The Vidette-Messenger Centennial EditionThe 1936 special edition celebrating Porter County's centennial year . . . .

The following article has been transcribed from the August 18, 1936, issue of The Vidette-Messenger, published in Valparaiso, Indiana. This particular special edition focuses on Porter County's centennial celebration and contains a 94-page compendium of Porter County history up to that time.

Return to the index of articles from The Vidette-Messenger's Porter County Centennial special edition.

Source: The Vidette-Messenger, Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana; August 18, 1936; Volume 10, Section 1, Page 7.


Kankakee River and Marshes Were Sportsmen's Paradise From the Days of Indians Through 200 Years of White Men

When the first white explorers, traders and trappers visited the Kankakee region, running through the northern edge of Porter county, and extending for miles in either direction, they reported a limitless extent of swamps and marshes, frequented only by wild animals and unfriendly savages.

Venturesome hunters and trappers explored it thoroughly and it soon became known as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, fishing, hunting and trapping sections in the Middle West.

The name of the Kankakee was A-ki-ki, meaning wolf Land River, and originated according to some authorities from a band of Mohicans who called themselves "Wolves", and settled on the banks of the St. Joseph river, near what is now South Bend, just prior to the advent of the early explorers.

It is claimed that from this band of Indians that Charlevoix, the French missionary, in 1721, recruited his force on his voyage to the Mississippi by way of the Kankakee.

The prairie marshes of the Kankakee in the early days varied from two to fifteen miles in width and there were hundreds of small islands from one-half to twenty acres in size scattered throughout the course of the stream. On some of these islands the sycamore and the oak grew to a very large size grape vines were everywhere and the huckleberry bushes grew in profusion. The swamps were a favorite haunt for nearly every variety of game birds, including several species of the snipe family, the wood duck and many other species of ducks. It was a nesting place for wild geese and thousands of them frequented a particular section of the march which became known as Goose Lake. It was a natural home for the mink and the muskrat and raccoons were found in great numbers. The otter and beaver were found in a limited extent compared with the muskrat, but lynx and wolves were common.

The amount of fur taken in the Kankakee region cannot be estimated. Indians, Frenchmen and Americans all engaged in it during different periods and in the early half of the nineteenth century, the output of furs rivaled, if not exceeded all other sections. During this period white trappers who had gradually replaced the fast disappearing red men had better equipment and the season's "take" materially increased to such an extent that the Kankakee swamps were known not only in this country but in Europe as well. It is known that the yield as late as 1872 when steel traps were in general use, was 30,000 muskrat skins and thousands of skins of other fur-bearing animals which were sold to traders by trappers in the Kankakee region.

Many of the smaller islands in the Kankakee river were early appropriated by trappers for headquarters and after 1850 hunting clubs erected substantial buildings and made many improvements on some of the larger islands.

One of the first settlers to locate on the banks of the stream was George Eaton in 1836, who with his family had a log cabin on the right bank of the river near Pottawattomie Ford. He began life as a ferry man, operating what was known as Eaton Ferry and twelve years later had the contract to carry the mail across the Kankakee swamps, there being a mail route established at that time between Michigan City and Rensselaer.

In the winter of 1849 he built a toll bridge across the river which was burned a short time after its erection, but Mr. Eaton continued to operate the ferry until 1857 when it came into possession of a man named Sawyer who continued to operate the ferry and carried mail for several years. He built a saw mill and did a good lumber business, floating logs down the river. Later Enos Baum operated the ferry and mail and about 1863 he built a bridge which was taken over by the county commissioners of Porter and Jasper counties about 1865.

Near the bridge, later called Baum's bridge, a party of hunters, millionaires, from Pittsburgh, built a club house in 1876, and called it the Pittsburgh Gun club. Nearby another club house was built by a party of hunters from Louisville, Ky. In 1873, the Columbia Hunting club, composed of business men of Hebron, built a club house on Deserter's Island, famous years ago as being a headquarters for deserters and fugitives from justice.

Heath & Milligan, of Chicago, bought land on School Grove Island and in 1869 built a Sportsmen's resort named Camp Milligan and it soon had a wide reputation. Visitors came from many American cities and even from abroad to hunt.

William Parker, said to be of noble birth, and Captain Blake, were English visitors in 1871 and were so pleased with their experiences that they returned the next year with Mr. Parker's brother and built the Cumberland lodge which soon became known for the lavish expenditures indulged in its maintenance. A fine dwelling house and barns, kennels of choice hunting dogs, Alderney cows and fancy bred horses were a part of the costly establishment which after the return to England of the Parker brothers became the property of some Chicago business men who maintained it for a number of years.

There were many trading stores which did a large business on some of the conveniently located islands, among them were the stores of Bertrand and LaVoire on Red Oak Island kept by a Frenchman named Laslie. Mike Haskins made his headquarters on Indian Island which had been the hunting and camping grounds of the Pottawattomie Indians even before the era of the white explorers.

Werich writes in "Pioneer Hunters of the Kankakee," that Haskins was on guard in Harrison's army at Tippecanoe and detected the approach of the Indians, firing the first shot of alarm which indicated their presence. Shortly after the close of the Civil war some prairie farmers who owned swamp land bought Indian Island and formed the Indian Island Saw Mill company.

During this period the business along the river had reached such proportions that several steamers were in operation hauling freight and supplies, and this service continued for many years. John Condon established headquarters on one of the islands which was a favorite resort for Chicago sportsmen. H. J. McSheehy, of Logansport, Ind., in his first hunting trip in 1876 used the first breechloaders on the Kankakee and they were soon in general use. General Lew Wallace, author of Ben Hur, and Benjamin Harrison, later president, were frequent visitors at the Indianapolis, Terre Haute and Rockville club house near Baum's bridge.

The Kankakee Valley Hunting club, composed of Chicago explorers built a club house on Indian Island in 1908, but duck shooting became a thing of the past very shortly through the drainage of the swamps and the club houses were removed. Allen Dutcher was the first trapper with headquarters on Grape Island and John France and James Cotton came into possession of Dutcher's property in 1876. While France was absent on a trip Cotton was murdered but the murderer was never apprehended.

Other old time trappers who were noted in this region were Joshua E. Essex and J. E. Gilson, who had a hunting cabin on Shanty Island; Sam Irwin with headquarters on Little Bench; John Hunter, who lived on School Grove Island; Eben Buck, who was known for his ability to skin and dress more hides than any many on the river; Bill Granger and two brothers, Jerry and Holland Sherwoods, for many years successful trappers; Honey Bee Sawyer, Marion and Filander Stevens, Joe Casen, Hod Folsom and Charles Carman, note bee hunters; Harrison Folsom and Rens Brainerd, distinguished in being the first trappers to use steel straps on the river, which they put in operation in the fall of 1845, and are said to have the first American trappers on the river.

J. Sylvester Werich was a noted trapper for years on the Kankakee. His grandfather, Dye, was the first settler on Horse Prairie in 1836. Werich is the author of a very interesting publication entitled "Pioneer Hunting on the Kankakee." LaBonte, a French fur trader, was the first white man to settle on French Island. Two or three French families lived on the island with LaBonte.

There were also a few members of the Pottawattomie tribe who had been permitted by the War department to stay in the Kankakee region. Among them were two famous chiefs named Killbuck and Shenbana. It was on this island that a complete outfit of counterfeiting tools, dyes, plates and so forth was found, evidently an outfit which belonged to a gang of counterfeiters which in the early sixties made their headquarters on Bogue Island.

The Kankakee marshes constituted the largest body of swamp lands in the state, approximately 500,000 acres in seven counties in which the river drains. Reclaiming these marshes was an early thought of the settlers and in 1858 a large ditch was excavated. A law passed by the legislature made possible organized drainage effort on a large scale and the Kankakee Valley Drainage association was formed to reclaim a large section. The powers given the association by law did not meet with general approval and formidable opposition against the association was developed with the result that its promoters decided not to proceed with their plans and the organization was permitted to languish.

Regardless of hostility and opposition of a large section of farmers and other citizens, another ditch was dug in 1870 and this was followed by dredging the Kankakee tributaries. In 1884 steam dredge boats were brought into service and the south as well as the north side of the Kankakee river soon had many large ditches.

Investigation showed that the removal of a ledge of limestone rock at Momence, Ill., about seven miles from the state line would have an important effect in lowering the water in the Indiana marsh section. The matter was brought before the Indiana legislature and in all there was appropriated $80,000 to be expended in the removal of the ledge, which was removed under the direction of J. D. Moran & Company in 1893.

Wealthy business men from Pontiac, Ill., formed the LaCrosse Land Company in 1900, and purchased 7,000 acres of Huncheon brothers, long time residents of the Kankakee for $165,000. Other tracts were also acquired. One of the associated companies, the Tuesburg Land Company, originally purchased 4,480 acres. Another, the McWilliams Land Company, purchased 5,280 acres, and in a short time the LaCrosse Land company and its associated companied owned more than 50,000 acres of land.

These companies with the cooperation of many private landowners combined their interests and controlling more than 40 miles of river front engaged in a court struggle that lasted for years, the victory finally going in favor of the land company.

The Kankakee Reclamation Co. was organized in 1902, having for its object the deepening, widening and straightening of the Kankakee river which rises near St. Joseph county. This company proposed by a system of ditches to cut out bends in the river, shortening its course and increasing the fall of the water per mile. This work consisted of a ditch from Section 24 in Hanna township, where the Place ditch ends, to the Porter county line. Through cutting out the bends forty-five miles of the length of the river was reduced to seventeen miles and the fall of water increased from 4.34 inches per mile to 14.2 inches per mile. It is said 150,000 acres of land were reclaimed in LaPorte and Starke counties.

The Place ditch is 22 miles long, and drains an area of 22 miles. It cost $66,000 and took two and a half years to construct. The Machler ditch was constructed under the authority of the LaPorte circuit court. It is ten miles. The Conk ditch is fourteen miles ling.

The "Danielson Arm" of the Place ditch is river work which makes the Place ditch practically a river ditch. Through its construction, sixty-five miles of the length of the river has been reduced to twenty-miles and in connection with the ditch of the Kankakee Reclamation company, 111 miles of the length of the river has been shortened to thirty-nine.

The reclamation of Porter and Lake counties' marsh lands were given early attention and great progress was made. The main courses are the Singleton ditch named after W. F. Singleton, who was formerly agent of the Lake County Agricultural society, and the Ackerman, Griesel, Hart and Brown ditches. Large tracts of land have been reclaimed in both counties.

The present main ditch channel of the Kankakee river from the eastern LaPorte line to the western Lake county line and into which all lateral ditches feed is composed of the Miller ditch from the LaPorte county line to Mud Lake, the Kankakee River Improvement ditch from Mud Lake to the Pennsylvania railroad to the Porter county line, the Marble ditch from Porter county to Water Valley, and the Davis ditch from Water Valley to the Illinois boundary or western Lake county line.

The drainage of the Kankakee by the Marble and other ditches has been in recent years been a controversial subject between those who claim that the construction of the vast network of ditches has resulted in thousands of acres of and being thrown open to cultivation, and those that claim that the destruction of wild animal life of the Kankakee territory for hunters and fishermen from all parts of the middle west removed one of nature's greatest works of art, and robbed Porter county of one of its greatest assets.

A recent move to restore the marshlands through CWA federal funds was made. A crew of 75 men made a survey of the marshlands but the project has never been undertaken.

At the present time the Marble ditch, the new bed of the Kankakee river is almost destitute of water. Trees along the Kankakee bottoms have died for lack of water. It is asserted that the normal rainfall of the region has been vitally affected by the draining of the swamplands, and that lands previously fertile are now unfit for farming purposes.

Article transcribed by Steven R. Shook


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