFarland and C.D. Gammon shot a total of 749 ducks, 22 geese, and two cranes; Henry Stephens, 132; G.T. Farmer, 146 ducks; H.D. Nichols, 17 ducks, three geese; Emerson Hough, 45 ducks; G.M. Davis, 23 ducks, two geese and one swan. On March 27, Gammon and McFarland shipped 200 ducks and a number of geese. Only 150 snipe were shot that spring.
In that same year, shooting on a smartweed flat in the timber of Little Yellow River, Charles Willard, a member in 1889, killed 100 mallards in half a day. It was said that the birds came in so hot and heavy that Baker, Willard’s pusher, killed three with his paddle. The barrels of Willard’s gun became so hot that he could not hold it. On the following day, Abner Price, another member, killed 52 mallards at the same location. Price also killed 115 “ringbills” in one day of shooting on the marsh.
By 1890, the glory of the Kankakee Marsh region as a duck-shooting district began gradually fading and was quickly passing away, according to many sportsmen. Several years after 1890, the clubhouses were falling into decay, and noted and distinguished sportsmen had sought greener pastures. The reasons for the change were many. The game laws of Indiana did not furnish proper protection from market hunters who supplied the game markets, keeping up such an incessant banging that game was slaughtered needlessly. The night shooting of ducks caused the birds to change their flight, and for every bird there in 1890 there were 1,000 ten years previous.
Then railroads were run through the marsh in every direction. Formerly, a sportsman could spend a day in the marshes without running against a railroad track, but they were later found every five miles. Besides these causes, a great deal of the old marshland had been drained and reclaimed and the game territory was not so extensive as of yesteryears. A sportsman remarked in 1890, “It will only be a matter of a few years before the Kankakee ceases to be famed as an area dear to us. There is enough material yet for fair sport, but the ducks in their southern flight never gave the district so wide a berth as they have given it this fall.”
The younger generation had heard the old timers recall the mighty rush of wings as clouds of ducks rose before the guns of the market hunters, listened to their description of creaking wagons hauling hundreds of waterfowl into the railroad towns, and pictured through their memory the flat-bottom boats that sometimes sank under loads of waterfowl and the hunter. They heard the old timers tell of the last great spring shooting season during the last two weeks of March in 1902. The old timers had not seen anything like it for the past 20 years. Express wagon loads of mallards and pintails were hauled out of the Kankakee. After the spring flight of ducks had left for their northern breeding grounds, the snipe arrived in unbelievable numbers to these famous snipe grounds when the grass on the black mud flats was showing green and large and luxurious earthworms abounded.
They had heard of Hosey Barnes, for anyone who hunted on the Kankakee had heard the name of Hosey Barnes, a market hunter. Until old age came upon him, with its attending infirmities, he was the mighty hunter of that famous river. He settled on its erratic banks somewhere in the 1840s, and ever since he saw its sluggish current slip by his door. He built his house a few miles east of English Lake, as the ducks flew, but many miles by the river. He knew every kink and turn of the river for many miles, and every slough where the ducks came to roost, and could pilot the hunter through the cane by night or day with unerring instinct. The hunting season was his harvest, and he made it so agreeable that his hospitable house became the Mecca toward which the eyes of many sportsmen annually turned. Fortunate was he who could get Hosey’s individual services; he was sure of a large bag of waterfowl. He was known far and wide as “Hosey,” and if one said he was going to Hosey’s, it conveyed as clear an idea of destination as if he had said he was going to Indianapolis or Cincinnati. He welcomed all waterfowlers alike, making no exceptions; he made them feel at home and gave much of his time to their personal wants. His domicile was ten miles from the nearest railroad station and two miles from the nearest neighbor in 1893. As years took its toll on Hosey and the river, he remarked in 1893, “It is all passing away, hunters and hunting alike. The river will be drained, and then the cane will be turned into corn, and the kingly mallard, looking to the right and left, will seek in vain for a roosting place. Fortunate are those who can say they were on the Kankakee in the balmy days of duck hunting, when every day was a ‘red-letter day.’ They have a priceless store of memories against the time when men are said to live over again their early lives.”
They had read the writing of John Sink, a resident of Newton County, in the Newton County Enterprise, who wrote in 1901, “To hear the early settlers tell of the game seen in those days sounds like fiction, but the largest bird killing story is that of W. and Isaac Knight killing 140 swans one afternoon in Black Marsh, and of the latter killing 24 mallard ducks at one shot, and quite a number that were winged escaped in the tall grass.”
Around 1893, a cut was made by blasting through the Momence outcropping of bedrock to facilitate drainage of the Grand Marsh. The cut was 8,649 feet long, 300 feet wide, and approximately 2.5 feet deep. The Momence cut was a major impetus in converting the Grand Marsh into arable land.
The great mallard holes, which the Kankakee once held in the hollow of its arms, became dry and dusty. Every year, the shooters kicked up dust in walking over what at one time was the best of waterfowling grounds. Occasionally, the old Kankakee went back to the customs of other days, when the floods came over the land again and the ditches were futile. Where the year previously there were tons of hay standing, when the floods came the rails and snipe flew and the ducks and geese were not far behind. One year of flooding ate up a dozen years of drought and ditching. Then the marsh crept and crawled and grasped for itself strongly, always thinking of the past it once knew and cherished. The native said, “The old river is claiming her own again isn’t she?” Something like a gleam of satisfaction and triumph crossed his bronzed face as he said slowly, “She holds her own.”
However, the time was reached when the Kankakee was whipped, beaten, defeated, and subdued. A shallow, trivial stream, a mockery of its former self, it hurried on through the wide realm which was once its own as though glad to leave the scene of its departed greatness.
In was in May 1905 that the Department of Agriculture in Washington began what its experts said was one of the greatest engineering feats in drainage ever attempted in the United States. For years, efforts had been made by the states of Indiana and Illinois and by private individuals to interest the U.S. government in the project of drainage. In conjunction with Purdue University who had been working in this field for several years, James Wilson, Secretary of Agriculture, had determined to go to work on the swamp to see what drainage could be done for it.
By 1910, most of the water had been drained and little of the marsh remained. By then, it was only a memory. Its waters, at one time, alive with beaver, muskrats, otter, ducks, geese, swans, and every species of fish known to the interior streams of the region, had been replaced by fields of grain and vegetables, orchards and stretches of greensward, herds and droves of livestock and modern farms. After the drainage of the Kankakee Marsh, the waterfowl migratory pattern shifted from Indiana to Illinois and Iowa.
Oh, to witness the fall migration at the Grand Marsh. The flight of the vast hordes of ducks in their fall migration to the south was an impressive spectacle. Once the weather forced them southward, for several days prior to this great event, ducks and geese would gather in the open spaces of water. Ever so often, there would be a terrific upheaval in the gathering with thousands taking wing and mounting high while swinging in a mighty circle before aligning as a unit in a vast phalanx getting ready to be on the move southward. It not only attracted huge flights of ducks, geese, and swan, but it was, also, the home primeval of the picturesque sandhill crane. They frequented this section literally by the thousands.
Before the destructive blight of so-called civilization had fallen upon the land, many and many were the nights that those who lived near the marsh lain awake in their houses, unable to sleep from the incessant squawking “cac, cac, cac” of the mallard ducks mingled with the wild, strident “honk” of geese and the “clicking” of the sandhill cranes, belated travelers of the night who sought a resting spot in this wilderness hostelry. To hear the echo of the deafening clamor of all this wildlife in one’s ears, to sense the beating of thousands of wings in the air, to envision the gray-white bodies and yellow legs of these mighty hosts all set up to drop into the open water spaces among the rushes, wild celery, and wild rice, oh, that was living to those educated with a PhD in woodcraft. It was the greatest place for waterfowl that many had ever seen. The ducks, geese, swans, cranes, snipes, and other fowl were continually passing this place both spring and fall. It seemed to many to be their only thoroughfare.
Nevertheless, tragedy was stalking this vast marsh, where, from time immemorial, had dwelt the feathered legions of the wild and been the abodes to hunters, trappers, and fishermen. It is not easy for those who drive along the public highways of the present time to imagine how this region looked to the pioneers before huge dredges pushed their way through the marsh mile after mile, straightening and deepening the old river bed until the old marsh was lost, not quickly but one ditch at a time.
Vast expanses of the marsh became highways of white farm houses, fenced with fields of surrounding corn, where formerly the boats of hunters and fishermen plied. Everywhere one looked, eyes rested upon huge dredge ditches that told of the demise of the heart blood of old Beaver Lake and other lakes, which had been drained to the last drop.
To the later generations, the hunters, trappers, and fishermen would exclaim with righteous indignation at the transformation which this ancient picturesque stream had undergone. By 1917, the “reclaiming”’ of the Grand Kankakee Marsh was complete, the improved drainage affected 400,000 acres of swamp and 600,000 acres of marginal land.
We murdered this marsh and did a good job of it, with the destruction of one of the most valuable waterfowl refuges on the continent for the sake of immediate wealth. In fact, it was the last migratory waterfowl refuge in Indiana. There was never anything like it and there never will be.
For centuries, this great marsh was a resort for waterfowl of every species. Indian and white man used its reedy waters as a hunting ground, and few dreamed it would ever be other than a sportsman’s paradise, where waterfowl would reward his skill with gun.
Once transformed, the once original zigzagging, meandering Kankakee River was no more, the Grand Marsh dredged, ditched, and drained went dry; the nestling grounds of the wild, migratory hordes of the upper air came no more. The wildlife left. It is now silent.
And the hunting lodges became shuttered as the huntsmen became as rare as the game they sought. In these regions are now happy homes, and cities border the stream; the erstwhile crystal waters of the Kankakee River are now a dream.
The days of the twenty-first century will never hold anything comparable to the plenteous days of the old Kankakee Marsh in her prime. At no time or by any people can it ever be known again. Only by those in whose minds it remains a haunting memory can its awful gravity be understood, and if they tried to explain it all they could never make anyone understand. The marsh calls us, if we will listen, to use our ingenuity to raise it above the curse of its depravity, its ineffectualness, and its uselessness to its former self.
Today, less than 10% of the original Kankakee Marsh in Indiana remains as efforts by the Indiana Kankakee Valley Historical Society, the Izaak Walton League, and others hope to restore parts of the marsh for wildlife. A few geographic landmarks remain: the abandoned Louisville Clubhouse near Baum’s Bridge, where stands the historically famous relict houseboat of Lewis Wallace of Ben Hur fame; the Diana Club House near Thayer, the Alpine Clubhouse near English Lake, and the Cumberland Lodge in southern Lake County.
There are those who say, “I am convinced that the Kankakee can come back again and be the greatest wildlife refuge in North America,” but many believe that it is a hunter’s paradise lost. An old-timer said: “Potentially the old Grand Marsh is still there, patiently awaiting the day of restoration. Sooner or later, Mother Nature is going to win.”