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home : columnists : time was November 24, 2015

1/29/2013 10:53:00 AM
The fourth time was the charm, taming the Kankakee
DANIELS' CUT, now under Towpath Lane, was part of a system that allowed boats to bypass a shallow are in the Kankakee River about where the Plese family farm is.
+ click to enlarge
DANIELS' CUT, now under Towpath Lane, was part of a system that allowed boats to bypass a shallow are in the Kankakee River about where the Plese family farm is.
THE OLD canal locks at the south end of South Island, before the original iron bridge was built. Most of the structure survives.
+ click to enlarge
THE OLD canal locks at the south end of South Island, before the original iron bridge was built. Most of the structure survives.

Sandy Vasko

Last we met in 1867 the dam making the Kankakee navigable to Wilmington had been demolished by a spring ice flood. The citizens had pretty much decided that the Kankakee had defeated them.

But there were a few who thought that if more money could be obtained, all could be made whole.

One of those who thought that way was H. O. Alden. He had purchased land from his brother James, an early land speculator in Wilmington, which included the island. It was his grain warehouse on the island that was swept away in the '67 flood.

He had moved back East, where he saw water power had made men rich. What was needed in Wilmington was more money and the newest technology to build a whole series of dams and locks that could withstand the spring ice, and would let canal boats travel all the way to Kankakee.

He, along with another brother Edward, successfully raised the money among his entrepreneurial friends in New England. One of them was William Clafflin, Governor of Massachusetts. Their initial investment of $200,000 (about $1,142,000 today) was to be supplemented with shares of stock purchased by local investors.

Needless to say, those business men who were losing money since the dam burst were the first to invest in his ideas. An additional $50,000 (about $876,000 today) was raised.

By 1871 the old dam had been rebuilt, the State Dam at the Feeder Canal had been raised, and canal boats could once again come as far as Wilmington. But the problem facing the Kankakee Company then was the fact there was a very shallow area just above Wilmington extending to about where the Plese farm is now. The solution was to dig a canal to by-pass that area and by means of locks and dams to create navigation to Altorf.

The new canal, called Daniels' Cut after the local banker John Daniels, was dug where Towpath Lane is now. A lock and dam were installed under Baltimore Street just behind the Eagle Hotel, and another at the south end of the island. The remnants of the last set can still be seen on the east end of the bridge at the south end of South Island.

A channel in the river was blasted out from where the rubble dam on the north end of the mill race is now, out to Turtle Island so that even in low water canal boats could still navigate. I am told that that channel is now a great place to catch fish.

Finally on June 10, 1871 we read in The Wilmington Advocate, "Three Cheers! A canal boat, the first of the season in "our waters," arrived at Dam 1 on Thursday, laden with 35,000 feet of timber, and returning with a cargo of corn. The timber is for the wharf and ice-breaker at the above named point."

And in August of the year, "Boats are now loading to Chicago with seventy-five thousand feet of lumber for this city. These will be the largest freights ever brought here by any single boat. A happy day for Wilmington is at hand."

By the following year the improvements were completed and boats were able to make their way to Altorf, but there were a few clouds in the sky. The company had proposed extending navigation all the way to Indiana, but had already run out of money. They quickly put more stock on the market, and it was bought up mostly by eastern investors.

Still there wasn't enough. In 1874 the company took out a loan for $1,250,000 (about $24,500,000 today) from investors in England. But the country was slowly but steadily entering into a nationwide depression. Soon workers' strikes sprouted up around the country. Railroad workers struck, coal miners struck, iron workers struck, and in general businesses took a nose dive.

Rumors started to fly, and one of them was that the loan was never actually made. A Wilmington resident and chief engineer for the company, Mr. Waters, abruptly left town for the east. The Wilmington Advocate anxiously wrote, "Where is Engineer Waters? Asks everybody. An answer to this question would relieve much anxiety in our city. That the loan to the Kankakee Company has been made is believed as a fact beyond dispute, and the people are anxious to see active operations commenced. It is thought that Mr. Waters cannot be much longer absent."

Still by December 1874 there were no answers, "We called at the Kankakee Company's office this week and only ascertained that Mr. Carpenter the managing director has not yet returned from Europe. Ex. Gov. Claflin, President, will leave next month for England and 'we shall see, we shall see.'"

When 1875 rolled around it was evident that the Kankakee Company was no more. Worse yet this report came from the I&M Canal headquarters, "The superintendent of the canal, in his report for 1874, says: "The Kankakee aqueduct is getting old; the present structure was built in 1865 at a cost of $20,000, and as such structures do not last to exceed ten years, its time must soon expire."

In our final part next time we will tell "the end of the story."

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