Fence Facts: What's happening at Wilmington's riverfront

WORKERS FROM C&D Custom Fence and Deck work on the installaiton of the fence near the dam on Tuesday. The installation of the 330-foot long fence has prompted comments and concerns about the need for the fence at the dam site, which is popular among fishermen and a busy recreational site year round. Photo by Marney Simon.


The new fence around the Kankakee River dam is being installed this week, and the process has reopened some public discussions—both comments and complaints—on the Free Press Advocate social media page.

Last week, the jersey barriers and large boulders near the dam were removed to make way for the fence installation. The fence started to go up this week.

Here, some answers to questions about the new fencing:

What size is the fence?

The new fence is an 8-foot tall aluminum commercial grade fence that starts from the guard rail at the one car bridge over the mill race and will extend 330 feet into the exclusion zone. To get an idea of how far that is, imagine standing in the end zone and watching the Wilmington Wildcats come out of the woods on a Friday night. That’s about the same length as the fencing.

Why is the fence needed?

The fence is being placed for two reasons—safety, and liability.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources considers Wilmington’s dam one of the most dangerous dams in the state. At least 16 people gave died at the site since 1982, and the city remains in litigation with two families over three different deaths.

Due to the city’s long term legal issues over dam safety, the city’s liability coverage related to incidents at the dam was limited to $500,000 in 2018.

Why wasn’t the project publicized?

It was, in three separate stories in the Free Press Advocate since last fall.

The Wilmington City Council voted unanimously to approve the fence on Nov. 2, 2021. At that meeting, the council approved a contract with C&D Custom Fence and Deck of Kankakee for the fence, in the amount of $21,800.

The fence project was also listed on the publicized agenda for the Nov. 2, 2021 meeting of the City Council, where the council reviewed three quotes for the fence.

Those documents can be found at www.wilmington-il.com under the Government, City Council Agendas and Minutes tab.

Aren’t there better ways to secure the dam?

In 2018, the city created the exclusion zone on the west bank of the South Island Park, from above the dam to Baltimore Street.

The penalty for entering the water from the exclusion zone is a fine of not less than $25 nor more than $750. For a second offense, the minimum penalty increases to $100 and for the third or subsequent occurrences within one year after the first, the individual will be fined at least $250, up to the state-permitted maximum of $750.  A separate offense is considered committed on each day during or upon which a violation occurs or continues.

The city placed Jersey barriers near the dam in 2020, replacing several orange sawhorses that were at the site. However, the barriers only extended directly in front of the dam, and do not prevent people who want to get closer to the water from walking past them.

The hope is that the fence will provide a bigger obstacle for those who are determined to get close to the dangerous dam. 

The fencing is in addition to other measures added for safety over the years, not to replace or repeal those items.

The exclusion zone, and the ability of the city to ticket those who enter it, will remain.

Why not just add rocks to make the dam safer?

In July of 2018, the city submitted a regional permit application seeking approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and Illinois Department of Natural Resources to add rip rap to the face of the dam at the south end of the South Island Park.

The application proposed placing approximately 500 cubic yards of rip rap in the scour hole below the dam to break the submerged hydraulic jump (boil), reducing or eliminating the undertow and improving public safety.

The permit was denied.

During a public hearing held last summer, state representatives said ramp modifications were likely to result in displaced rip rap, essentially meaning that sooner or later the water would move the stone and the danger of the dam would return.

Will the fence obstruct the river view?

The fence will only obstruct the view for the 330-foot length. The remainder of the south and north island will continue to have unobstructed views of the riverfront, and benches, picnic tables, and green areas will remain for the public’s enjoyment.

Who even owns the dam anyway?

The city of Wilmington owns the dam. But, improvements or removal can only be done though a permitting process thought the state.

The first Kankakee River dam was constructed at the site of the current dam in 1871, and was used to power a flour mill, paper mill, and nut and bolt factory in downtown Wilmington.

Ice caused the dam to fail 12 years later, which lowered the upstream river by more than five feet.

That lowering caused economic hardship, with power lost to the mills and fishing and tourism industries forced to move out of the area.

The question of who owned the dam was a hot button issue in 1883 as well.

While that first dam was constructed by the Kankakee Improvement Company, the state claimed ownership of the water.

The next dam put in place was built by citizens who wanted to restart the mills in downtown. Since then, the dam has been rebuilt multiple times.

The first concrete dam was built in 1917.

The IDNR does not have an updated history of the current dam available.

Does the public have a voice?

The public always has a voice by way of elections. The dam was a hot topic at the last election in 2021. Since then, the city has formed an ad-hoc committee, which meets regularly to discuss options for dam safety. Information on the progress of the committee is available through City Hall.

What will happen to the concrete barriers?

“We don’t want to have the Jersey barriers removed and sit over there forever,” Mayor Ben Dietz said, adding that the barriers will probably be relocated to public works and can be used for any event where the city might need temporary barriers. “It never hurts to have them and we have plenty of storage,” he added.

Do you have more questions about the Kankakee River dam? Send them to us at news@fpnusa.com and we’ll find the answers!