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

Bridge Collapses

Collapse of Fox River bridge

From the Chicago Tribune, May 20, 1940, p. 8

Bridge Collapses

            Ottawa, Ill., May 19 (Special). – An automobile and a truck were thrown into the Fox river at Dayton, northeast of Ottawa, late this afternoon when the bridge which spans the river collapsed. Two occupant of each vehicle were rescued unhurt.

            According to information given to Sheriff Edmund J. Welter, an Ottawa newspaperman, D. M. Davis and his wife were in their sedan, near the center of the bridge, when a truck driven by Robert Shelton of Marseilles, who was accompanied by his wife, drove upon the bridge. Then the span broke and both cars plunged downward. Timbers kept the cars from falling into the water, which is 10 feet deep.

            The bridge at Dayton is on what is known as the Old Chicago road. Sheriff Welter blocked the gravel road at intersections on both sides and posted detour signs.

Ice Jam on the Fox River

Ice jam on the Fox River 1943

The Fox River at Dayton has been the site of a number of washed-out dams and swept-away bridges over the years. In 1943, a large ice jam in the river between Dayton and Ottawa caused the slush ice to pile up on both sides of the bridge. The pressure of the ice moved the bridge a few inches, but it went back into place as the ice melted. The houses and cottages along the east side of the river, above the bridge, were flooded as well.

houses flooded in 1943

 

 

The Great Dayton Bridge Affair

iron bridge at Dayton 1886

The new iron bridge at Dayton, opened in 1887

In 1885 a new bridge was needed at Dayton. It was estimated to cost $10,000 and the county would pay half the cost. As the bridge connected Dayton and Rutland townships, the share for each was $2500. Rutland balked at paying this, so Dayton agreed to pay $3500, but even this offer met with resistance, as shown in the newspaper extracts below. The bridge was built eventually and it was noted that one of the first to make use of the new bridge was one who had most vehemently opposed spending the money for it.

Dayton Bridge. –
The people of the town of Rutland vote next Monday, Aug. 31st, on the question of taxing themselves $1,500 towards building a good bridge at Dayton. The bridge is to cost $10,000, Dayton agreeing to pay $3,500 towards it, the county paying the other half. Considering that the bridge will be really a convenience to a larger proportion of the people of Rutland than of the town of Dayton, the offer of Dayton to bear so large a share of the expense is a very liberal one and ought to be met by Rutland in a spirit of like liberality. There is no point on the Fox River in this county where a bridge is so pressingly needed as at Dayton. The ford there is so precarious and unavailable most of the time that not only are Rutland people cut off from the advantages of the mills at Dayton, but to many of them the distance to Ottawa, Wallace, Utica, &c., is increased from two to half a dozen of miles. It does look as if Rutland could not afford to let this chance go by of getting a permanent bridge at Dayton at so small a cost.1

Dayton, Sept. Sept. 16. – At last it is settled that we are to have the bridge! The Board of Supervisors yesterday by a vote of twenty-seven to nine granted county aid to the amount of $5,000, and appointed Supervisors Anderson and Bubeck to look after the county’s interest. The bids will be opened next Monday and the contract let so that work may commence at once. The citizens are greatly rejoiced at the result and hope nothing serious may interfere with the completion of the work.2

Dayton, Sept. 23. – Our town was full of bridge men last Monday, and every bridge company in the west and a few eastern companies were represented. Nineteen bids were handed in. The board of commissioners, consisting of Messrs. Nichols and Grove, of Rutland, and Messrs. Dunavan, Brown and Green, of Dayton and the county represented by Supervisor Anderson, of Adams, met in the afternoon at the office of A. F. Dunavan & Son, and examined the numerous bids, but were unable to reach any conclusion by evening, so adjourned. The contract for the stone work was then let to John Joslyn, of Batavia, for $7.20 per cubic yard, and the superstructure to the Chicago Bridge and Iron Co. for $5,490. The superstructure will consist of three spans of 121 feet each, and the whole bridge when completed will cost about $10,000. The time for the completion of the work is Dec. 21st.
Bridge Notes
The Batavia man who has secured the contract for the stone work says he has plenty of stone on hand and will commence work on the piers immediately.
There was quite a lively competition between the Joliet and Batavia stone men, but the latter took the “persimmons” this time.
Landlord Timmons says he furnished forty-seven meals for bridge men Monday.
The river is low now and in good shape for laying the foundations for the piers.
The Bridge Co. says we will have the prettiest and most substantial iron bridge on the river.3

Dayton, Nov. 11. – The piers of the new bridge are progressing slowly, one being about one-third up and the other about two-thirds. The weather has been fine for putting up stonework and it is to be regretted that the work could not be done more rapidly.4

Dayton, Feb 3. – Our bridge is having rather bad luck. One span was swung just in time to avoid all danger from the thaw of Jan. 22d, but the trestle work of two spans was carried out by the ice and two iron floor beams were dropped into the river. The water has been so high and do much slush ice floating that work on the bridge has been practically stopped. It is hoped that the present cold weather will continue, so that work may be resumed and the bridge completed.5

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.6


1. The Ottawa [Illinois] Free Trader, August 29, 1885, p. 4, col. 4
2. Free Trader, September 18, 1886, p. 5, col. 3
3. Free Trader, September 25, 1886, p. 8, col. 3
4. Free Trader, November 13, 1886, p. 8, col. 1
5. Free Trader, February 5, 1887, p. 8, col. 2
6. Free Trader, April 2, 1887, p. 4, col. 6

133 Years Ago in Dayton

camper

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.1


1. The [Ottawa, Illinois] Free Trader, May 27, 1882, p. 6, col. 1