History of the Fox River at Dayton

The power house at Dayton – 1925

In 1915, the State of Illinois conducted a survey of the Fox River and proposed improvements. The report traced a history of the state of the Fox River from the 1830s to the present day (1915). Much information was presented on flooding and how it affected the many structures along the length of the river. The following excerpts from the report give a look at the river at Dayton and the place’s suitability for a hydro-electric plant. Following this report, the state built a dam and power house at Dayton in 1925. 

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

p. 48: 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.

p. 48-9: 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.

p. 50: 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.

p. 57: The Fox River valley was settled by the white race from 1839 to 1850. 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.

p. 62: Of the abandoned water-power sites, that at Dayton would naturally have a greater interest than the ordinary on account of its use in diverting the water from the river to the feeder of the Illinois and Michigan canal, which connected the canal proper at Ottawa. The head of the feeder was located about half a mile north of Dayton, where the State constructed the dam. Edward B. Talcott, resident engineer, in his report of December 10, 1840, referring to the Fox River dam, lock and section of the feeder, says this work was finished in September, 1839. This improvement was maintained until 1902 when the dam was washed out, since which time the feeder has been abandoned, as well as other interests dependent on this water power. 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 all else was abandoned, as shown by the large four-story building stripped of all machinery.

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. It developed about 2,000 horse-power, part of which was distributed —
120 horse-power to paper mills
40 horse-power to tannery
34 horse power to tile factory
120 horse-power to grist mill
40 horse-power to collar factory
120 horse-power to brick factory
474 horse-power

One-fourth of the power was to be used on the east bank of the river and one-half the total developed power was to be used in Ottawa. The present stone mill building was built in 1864 by Jesse Green, at a cost of $65,000, and was operated as a woolen mill until 1882, when it was sold to a pressed brick company, who operated it until 1901, when financial reverses caused the owners to close the mill.

p. 66: Mr. R. S. Feurtado, of Chicago, made a report in 1910 on the proposed hydro-electric development of the Fox River near Dayton and Wedron. This report is in considerable detail and has gone into the question of power development at these two locations thoroughly. The minimum flow of the river is taken at 620 second-feet, but by building dams across Indian and Somonauk Creeks and holding the flood waters in the reservoirs thus created and discharging same into the Fox, a minimum flow of 933 second feet is obtained. On this basis the river alone at Dayton, with a 31-foot head, would furnish 1,740 horse-power constantly. With the two reservoirs proposed and the mill pond at Wedron to add additional water during the periods of low water, Mr. Feurtado estimated the total installation at the Dayton power house would be 6,220 horse-power.

p. 67: In this proposed development it was intended to build a 19-foot dam near Dayton that would create a pond of 209½ acres and have a capacity of 80,864,000cubic feet. The Wedron mill pond would have an area of 950 acres, that at Indian Creek would have 680 acres, and that at Somonauk Creek would have 550 acres area. This would make a total reservoir of 2,370 acres.
By reference to the profile of the Fox River it will be seen that there is a sharp drop in the river bed just above Dayton, giving a large head for a dam located at the foot of this slope. Near Wedron the river bed flattens out, giving a better storage location. This, combined with the fact that Indian Creek and Somonauk Creek valleys form natural reservoir basins, tends to make this an exceptional location for power development. Owing to these natural advantages and also that there is a good district surrounding Dayton for marketing electrical power, all contribute to make this one of the best locations for the development of a hydro-electric plant in this part of the State.

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