Fox River Floods

old dam built by state of Illinois                                                 Old dam built by State of Illinois

Although the records are not complete it seems to be pretty well established that there have been great floods on the Fox River in 1849, 1857, 1872, 1882 and 1902. Of all the floods, however, the one of 1857 seems to have been the most pronounced. Heavy rain on February 6, 1857, melted the accumulated snow and broke up the ice. All the bridges from Batavia to Ottawa were washed out and several dams upstream gave way.

There seems to have been many more floods in the days of the early settlement of the Fox River valley than in later years, although there were plenty of forested areas then while now there is practically no timber. In the early records frequent mention is found to washing out of dams and bridges year after year. The explanation for this is very likely due to the fact that originally the bridges were low wooden structures and the dams were crude affairs whose main reliance for stability consisted of logs across the channel. These were insecure affairs and high water floated them away. Most of the early bridges were built by private subscription and at great sacrifice of time and money to the pioneer settlers. Often they were no sooner erected than a freshet would wash them away.

Pioneers looking for homesteads were impressed by the beauties of the valley, the abundance of clear water supplied by the river and the opportunities for securing water power from this stream. One of the first thoughts of the early settler was to start a saw or grist mill, the former to cut timber for buildings for family and cattle, and the latter in order to feed both himself and his stock. Otherwise, long journeys over trackless forest and prairie were required before the early family could have flour or meal. The history of the early settlements in the Fox River valley shows that practically the first thing done in every case, after building a house, was to build a dam and put up a water-wheel-driven mill. These dams were very crude timber structures, built of logs and slabs, and generally washed out or were seriously damaged by high water.

The first dam at Dayton was built in 1830 by John Green and was erected to furnish power for a grist-mill. It is claimed that this mill was the first one in the State to be operated by water power.

The second dam built by the State in 1839 was about fourteen feet high and was constructed of stone with a wooden crest. This dam was built to divert water to the feeder of the Illinois and Michigan canal. The head of the feeder was located about half a mile north of Dayton, where the State constructed the dam. In addition to its use as a feeder for the Illinois and Michigan Canal, a reservation was made between the Canal Commissioners and the owners of the mill property at Dayton that the latter were to have the use of one-fourth the supply created by the improvement, “the same shall be drawn out of said feeder within seven-eighths of a mile from the head of the guard lock” under direction of the Canal Commissioners. This gave the required power for manufacturing interests, but with the passing of the dam and power in 1902 when the dam washed out yet again, all manufacturing in Dayton was abandoned.


From the State of Illinois Rivers and Lakes Commission, Report of Survey and Proposed Improvement of the Fox River, 1915

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