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Chapter 3


The Dam

Ancient civilization started up along the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and the Huang Ho river valleys. London arose beside the Thames, Paris on the banks of the Seine, and Renaissance Florence along the Arno. Like these other great cities, Elgin began its development along a river.

One of the reasons James T. Gifford founded his town of Elgin along the Fox was the opportunity to harness its water power. A dam was one of the first necessities of the early settlers. The power it generated could operate a sawmill to cut timber for buildings and a gristmill to process grain into flour and meal.

The first Elgin dam, a crude log structure, was built in 1836-37 by Folsom Bean and paid for by Gifford and Sam Kimball. As soon as it was in place, Gifford had a gristmill running on the east side of the river, and Kimball put up a sawmill on the west side.

Before this dam washed out in the flood of March, 1849, it spawned Elgin's first major industrial enterprise. A woolen mill was constructed in 1843-44 along a race just west of what is now the American National Bank building.

Two large flour mills were operating by 1846. The Stone Mills, so called because it was constructed of limestone, was at the foot of what is now Highland Avenue. The Waverly Mills was near the northeast corner of State Street and Highland Avenue. The Excelsior Mills was built at the foot of Division Street about 1856. The largest of these flour producers was the east side City Mills erected in 1858. Two and a half stories high, it had a capacity of 100 barrels a day. These river industries attracted the trade of farmers from the surrounding areas, and Elgin became a mill town.

In 1867 the state Legislature chartered the Elgin Hydraulic Company to maintain the dam and regulate the water level. The firm was owned by property holders along the east and west side races. When the dam was again washed out by the flood of April 1881, there was some question about whether it should be rebuilt. By that time some industries along the races had converted to more dependable steam power. Pushed by the ice harvesters who required the deep water upstream, the Hydraulic decided to try again.George Renwick supervised construction by a small army of men during the winter dry months of 1881-82. The cost of about $13,000 was paid by the Hydraulic with contributions from the ice men.

To divert the flow of water from the river bed so that the foundation could be excavated, temporary barriers called coffer dams were built around the head gates of the two races. Stones and boulders were wheeled out on barrows and dumped into the current. Dirt and gravel were piled on top of this base.

The dam proper was constructed with a framework of timber belted together with iron rods and spiked by cross pieces. This was buttressed with dirt and stone taken from the coffer dams. A solid wall of oak, supported by drag stays and props from below, ran from the foundation to the crest. A floor of three inch oak planks was spiked on top of the timber frame. The upstream side of the dam was slightly inclined and began four or five rods from the crest. The present concrete facing was a later addition.

The reconstructed dam created a body of deep water, extending north about two miles, which provided good fishing and boating during the summer and a broad field for ice harvesting in the winter. At the turn of the century, the dam's fall of seven feet supplied about 800 horsepower at an average stage of water.

Elgin Hydraulic Company's interest in power led to disputes with those who wanted to use the river for other purposes. Although a fishway was constructed as early as 1888, fishermen often complained when the upstream water level was reduced to supply power in a dry period. The power owners often quarreled with the ice harvesters, who benefitted from the dam, about their contributions toward its maintenance. In January, 1898, the Hydraulic let water out of the dam, allowing the ice to sink into the mud, to force payments from the ice men. A long period of litigation between the Hydraulic Company and the City of Elgin began after the water pumping station at the end of Slade Avenue began operating in 1888. An appellate court finally ruled in 1899 that the dam owners could not infringe upon the rights of riverbank property owners and that the amount of water withdrawn by the city was not unreasonable. In the summer of 1916, when the Fox was at low stage, boaters complained that the Hydraulic was over using the water for power, exposing the dirt and sewage, and endangering the health of people who had homes along the shore.

The Great Flood of '81

The Fox is ordinarily a quiet, slow-moving stream. In drought periods much of the bed is visible, and it can be easily waded; during the spring freshets, it becomes a torrent and at times has overflowed its banks. One of the earliest floods, in March, 1849, washed out the dam and bridge at Elgin and also damaged or removed bridges and dams at St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia, Aurora, Montgomery, Bristol, and Ottawa.

The flood of 1857 was very destructive, especially in the lower reaches of the river. All the bridges from Batavia to Ottawa were washed out, and several dams upstream gave way. It was responsible for a line in an old song of Elgin Academy, which had recently opened:

On the banks of the old River Fox, my boys,
The Academy ever more shall stand,
For has she not stood since the time of the flood,
And we hail her the best in the land.
High waters caused some damage in 1872 and 1877, but the worst rampage came in the spring of 188 1. "The winter of 188081 was the coldest and longest I have ever witnessed," wrote C.H. Parlasca at the time. "I had to clear the roof of my Billiard Hall four times from four to five feet of snow. The river had over three feet of ice all winter."

In January heavy snow drifts blocked the Milwaukee tracks between Chicago and Elgin. A train equipped with two engines and a snow Plow and carrying more than 300 men with shovels started from Western Avenue on Monday morning and didn't reach the Fox River until the following Sunday evening. Beginning February 27th, a snow storm halted traffic and suspended business for two days. It snowed again for twenty-four hours a few days later. Rail lines were completely blocked. Another 8tOrm on March 18th dropped a foot of snow and some drifts rose to seven feet. Still more snow fell later that month and, incredibly, six inches fell as late as April 11th and 12th.

The huge accumulations of snow melted quickly in the warm spring rains. The sudden thaw raised the Fox to flood level and broke the ice into huge chunks. The river began rising at Algonquin on the sixteenth of April. By the twentieth the water had overtopped the village dam, and cakes of ice had knocked out the North Western trestle. Pig sties, outhouses, fences, and debris whirled southward. At Carpentersville the dam went out as early as the nineteenth, and by the twenty-first the west side race had broken in two pieces.

"Dundee, like the other river towns, has been visited by a great flood ... the like of which has never been known to the oldest settler." reported the local correspondent to the Advocate. On the eighteenth a span of the iron bridge which connected East and West Dundee crashed into the turbulent waters, and the next day the remainder went down with a deafening roar.

The east side, beginning at Main Street in East Dundee, from the railroad track (now the Fox River Trail) westward as far north as Carpentersville, was one vast expanse of water. Sections of the track were covered to a depth of two or more feet, preventing all trains from running. At least 25 houses had to be vacated.

At Elgin, after the force of the current broke the dam, the blocks of ice began battering the piers of the Chicago Street bridge. A barn, carried down the stream, slammed into it, bending and twisting the iron work. Two of the spans fell into the river; but one span, apparently intact, floated downstream. A crowd of spectators hurried down to National Street, but the bridge there withstood the crunch of metal and lumber.

The flood took out the supports of the Milwaukee (now Soo Lines) trestle, and about 80 feet of the track collapsed. The North Western bridge, close by, was damaged so badly it couldn't be used.

When the bridge collapsed in the business district, part of the city was plunged in darkness because the gas main was attached to the bridge. The industries along the races were inundated on the lower floors, and from Chicago Street to National Street the water came up to the houses and flowed across Grove Avenue.

Will there ever be another flood like that of 1881? Predictions are hazardous, but it is not likely. The river's banks and flood plains have been raised by fill over the years. Bridges and buildings have been erected above the high-water elevation. The dams, improved with brick, stone, and concrete on rock foundations, no longer give way so easily and act as a break to the force of the water.

Ice Harvesting

The Fox River was a major source of ice before the advent of mechanical refrigeration. For a few weeks each winter, when its waters thickened in the bitter cold, hundreds of men were busy cutting, shipping, and storing ice for summer use.

Finla McClure, who began harvesting in 1850, was joined over the years by more than a dozen firms. They were active along both sides of the river above the dam, where the river was wide and deep. This location also gave them close access to two rail lines. These advantages gave Elgin a lead over other communities on the Fox in total tonnage.

A thickness of 16 inches or more was preferred, but cutting often began when the depth was a foot or less. After snow was removed with scrapers and teams, the ice was marked out in squares 22 inches by 22 inches and cut by ice plows to a depth of about eight inches. The squares were then separated by a wedge like tool which was jabbed into the grooves made by the plow.

The cakes of ice were pushed along cleared channels by men with picks to inclined planes leading to the shore. Caught by tongs and hauled up by horses or steam power, the chunks were loaded on waiting freight cars or slid down into the ice houses for storage. The lower stories of these sheds were filled first, and the ice was closely packed to inhibit leaking during the summer.

Total capacity of the local houses exceeded 120,000 tons, but most of the ice was cut for immediate shipment to Chicago, where breweries were among the major customers. Local users in large quantities were the cold storage warehouse for dairy Products, the Elgin Eagle Brewery, the watch factory's National House, and the state hospital. In the warm days of summer, retail wagons delivered to household ice boxes two or three times a week.

Returns from the ice business were unpredictable and could be maeager if there were a warm winter or a fast freeze which left dirt and other impurities close to the surface. There was considerable shrinkage in packing and shipping. Prices depended upon the supply, and firms awaited the coming of winter with either hope or dread. Those who had a large quantity of the previous year's crop on hand looked for mild weather, while those whose sheds were empty feared that such would be the case.

By 1908-1909, with the growing contamination of the river by gravel washers and untreated sewage, only one major cutter was operating. The Chicago Board of Health had condemned ice taken from the Fox, and harvesting had shifted to northern lakes.

The Truesdell Bridge

AUrbs Fluminis", city by the river, has been carried on Elgin's official seal since 1859. The Fox River provided power for the early industries and furnished a water supply. In the winter it was harvested for ice, and in the summer it was used for boating and fishing.

A river city, however, requires bridges, and their location, cost, and construction have been frequent subjects of controversy. The city's first bridge, a crude wooden span that had to stretch over a river much wider than it is now, was built at what is now Chicago Street in 1837-38. It went out in the 1849 flood and had to be rebuilt. This was just the beginning. Like the London bridge in the nursery rhyme, Elgin's bridge kept falling down.

The rambling old bridge, about twice as long as the present structure, was in poor condition when the voters approved a bond issue in 1866 to replace it. The contract was given to Lucuis E. Truesdell of Warren, Massachusetts, for his patented iron bridge.

The new span, completed and accepted on October 31, 1866, cost $13,200. Its roadway was 18 feet wide and planked with seasoned oak. On the outside of the adjacent pedestrian walks was a wrought iron railing which, according to the contract, was "so constructed as to be strong and safe, as well as appropriate and tasty."When completed, the contract continued, "the bridge shall be strong, durable and beautiful, and of suff icient strength to sustain a weight of one ton to a lineal foot."

The Truesdell Bridge, for all of its elegant appearance, proved to be a horrendous civic error. In December, 1868, more than 90 head of cattle, with a total weight of about 50 to 60 tons, were being driven across the bridge when it collapsed. No persons were hurt, but butchers had to be summoned to assist in killing or saving the injured cows.

On the Fourth of July, 1869, a festive crowd jammed the reconstructed bridge to watch a tub race on the Fox. The east end abutment gave way, throwing about 150 spectators into the water. Because the river at that point was not over four feet deep, there was only one fatality, but many were severely bruised and cut. Others were injured by the falling of horses and wagons.

"The wildest confusion prevailed for some time," reported the Chicago Tribune, "and it required the most strenuous exertions on the part of the citizens to extricate the sufferers from their perilous position."

These failures were not confined to Elgin. A Truesdell bridge over the Rock River was opened at Dixon, Illinois, in 1869. It collapsed on May 4, 1873, causing 46 fatalities.

Understandably some farmers coming from the western townships avoided crossing at Chicago Street and instead forded the river with their teams. Circus elephants arriving on west side trains were also wary. The lead elephant would put one foot on the bridge, then back off and refuse to move. The rest of the herd followed suit, and they had to be led down to the river bank and driven through the water to the east side.

The great flood of 1881 forced the dam and once again tore out the Chicago Street bridge. The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway came to the rescue, offering to drive the piles for a plain wooden bridge. All the city had to do was pay about $1,200 for the materials. When completed, it lacked the graceful arch and delicate railings of the Truesdell, but it was serviceable and safe. The weekly Advocate, extolling its utilitarian virtues, called it "homely but nice."

The strength of the new bridge was tested by the circus Parades crossing to the performing grounds on the east side of town. The piles supported lumbering wild animal wagons and hordes of spectators. Not even the fat lady could break it down.

A Bridge of Sorts

Glaciers that once overlaid the Elgin area left immense deposits of sand and gravel beneath the soil. The first commercial pits were opened southeast of the city in the 1890s. Much of the area north of the Milwaukee Road, now Soo Line, tracks east of Gifford Road and north of West Bartlett Road was mined originally for railroad construction and some street filling.

One area pit belonging to the A.T. Reed Gravel Company gave the city a swimming beach and a north end "bridge". After the turn of the century, the increased use of concrete in building construction led to the pits opening in 1909. The mine was north of the city along the west bank of the river.

A.Y. Reed and his son-in-law, Dr. P.F. Gillette, had a farm, of about 200 acres in the area, with gravel ranging from 20 to 45 feet in depth. To gain access to a rail line, it was necessary for the North Western to construct a trestle across the Fox. The eastern end connected with the main line at the foot of Logan Avenue. This spur to the pit aroused heated protests from sportsmen who felt it created a dangerous hazard to boating.

Sand dropping from the railroad cars on the trestle washed into the west bank and formed an artificial sand beach. This became a popular swimming spot. During the heat wave of 1916, the procession to Reed's started at about ten in the morning and bathing continued past midnight. Railroad cars parked along the siding served as makeshift dressing rooms.

The gravel firm's busiest days came during the building boom following World War 1. Night after night, engines pulling 50 to 60 cars left the pit for Chicago. Output declined after the Depression set in. The last major activity was the shipment of more than 100,000 tons of black dirt to reclaim land from Lake Michigan at Lincoln Park in Chicago.

Operations ended in 1933. Tracks were removed from the trestle the following year. The trestle was torn down in 1937 because, despite signs warning of the danger, many pedestrians were using it as a kind of northend bridge. More than 200 pilings had to be pulled up from the river bed.

The property was purchased by Alfred and Nina Bruneman in 1935 for eventual development as a recreational area. Beginning in 1948, the city of Elgin ]eased the former mine as a dump for ashes, trash, and rubbish. Until 1952, when Elgin was given exclusive use for five Years, it was also used by West Dundee and Carpentersville. Unlike the gaping water-filled holes southeast of the city, the old Reedgravel pit has become a community asset. It is now a part of the Kane County forest preserve system known as Voyageur's Landing.

The Carrie Clark Hole

The Fox River can be treacherous all along its course through Elgin. The churning waters under the dam are obviously dangerous, but the bend north of the area impounded by the dam was once the site of numerous drownings. The area includes a spot known variously as the Carrie Clark Tree or the Carrie Clark Hole at what is now the Slade Avenue water treatment plant. Fed by Tyler Creek on the west side and, in an earlier day, large springs on the east bank, the river at this point is deep. The relatively clear water, well above the sewer outlets, was one reason the water works were established there when the city began pumping from the river in 1888. Despite the cold water, the location also attracted swimmers.

A group of young merrymakers were skating up the river to an oyster supper in Dundee on the night of January 21, 1869. Carrie Clark, one of the belles of the town, and her escort, Tom Murphy, were in the lead. A long spell of cold weather without snow had formed a clean path of ice about two feet thick except where a big oak tree leaned far out from the shore. At its roots a spring tumbled into the river and kept the ice thin. There was a sound of breaking shell ice and a scream in the darkness. The skating party hastened to the tree and found Murphy struggling in the freezing water. He and Carrie had fallen into the air hole.

A human chain pulled Murphy to the bank. He was only partly conscious and one of his hands was clutching part of Carrie's dress. If she had come up at all, it was under the ice. Her body was recovered by divers around midnight. Ironically, Tom Murphy would be one of the seven victims of an Elgin ferry boat that overturned in the Fox in 1881.

The bend had claimed its toll of lives prior to the Clark disaster. In 1864 four women and a child were drowned Opposite what is now the D.C. Cook plant. They had come from the west side in a flat-bottomed boat to visit a Civil War training camp or, the Lovell farm north of the city. A partly submerged stump tore a hole in their overcrowded craft.

Among the numerous fatalities near the Carrie Clark Hole were two swimmers in 1898. Another bather, who went under near the Hole in 1910, left a novel he had been reading on the shore. He had just finished a chapter that described a drowning. A canoe battling a stiff wind and choppy waves west of the Hole capsized in 1919, and three youths were drowned. The Carrie Clark Tree is long gone, and so is the spring, but the perils of the river remain.

Goff's Island

Goff's Island

The swirling waters of the Fox River once formed a one-acre island south what were then the city limits. The opening of the watch factory near the east bank and opposite this island led to the construction of the National Street bridge in 1870. it consisted of two western spans and a 100-foot section extending from the east bank to the island.

When David Goff and his family first occupied the island in 1873, it wasn't much above the level of the river and disappeared ,thigh water. Goff hauled in hundreds of wagon loads offill, put up a house and stable, and sunk a well. He planted trees, established a big garden, and raised chickens and hogs. A boat livery was added later. A son, Herbert, and his wife also became residents after their marriage in 1881. Harry Goff, David~s grandson, was born , on the island six years later.

Goffis credited with saving the bridge during the great flood of"81 by cutting trees, securing them with ropes, and letting the branches lap around the stone piers to keep away the huge chunks of ice.

The Goffs were squatters on the property of the U.S. government, which owned islands arising in navigable streams. When the island was advertised for sale to the highest bidder, the Elgin National Watch Company purchased it in 1888. The reason was probably related to the smell of the island's hogs. The company made a generous payment to the Goffs for their improvements.

Herbert Goff bought two acres of land along the west bank of the river at what is now the foot of Oak Street. The boathouses and small farm structures were pushed and dragged over on the ice during the winter. The house was to have been moved the same way, since the bridge was too narrow, but there was a delay.

With the approaching spring of 1889, it was decided to float the partially dismantled house over on three flatboats. Ropes and Pulleys attached to trees on the western shore were to guide and haul the rafts. When the rafts drew near a fire alarm wire stretched across the Fox, they were to brought to a quick stop. This dislodged one of the supporting boats. The house slid into the middle of the river, water lapping at a door, and the rafts Bank. 'There is probably no dwelling house in Elgin that feels so much out of place, and so completely embarrassed by the gaze of Passers-by," reported the Daily News.

Observers of this phenomenon-and they came from all over town-were free with suggestions as well as wry commentary. The solution adopted was to use the pulleys to drag the house back to the island. The boats were raised, and the house reloaded On them. This time buoys were attached, and the opposite bank '*as reached at last.

Harry Goff, the only child born on the island, grew up in the house at the Oak Street site. He was Elgin's leading bookmaker when he left town in 1915. The house became part of the American Tower and Tank Company's plant. And what became of the island? The channel between its shore line and the east bank was filled in when a new National Street bridge was constructed in 1901.

Steamers and the Pearl Rush

Among the now-forgotten pleasures once provided by the Fox were steamboat excursions and clam digging. One of the first of the river steamers in this vicinity was W. S. Clute's Mayflower, which made its first trip from the Elgin dam north to Dundee. Running against the current, it reached its destination in 40 minutes. The Mayflower carried groups to and from circuses, picnics, and other outings.

The only steamer known to have hauled freight was the Sarah Jane, built by Henry McBride. It was designed to carry stone up to Elgin from quarries in South Elgin, and a lock had to be constructed to enable the boat to pass the dam at that place. This craft ended up on the Grove Avenue horse car line during a flood in 1887. Unsuccessful as a barge, it was converted to a passenger carrier and renamed the Dauntless.

On July 4, 1888, Captain McBride's Dauntless made hourly trips down river from its dock at the end of Lake Street to the picnic grounds at Gypsy Landing. At the same time the Britomart, later known as The City of Elgin, was running north from the Elgin dam carrying pleasure parties to Trout Park. One of the last of the old steamers was the Thelma, launched by William Geister and Shirley Harris in 1907. It transported passengers to and from the picnic grounds at Trout Park.

It wasn't exactly a gold rush, and there were no roaring saloons or claim-jumping wars, but visions of sudden wealth once led scores of pearl hunters to the Fox River. For a few years beginning about 1908, large numbers of freshwater pearls could be found in clam shells from Carpentersville south to the Five Island shallows.

Elgin had pearl fever. Clam diggers wandered the river banks and jewelers were kept busy appraising the finds. Professional pearl buyers made regular visits to the city. At. the peak of the big pearl rush in 1911, they were said to be paying $100 to $150 for exceptional specimens, but $25 was probably more typical. (A day's wages in local factories at that time averaged about $2.)

The boom was given impetus by the discovery of a shell below the Chicago Street Bridge in which there were 342 small pearls. All were pure white in color and averaged three-eighths of a carat in size. The clam diggers would wait until the river was low in the hot summer months, then wade in until their feet touched a clam. They would then reach down for their prize and toss it in a sack. When they had a bag full, they headed for shore and opened the shells. They usually found odd shaped slugs, if anything. Some shells were sold to a button factory.

Although one Elgin digger claimed to have been offered $1,200 by a Chicago jewelry firm for a large find he picked up in the Fox River, reports of the pearl bonanza were probably exaggerated. Freshwater pearls are not as lustrous as saltwater pearls obtained from oysters. Often irregularly shaped, they were less in demand than smooth, round pearls. While no local diggers became wealthy, the big losers were obviously the clams. When they became scarce, Elgin's pearl boom ended. Today those who seek to get rich quick buy lottery tickets.

Using the River

The Fox has served other purposes than power, a water Supply, a source of ice, and an outlet for the city's sewers. It was a place for farmers to wash their flocks of sheep. A favorite spot for this was at the foot of Prairie Street. Farmers often forded their wagons across the river to water their horses and to allow the wooden wheels to swell and tighten on the iron rims.

The river furthered religion. A series of revival meetings at the Baptist Church in the winter of 1858 resulted in a goodly number Of converts. After an evening service the candidates were taken to the ice-laden waters for a dipping by Pastor A. J. Joslyn and then hurried homeward by sleigh.

Boat houses once lined the west bank north of the Kimball Street bridge. They were occupied by male social clubs and were notorious for card game gambling, drunken parties, and, yes, debauchery. Beginning in the '90s summer cottages were erected along the shore, and campers pitched their tents. The CMP rites were above and below Elgin, but most were located in Trout Park on both sides of the river. They were given names like Camp Chestnut, Camp Coney Island, and Camp Hickory. At night the occupants built bonfires, sang songs, and told stories; during the day they fished. There was a thriving business ir, renting row boats.

In cold winters, when the ice was thick, the frozen river became a path for sleighs and a rink for skaters. In hot, dry summers, when the water was low and the current nearly imperceptible, boys had fun jumping across from one mud flat to another. This was an amusement seldom appreciated by their mothers.

Boating and fishing have been popular forms of recreation along the Fox since pioneer days, and the river has been a source of some big fish, or at least big fish stories. In 1877 local anglers pulled out pickerel weighing 14 and 20 pounds. Hans Rovelstad in 1889 caught a 12-pound bass, and in the same year Joel Hulmes landed a pike at the pumping station that scaled between 10 and 11 pounds. In 1906 a man fishing with a worm hooked a five-pound pike. Upon looking at his catch, he discovered a minnow had taken his worm and the pike had swallowed the minnow. Don Deak, Jr., caught a 27-pound catfish below the dam on June 3, 1985. It was 40-1/2 inches in length, and he used live bait on a 25-pound test line. Top that.


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