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.

A President’s Visit to Dayton

Martin Van Buren

From the Streator Free Press, 24 May 1884:

Speaking of the fine fishing at Dayton, Judge Dickey this morning told an interesting reminiscence of President Martin Van Buren’s visit to Ottawa in 1841. It was just after his defeat by Harrison, and he came here to spend a few days for relaxation. He stopped at the Fox River House and stayed ten days. With him was Spaulding, his secretary of the navy, and a celebrated novelist. Van Buren was the most polished of politicians, an uncle of J. V. A. Hoes, while Spaulding was a blunt, plain spoken man who wanted no nonsense. It was arranged for the party to go fishing at Dayton, and a procession of about 150 men on horseback piloted the distinguished party. At Dayton Col. John Green, a big democrat and friend of the party, had a big crowd assembled, and a little cannon was posted on the hill and fired a rattling salute, so much so that it nearly scared the horses to death. This made Spaulding mad, and he got madder and madder as the boss idiot at the gun kept it booming until Spaulding’s horse careered wildly. Finally the distinguished visitor could contain himself no longer and cried out that if somebody didn’t stop that infernal idiot he would go down and lick him himself. Of course the party caught no fish, and they attributed it to the fact that the secretary of the navy swore so at the gunner.

1952: The Fox River Was Acting Up Again

 

Ice up to the floor of the bridge

ARMY ASKED TO USE DYNAMITE ON ICE GORGE AT DAYTON DAM1
Bridge Endangered as River Continues Rise
Families Flee as Water Enters Homes
Power Plant is Shut Down

BULLETIN!

Kenneth Short, superintendent of construction of the Illinois Division of Waterways, arrived at Dayton today to make a survey of the flood situation. He informed State Rep. J. Ward Smith this afternoon he would confer immediately with other engineers on the advisability of using dynamite or some other method to break the ice gorge.

The flood situation at Dayton, caused by a huge ice gorge in the Fox River, was described as very serious today, and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers was asked to consider the matter of dynamiting the jammed slush ice.

The ice gorge went down slightly last night at 8, then rose again today, and water flowed over the road at the east side of the bridge below the dam. Ice reached the floor of the bridge, which is in danger of being washed out or badly damaged due to the intense pressure against it. At 9:30 today the water had risen to the top of the dam, above the floor of the bridge and the power plant of the North Counties Hydro-Electric Company was put out of commission.

Water completely surrounded several of the numerous cottages on the east bank of the river, both above and below the bridge. Basements of some of the homes were flooded and water had risen above the ground level floors of others. Many of the families moved out their furniture as the water continued to rise.

Move Furniture

At the Frank Kossow Jr., home water was over the floor and half way to the windows. Furniture from this house was moved last night to the nearby home of Frank Kossow Sr., which was on higher ground. This morning the water had reached the front steps of the latter’s home and had entered the basement. Mrs. Frank Kossow Jr., and her two sons, 5 and 3 years old, have gone to Peru to reside temporarily with her mother until the flood danger is over. Her husband was called back from Chicago where he was attending a convention. Frank Kossow Sr. is vacationing in Florida.

The H. T. Mossbarger house south of the road leading to the bridge was completely surrounded, and water threatened to enter the house. The Mossbargers, who have an 8-year-old son, piled up their furniture to protect it from damage and moved out last night.

North of the road an unoccupied summer cottage owned by George Farnsworth, county engineer, was moved from its foundation, and was tilted at an angle. The water there was nearly to the windows. The Harlan Kossow home also was surrounded by water, which at 10 today was within a foot of the floor.

Auto Submerged

An automobile owned by Ted Mathews in the yard near his home was almost completely submerged.

Water was up to the front door of the Larry Marta home. Marta is at Ft. Benning, Ga., attending a National Guard training school. His wife and their four-month-old baby moved out last night, and are residing temporarily at the home of her husband’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Dom Marta, Illinois Avenue.

The fire in the furnace at the home of Mrs. John Murphy was extinguished as water entered the basement. The family of Roy Murphy moved out as water entered their home. Another home threatened with flood damage was that of Bernard Hackler, who is employed in Ottawa by Scherer’s.

The Clyde Jeffries family left their home as the river continued to rise, and they were unable to return as the roadway leading to the house became submerged to a depth of four feet. This morning water had risen to within seven inches of the floor of the William Campbell home. The Robert Kennedy home was another which was flooded.

There are approximately 15 homes, with about 35 occupants, in the flooded area on the east side of the river.

Damaged in 1943

Robert Kennedy said today that in a similar flood in 1943, caused by an ice gorge, the river rose to about the same height that prevailed this morning. At that time the bridge was moved a couple of inches and cracks were caused in the foundation. The present bridge replaced a steel structure that collapsed in 1940 under the weight of a truck and automobile which were crossing it.

The drop in the level of the ice gorge last night apparently was due to the closing of the gates at the Starved Rock dam, causing a rise in the level of both the Illinois and Fox Rivers, and the subsequent opening of the gates, resulting in sudden dropping of the level. This action was taken at the request of George Farnsworth, county superintendent of highways. Dropping of the level presumably broke open a channel for the gorged Fox River ice. A new pileup of ice, however, in the river cause the water to rise again.

State Rep. J. Ward Smith was contacted by Dayton area residents at 3 a. m. today after the river resumed its rise. Rep. Smith telephoned to Tom Casey, chief engineer of the division of waterways, Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings, and urged his cooperation in coping with the critical situation at Dayton. He also notified state police, who promised their assistance. After conferring with Casey, Rep. Smith notified the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, and asked their assistance. Smith suggested that dynamite be used to open a channel.

H. McGrogan, superintendent of the North Counties Hydro-Electric plant, said this morning that the water was 24-25 feet above normal below the dam, which is 26 feet in height from base to crest. There were two feet of water on the floor of the hydro-electric plant. McGrogan said the water was still slightly below what it was on the occasion of the last gorge, but he predicted it would go higher because of the enormous amount of ice still coming over the dam. He described the bridge situation as serious, due to the tremendous pressure against the structure.


  1. Ottawa Republican-Times, January 30, 1952, p 1

Joel F. Warner – fisherman

large mouth bass

Joel Foster “Faut” Warner was a noted Dayton fisherman and his prowess received notice in the Ottawa newspaper.

May 8, 1886, p. 8, col. 3
Dayton, May 6th. – Fishing is fine here this season, and the game fish are being caught in large quantities. Our old fisherman, F. A. Warner, a short time ago caught one hundred and forty-one bass in one day, and Mr. Lewis Makinson caught seventy-five. Yesterday was a big day and scores of the finny tribe were removed from their watery homes.

May 12, 1888, p. 8, col. 2
J. F. Warner, our fisherman, caught fifty fine bass last Tuesday morning.

He is called Peg in this next item because, in 1877, he lost his left leg. He tried to get on a moving railway train, slipped and had a car wheel run over it. It had to be amputated 4 inches below the knee. He must have had a peg fitted to the stump.

8 Aug 1902, p12, col 4
                          STOLE HIS BOAT AND FISH
          “Peg” Warner of Dayton Comes To Town With a Sorrowful Tale
“Peg” Warner, an old-time fisherman at Dayton, is in the city today and with Chief of Police Westcott is making a search for his boat, fishing tackle and about fifty pounds of catfish stolen from him last night. During the summer months Peg devotes his whole time to fishing, and is kind to campers and people who visit Dayton. The boat which was stolen is a new one, especially designed and built by Peg for his own conveniences in the river. It contained a life box and also a chamber for minnows, and anybody that visited Dayton was always welcome to the use of the boat. He also had some fine reels and fishing tackle, but all were taken. It is hoped that the thief will be captured and if he is, Peg will make him suffer.

Unfortunately, there is no follow up article. I can only hope that Peg was able to get his boat back.

Dayton was a Fishing Mecca

A Trip to Dayton

    Dayton still draws fishermen to the banks of the Fox river to angle for game fish, and most any pleasant day from 30 to 50 persons can be seen between the dam and the town waiting for “a bite.” It was the pleasure of the writer in company with Ed Chapman of Freedom to visit Dayton a few days ago. Those who have been there before will be interested in knowing that Mr. Warner,1 or “old peg leg,” as they call him, is still a familiar figure there. Regardless of his 78 years of age he sits in his boat from morning till night and with a skill that only constant practice can acquire he persuades the elusive bass to “strike” his hook and skurry off in a vain endeavor to shake loose, making the water fairly foam when he happens to be landing a big one. Mr. Warner has fished there for 20 years and everybody knows him. He fishes as a business and makes quite a nice living out of it, each morning visiting his “night lines” and picking up the cat fish that fall a victim to the bait he set for them – then spending the day in silent meditation, contentedly smoking his pipe while the water ripples by him, gently stroking the side of the boat as he makes a “cast” far out to lure in a bass, pickerel or carp.

    One incident of the trip was the sight of a drunken father and three little boys, the youngest not over five who had driven there to fish and who slept in the open air with nothing but some old pieces of blanket for a cover. The reckless actions of the father were such before he sobered up that how one or more of the children escaped drowning was a mystery.

    The old four story stone mill where in war times woolen blankets were turned out by the thousands for the soldier still stands on the river bank near town. Surface coal is still mined as in years gone by, enough to supply most of the little town and sometimes the price is as low as $1.75 per ton. The dam at Dayton is each year repaired by workmen employed by the state. As fishermen stand below it they wonder what would become of them if the old dam would suddenly give way. It has stood there 25 years, but is built in sections and is strong. Those who know the river bottom can wade to almost any part of it and “cast” their line into the deep holes where the fish stay. Sun fish can be caught by hundreds and any body can catch them – they are a lovely little fish too. But the other game fish are harder to lure to the hook and not everybody lands a big string unless the “silver hook” is resorted to. Now Ed says the only way to make a sure thing of getting lots of fish is to have “peg leg” put you onto the best holes in the river and then to have him catch them for you. But we believe that as sure a way as any is to string everything that comes in sight from gars with their sword shaped mouths to “dog fish” that nobody will eat except as a last resort – then weigh in your string and tell how many pounds you caught.

    Though the weather was cold a few good sized game fish were caught and many smaller ones. The little trip was a most enjoyable one and the pleasant quarters we had to stay added much to it. Many from Earlville are planning a trip to Dayton. The fishing should be good from now on.2

  1. Joel F. Warner, Civil War veteran, lost the lower part of his leg in an accident.
  2. Earlville Leader, May 19th, 1899, p. 4

River Rampages

It’s winter again and the Fox River at Dayton has a history of ice jams and floods. In 1960, the river again was jammed with ice, causing flooding, as seen here in the powerhouse.

In addition, the houses along both sides of the river were engulfed by ice,

and the bridge was under pressure.

Here are some of the predecessor events for comparison. 1875, 1943, and 1952

Dayton Had Plenty of Water Power

January 27, 1855, 166 years ago today, the following notice appeared on page 4 of the Ottawa Free Trader.

Water Power To Lease

            The undersigned offer great inducements to capitalists and manufacturers, as they have decidedly the best water power in the state, having over 25 feet head and fall, and situated in Dayton, 4 miles above Ottawa, and drawn from the Fox river Feeder, which is kept in repair by the state, without any cost to the undersigned. They have water to lease for a term of years sufficient to drive 20 run of 4 ½ feet burrs, and will lease on very liberal terms to any good, responsible company.

            This is a rare chance for men of capital who may wish to go into the manufacturing business. The location is very healthy and admirably situated; as it is on a navigable feeder, within 4 miles of the contemplated Rock Island railroad, and the head of steamboat navigation. For further information, address Dayton Jny 31.

                                                                                                            John Green & Sons

When John Green bought the west side of the Fox river at the rapids, he became the owner of one half of the water power the river provided. (The other half belonged to the owner of the east bank of the river.) Green deeded one fourth of the power he owned to William Stadden. Green and Stadden then deeded one half of their water right to the Canal Commissioners for the Illinois-Michigan canal. Therefore, John Green’s share was 1/2 of 3/4 of 1/2 or 3/16 of the power of the river. He then deeded to Jesse and David Green one half of the power owned by him or 3/32 of the whole river. A government survey of the river in 1869 calculated the volume of the river was 40,000 cubic feet per minute at or near the mouth of Indian Creek. 3/32 of 40,000 equals 3750 cubic feet per minute and this is equal to 142 horse power. The use of the best wheels and machinery at the Green mills would equal 114 horse power, so John Green & Sons had excess power to lease.

Frog Hunting and Fishing in the Fox River at Dayton

DAILY EVENTS
Tuesday, June 3, 1890

A sport which is becoming quite popular with Ottawa cigar-makers is frog hunting. George Keim and Morris Flynn captured several dozen of these pet animals at Dayton on Sunday.1

Frogs were not the only sport in the Fox river at Dayton. It was known for the good fishing, attracting people from a wide area. Anglers fished for common snook, redfish, trout, bass, pike, catfish of several species, walleye, and muskellunge.

Our busy little neighbor, Dayton, besides becoming famous for her horse collars, woolen goods, tile and paper, is getting to be quite a popular summer resort. The stream of visitors during the few weeks since the fishing season opened must be enormous, for on every bright day at least the banks of the river are lined with people. As a sample of the size of parties: – Some 25 couples from Streator went up in a special car on Tuesday! Already the campers have begun to put in their appearance, and it is altogether likely that from this time until fall there will be no great diminution in the number of visitors. We should think the citizens would turn this flood of tourists to their advantage; and they certainly could make themselves vastly popular with the people of the Fox River Valley by lending their aid in the suppression of illegal seining in their waters.2

In 1884 a muskellunge was caught at Dayton with a hook and line, that weighed over 32 lbs.! It was over four feet long, and 9 inches across the body.

Fishing is all the rage here now, and a large number of game fish have been caught and carried away during the past two weeks. Good fishermen have caught all the way from 25 to 100 and over of black bass, ranging from one pound to five and six pounds in weight. The river seemed to be full of them and sportsmen are having a jolly time.3

In 1891 it was reported that over 1000 fish were caught at Dayton in a single day.


  1. Ottawa Free Trader, 7 Jun 1890, p. 3, col. 2
  2. Ottawa Free Trader, 27 May 1882, p. 6, col. 1
  3. Ottawa Free Trader, May 12, 1888, p. 8, col. 2

Dam Across Fox River at Dayton

Dam across Fox River at Dayton

The back of this stereoscopic view of the Dayton dam lists a number of other views taken by William E. Bowman, Ottawa photographer. Although (as seen below) he dealt with historic scenes and famous people, he also took many photos of local people and places.

Ottawa’s old time photographer, W. E. Bowman, is now leading a retired life near Los Angeles, Cal. His gallery became famous for his historic faces and scenes. Thousands of eminent men and women have been before his camera, including Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and other Presidents of the United States. He served as postmaster of Ottawa from 1882 to 1886. He was alderman in 1875-6, was the first secretary of the Riverside Driving Park Association, was trustee of the Academy of Natural Sciences, president of the District Union, which was composed of fifty temperance reform clubs, vice-president of the National Photographers’ association, president of the Memorial association, and generally active in all public affairs. Mr. Bowman was born April 28, 1834, at Huntington, Pa., coming to Illinois in 1837, and locating in Boone county. He came to Ottawa in 1865 and resided here until 1910.1

Back of stereo card


1. Ottawa: Old and New (Ottawa, The Republican Times, 1914), 129

Dam Being Built at Dayton in 1924

building the dam

A Million Dollar Dam Being Built at Dayton

 About forty men are now at work on the new dam across the Fox river at Dayton, a few miles southeast of Earlville. The project will cost in the neighborhood of a million dollars and it is planned to have power ready by next April.

The power house will occupy a site on the west bank of the Fox, formerly occupied by an old stone structure, built almost a century ago and known then as the Green woolen mills, which has been razed to make room for the new plant.

The site of the dam is about 1,000 feet north of the highway bridge. The dam will be 625 feet in length, and will be of a type known as a multiple arch. Engineers in charge of the work say they know of but one other dam of this type. It is in Italy. The dam will be arched upstream in moderate crescent shape. Attached to this arch on the upstream side will be other arches in 25-foot units, extending from the top of the dam to the bottom. The dam will slope gradually up stream so that the body of water will rest upon the dam as well as against it.

The old feeder canal will be used to convey the water from the dam to the powerhouse. It will be dug deeper and rip-rapped with material taken from the old Green building, which was of Joliet stone.

Plans call for a 30-foot head of water, with water standing at a depth of about 25 feet at the dam. The backwater, it is said, will be only one foot at Sulphur Lick Springs, and the overflow will cover but little more than 80 acres of farm property.

Heyworth plans to carry material to the site of the dam from the Burlington railroad by electric power. A power house for the development of electricity will be constructed on the west bank of the river and an oil engine installed. Material will be taken from the cars on the Burlington switch and transported directly to the dam, dump cars being used to eliminate cost of handling.

When this dam is completed it will form one of the most beautiful spots In LaSalle county. The lake will be from a few feet in depth at Wedron to 25 feet in depth at Dayton, a length of four or five miles by a breadth of more than 600 feet.1


  1. The Earlville Leader, 12 Jun 1924, p. 9

A Serious Accident

building the Dayton dam

building the Dayton dam – 1924

Eleven men were hurt, three fatally it is thought, and fifty more escaped injury when a forty-foot trestle, used in the construction of the Dayton Dam on the Fox River four miles from Ottawa collapsed at one o’clock today under the weight of four cars of cement and an electric locomotive.

All of the men were removed as soon as they could be extricated from the tangled framework of the wrecked trestle, to Ottawa hospitals.

The three not expected to live are:
Al Muhebauer, 19, Little Falls, Minnesota, fractured skull.
Elmer Starks, 37, Marseilles, internal injuries.
Andrew Poka, 20, back, head and legs hurt.
Other workmen were uninjured when they escaped the falling timbers by miraculous good fortune.

It was the first time the trestle had been used, and the cement was being poured into the dam wall from it when the supporting timbers gave way.

The construction camp was thrown into consternation, but work of removing the injured was begun immediately. Ottawa ambulances were rushed to the scene, carrying the workmen back to the county seat.1


  1. The (Streator) Times, 5 Nov 1924, p. 7

A New Dayton Dam

building the dam

The dam under construction

WILL REBUILD DAYTON DAM TO FURNISH POWER FOR ELECTRIC ROAD
Simpson Brothers, of New York, are Behind This New Proposition

            Simpson Bros., who are promoting the new railroad from Yorkville to Mendota through Sandwich, Somonauk and Earlville, have closed a contract for the power rights in Dayton and expect to construct a dam there this summer and utilize the power for lighting the towns through the Fox Rive[r] valley and operating their proposed railroad. Simpson Bros. were in this city on Monday and closed a contract with the Chicago Retort & Fire Brick company for their property interest at Dayton. They also propose negotiating for the Duffy property on the North Bluff. They may decide to move to Ottawa and locate here. This firm has built a dam across the Fox river near Oswego and will supply power to the towns from Yorkville to Ottawa. The contemplated road from Yorkville to Mendota will parallel the La Salle County railway, which is building from Ottawa to Mendota, Earlville to Sandwich and DeKalb. Sandwich, by granting a franchise to the Simpsons may have the La Salle County Railway, which is in active competition.

Simpson Bros. have been negotiating with the commissioners of the Illinois & Michigan canal for several months. The abstracts of the property which it will be necessary for the Simpsons to purchase has been turned over to the canal commissioners and they are now being examined by the attorneys for the canal board. It is expected that the dam will be built by the state, but that the Simpsons will furnish the money. The state will exercise jurisdiction over the dam. The Ottawa Hydraulic company, which had an interest in the Dayton water power, have surrendered their charter and whatever rights they had in the water power at Dayton have lapsed, so they will not have any opposition from this source.1


  1. The [Ottawa, Illinois] Free Trader, 13 Sep 1912, p7, col 2

Contention Over Water

old dam

The old dam at Dayton

From Dayton

Dayton, July 26. – Misses Myrtle Stadden and Julia Lyons, of Chicago, are visiting at Mrs. David Green’s.

Miss Amy Dickens, of Amboy, Ill., is spending the summer at  Mr. Charles Green’s.

Miss Lillian Wayland, of Appleton, Wis., is spending the summer at Mr. D. Moore’s.

Mr. Wm. Dunavan, of the horse collar works, returned from a short business trip last week.

Mr. James Green says that the honey business is of no account this season. Usually he has between nine and ten thousand pounds of honey for sale, but this season he hasn’t a pound. Thinks perhaps he will be obliged to feed his bees this fall.

Miss Bangs, of Ottawa, who has been spending a few weeks in Dayton, has returned home.

Canal Supt. Leighton, of Lockport, was in town this week.

The river is lower than it had ever been in the remembrance of the oldest inhabitant. The mills have been able to run most of the time, but with decreased power.

The Free Trader, with the remainder of the Ottawa press, got things badly mixed on the power question, and has given the Dayton mill owners some unnecessary scoring. The Green and Stadden lease with the State provides for one-half of the water flowing in Fox river, of which the State is to have one-fourth of the river, and Green and Stadden one-fourth of the river, (not one-eighth as the Free Trader had it last week.) These two-fourths must be drawn first, even if the other one-half runs down the river.

The Ottawa power is third class, and when only one fourth of the river is drawn through the feeder, as it is during eight or nine months of the year, the Dayton power is entitled to all the water except what is necessary for canal purposes. Green and Stadden were not foolish enough, as the Ottawa press would have the public infer, to give away all their rights when they gave the State a right-of-way and one-half of their power. Any lease or agreement made between the State and the Hydraulic Company cannot affect the original and right of way lease.

In 1870 Mr. Wm. Thomas brought an injunction suit against Messrs. Williams and Sweetzer to prevent them from locating their paper mill on the power at Dayton. The claim was made then, as it is now, that we were using more water than we were entitled to. Judge Leland dismissed the suit, and decided that the Dayton power had preference over the hydraulic power, and in time of low water the side cut should be closed so as to keep a 6-foot head in the canal. If this could not be maintained, the Dayton fourth could be drawn on.

The present condition of affairs is this: The mill owners have agreed with Capt. Leighton to confine themselves strictly to their one-fourth, and to run as long as there is water.

The Hydraulic Co. is entitled to the surplus water of the canal, and, as there is no surplus from Fox river now (all of the water being used by the canal and the Dayton mills), water is being drawn from the other level at Marseilles to supply power for the Ottawa mills.1


  1. Ottawa [Illinois] Free Trader, July 30, 1887, p. 8, col. 4

Tourists in the Fox River Ice Gorge

1875 ice gorge picture

If you look closely at the above picture, you can make out several people sitting and standing inside one of the ice caves created by the 1875 ice gorge. The picture was taken by W. E. Bowman, well known Ottawa photographer. The Ottawa Republican on March 26, 1875, had this to say about the event:

Who, during the past week, has not heard of the Fox river ice gorge? What wonderful stories have been told concerning it, what fears excited, what direful properties uttered. Hundreds have visited it, while thousands have listened, with palpitating hearts and trembling limbs, to the Munchausen descriptions of its magnitude, its reserve power and the awful doom awaiting the city should heavy rains fall before the less destructive rays of a spring sun have time to break the barrier and send the massive blocks of congealed crystals, perforated, unsound and brittle over the dam into the Illinois.

The gorge begins about a mile above the aqueduct, in the bend of the river, not far from Lyman’s Mound, and extends a distance of two or three miles up the river, if not up to Dayton. In some places the solid cakes are piled to a height of fifteen or twenty feet, and extend in width over an area of not less than a quarter of a mile, including the bottom lands and side hills. Throughout this expanse the ice is strewn in every conceivable shape and position, forming hills and valleys, yawning caverns and frightful abysses, which add a wild grandeur to the surrounding landscape, the whole constituting a picture of unsurpassed beauty that must be seen to be appreciated. Near the mound alluded to are debris of the Dayton bridge, and scattered here and there among the cakes are huge stones which were carried from their resting places by the irresistible momentum of the torrent.

But the gorge does not excite pleasurable emotions only. One cannot look over this vast ice field without reflecting upon the immense inherent power it possesses for carrying destruction to property should a sudden rise in the river precipitate it upon the territory in its front. Bridges would be swept away, houses submerged and a vast amount of property damaged and possibly lives lost. A few days like yesterday will, however, render it harmless.

The Hazards of Winter Travel

snowdrifts

After the Fox river bridge at Dayton was washed out in the 1870s, traffic between Dayton and Rutland was difficult. There were two places where the river could be forded during low water and there were times in the winter when the ice was firm enough to allow crossing. The ice was uncertain, however, and could not be counted upon. The only other option was to go around by Ottawa and cross on the bridge there.

Dayton was isolated even further when heavy snow made the roads impassable. To make matters worse, when the snow melted, the mud was an equal obstacle to travel.

The Ottawa [Illinois] Free Trader, January 8, 1881, p. 8, col. 3
Dayton, Jan. 5. – The river is now being crossed at this place on the ice.

The Ottawa [Illinois] Free Trader, February 19, 1881, p. 8, col. 1
Dayton, Feb. 16. – The “thaw” of last week was unable to start the ice at this place, with the exception of that on the rapids above the woolen factory, which moved down and broke up our ice bridge. We are thus left without any means of communication with the other shore. The great snow storm on last Friday and Saturday has given a new impulse to sleighing and the “merry sleigh bells” are again heard all over the land. East and west lanes and the roads are, however, most of them, impassable on account of deep snow drifts. The thermometer at this place last Monday morning recorded 14 degrees below zero.

The Ottawa [Illinois] Free Trader, March 19, 1881, pp. 4-5, cols. 6 & 1
The “beautiful snow,” as far as sleighing is concerned, has departed for the last time this winter we trust. The streets and roads are left in a terrible condition, being in places almost impassable on account of the water, slush, snow and mud. The lane from Dayton to the main road to Ottawa has been blocked with snow for about five weeks, so that all travel is by the way of Mr. Olmstead’s. The thaw and light showers have not raised the water in Fox river at this place to a very noticeable degree. The ice is still in the river, and has probably become so softened that it will do no serious damage to dams or bridges.

The Ottawa [Illinois] Free Trader, June 4, 1881, p. 8, col. 2
Dayton, June 2d, 1881
The river is falling slowly, and is now being crossed at both fords. Fishermen and sportsmen are here in great numbers. The Earlville people seem to have struck a “boom” and are turning out en masse for a good time fishing and camping out.

The Ottawa [Illinois] Free Trader, February 6, 1886, p. 7, cols. 3-4
The river is all frozen over solid and teams are crossing below the paper mill.

The Dayton bridge had been out since the early 1870s and not until 1885 was a plan for its replacement finally put into action. It still took two years before it opened. (For the story of the Great Dayton Bridge Affair, click here.)

The Ottawa [Illinois] Free Trader, April 2, 1887, p. 4, col. 6
From Dayton
Dayton, Ill, April 1st, 1887. – Our bridge is finished at last and open for public travel. It is a very fine three span iron bridge, the neatest one on the river, and is a fine addition to our village. Of course every one will use it now that it is constructed, and it was noticed that about one of the first to use it was one who had fought the hardest.

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

Ice Jam and Flood

The Fox River has put on some spectacular floods in its time, but perhaps none were more newsworthy than the great ice gorge of 1952. A photographer from Chicago television station WNBQ-TV was flown over the gorge to film it and thousands of spectators flocked to Dayton to see what was happening. A slight bow appeared in the bridge due to the intense pressure against it by the slush ice. The bridge was closed to traffic when the gorge first formed, but later even pedestrians were not allowed on the bridge. When the ice subsided, the bridge was tested to be sure it was still usable.

A number of the houses on either side of the river at Dayton were submerged in the ice. The power house of the North Counties Hydro-Electric Company was out of commission due to several feet of water on the floor of the plant. The Red Cross opened an emergency shelter in the Dayton Women’s Club clubhouse to assist those displaced by the flood.

The Army Corps of Engineers was asked to assess the possibility of using dynamite to blow up the gorge, but the opinion of an expert was that the ice was too slushy and it might take a whole trainload of dynamite. The better choice was to let the rising temperature let the gorge break up gradually, not with a sudden break which would flood many of the low-lying homes along the river in Ottawa.

In a day or two, the river had dropped and the ice melted, but the cleanup for the flooded houses and power plant took weeks.

The Dayton Dam

The Dayton dam

This picture of the dam at Dayton was taken from the hayloft of the old barn on the Green farm, probably about 1955. This is the dam that was built by the state of Illinois in 1924 to replace the dam that was washed out in 1904. The picture below was taken during the construction of the dam and powerhouse. The barn from which the 1955 picture was taken is just out of sight to the left of the new barn in the 1924 picture.

dam-under-construction

Bridging the Fox

wooden bridge

In 1837, John Green and William Stadden, who owned the land on either side of the Fox river at Dayton, were granted permission from the state to build a toll bridge. They had to complete the bridge within 5 years and could place a toll gate at either end to collect a toll, the amount of which was set by the county commissioners’ court.

By 1854, the bridge needed replacement and a subscription was taken up to build a free bridge. The toll was dropped to encourage those living on the east side of the river to patronize the businesses in Dayton.

In 1857, there was a severe ice jam in the Fox River between Dayton and Ottawa and the free bridge at Dayton was carried away. Jesse and David Green took on the job of rebuilding and in December of that year, the following announcement appeared in the Ottawa paper:

Free Bridge

The free bridge across Fox River at Dayton is now completed, and persons living on the east side will again have the privilege of patronizing our new Grist and Flouring Mill, which is capable of grinding from 50 to 60 bushels per hour. As the undersigned have expended their means very liberally in erecting such a Mill and Bridge as the growing wants of the country require, they hope to receive a liberal share of public patronage. Persons coming from a distance will find good warm stabling in connection with the above Mill, free of charge, and their public house has passed into other hands, and bids fair to do justice to the inner man at reasonable rates. Please give us a call.                                                              J. & D. Green1

In 1875, the bridge washed out again and for the next ten years, there was only a precarious ford to cross the river. The county agreed to pay one-half of the cost of a new bridge, leaving Dayton and Rutland to pay one-fourth each. In 1885, although Dayton was ready to pay their share, Rutland opposed the bridge, because they had recently been taxed for a bridge at Marseilles. Dayton offered to pay part of Rutland’s share, but it was some time before the bridge proposal was passed by the Rutland voters. The bridge was not finished until April 1887, and lasted until it collapsed in 1940.


  1. The Ottawa [Illinois] Free Trader, December 12, 1857, p. 3, col. 6

Quite a Fish Story

muskellunge

Dayton has always been a good fishing site, but nothing has been caught there in recent years that can hold a candle to this 1849 monster.

“A ROUSER! – We are sorry for our friend DELANO, of the Fox River House – his reputation’s gone! Hitherto he has stood unrivalled in this region as a fisherman – taking not only vastly more than any body else, but larger ones. But he must ‘come down’ now on size. The largest muskelunge he has caught we believe weighed but 28 or 29 pounds – Mr. Sherwood caught one at Dayton on Monday with a hook and line, that weighed over 32 lbs.! It was over four feet long, and 9 inches across the body. We got the head! It looks like that of some monster of the ‘briny deep.’1


  1. Ottawa [Illinois] Free Trader, March 30, 1849, page 2, col. 3