The Illinois River has quite a history.
During the late portion of the 19th Century, it contained most of the commercial fishing in the nation. It contained much of natural waterfowl hunting. Back then, many towns had fish markets and some even canned waterfowl. Many of these were shipped to some of the largest markets in our major cities.
Just about everyone hunted back then, and many hunting clubs sprang up along the river. Some even dredged and created backwater lakes, some of which still exists in western counties.
Then came river transportation. Some areas of the river were not navigable, so a canal was constructed between La Salle and Chicago. The canal was instrumental in much of Chicago’s growth. Other towns such as Ottawa, Naples, Peoria and Beardstown all prospered from increased water transportation. Silica sand was transported to many cities from Ottawa. It is still a valuable product today.
By the early part of the 20th Century, the city of Chicago was poisoning its population from contaminated water. The huge populations in the city were running their waste into Lake Michigan, where they drew their water supplies. Typhoid fever ran rampant, and many elderly folks died from the disease.
Finally, the city reversed the flow of the Chicago River and sent it down the Illinois Waterway. There was so much affluent that it killed most of the fish in the river. My father used to tell me that there were tons of dead fish lining the banks, and the stench was unbearable.
Shortly after that, dams and locks were constructed creating a deep waterway which put the canals out of business. Soon after that, the Clean Water Act was put into effect, and under the threat of hefty fines every municipality had to create waste treatment plants.
By the middle of the 1950s, many fish species started showing up in the river. There were billions of black bullheads below most of the dams on the river. We still had a problem, though, as the billions of gallons of water coming out of waste treatment plants contained detergents. The high concentration of detergents sent soap suds below each dam three to four feet deep. During a south wind, the suds used to blow through downtown Marseilles.
Finally, new detergents were regulated, and by 1970 many fish species returned to the river. By 1980 it was one of the best walleye and sauger fisheries in the nation.
Since then, other contaminants have entered the river, and many invasive species also moved in. The river is starting to heal from the invasive plants and fishes, but it is a slow process. River fishing this year was terrible, but again is starting to return. It is returning from a long period of high water this year. I am not sure if this will have a negative effect as well.
One thing for sure — it keeps rolling along.