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Reflections: Early struggles getting across rivers, streams

When the earliest settlers arrived in the Fox Valley in the late 1820s, they considered the Fox River and the creeks that fed into it more of a hindrance than a positive factor enabling settlement.

Granted, the streams provided breaks for the prairie fires that swept from west to east in the spring and fall, allowing thick belts of timber to grow on the east side of the streams. And timber was a necessity in the days of log buildings and rail fences.

And most of the larger creeks (and some of the smaller ones, too) provided spots to build dams to power grist and sawmills. That also was a positive development.

But the Fox was never deep enough, even near its mouth on the Illinois River at Ottawa, to float steamboats anywhere along its length (with one exception, but that’s another story entirely). In fact, when it came to transportation, the region’s streams were impediments to travel.

Of course, during this time of year back in the 1830s and 1840s, it wasn’t too much of a problem to get across the rivers and creeks west of Chicago because they were running pretty low. But during the other three seasons, fords with solid bottoms and gentle banks were a must to get horse-drawn wagons, stagecoaches and carriages across.

Locating good fords where teams and wagons could get across was one of the first things our pioneer ancestors did. After they’d been settled for a few years, they started building bridges so they could cross streams even during periods of high water, which were frequent, especially in the spring.

The location of good fords dictated the location of many of the region’s earliest roads. The road from Chicago through Naperville crossed the Des Plaines River on the ford at Bernard Laughton’s tavern and inn (modern Riverside) and crossed the DuPage River at Joseph Naper’s settlement before heading west to the Fox River, then northwest to the lead-mining region around Galena.

The original road was laid out to cross the Fox at a ford a few hundred feet south of today’s Montgomery Bridge. Kendall County historian E.W. Hicks referred to the Montgomery ford as the Galena Ford in reference to its establishment on the Galena Road. On modern maps you can see where the ford was located by following an extension of Jefferson Street on the west bank of the river, across the Fox to meet at Third Avenue, which then was part of Montgomery Road. After the official route was laid out, Daniel Gray, Montgomery’s founder, decided to build a bridge at the ford to further encourage stagecoach mail traffic to pass through his new village.

But Samuel and Joseph, the McCarty brothers who were busy promoting their own new town of Aurora, literally stole the stagecoach road from Montgomery. They built a road on the marshy route from Naperville to Aurora that included a number of bridges across the wettest portions and encouraged the Frink, Walker & Company stages to use it by offering to board the company’s drivers and horses for free. To cap it off, the McCartys somehow managed to gain possession of the postmaster’s key that was supposed to go to Gray in Montgomery. During that era, the basic definition of a postmaster was the person who possessed a key to open the special locks on the U.S. Mail’s official mail sacks. Without the key, Montgomery, by definition, could not have a post office.

In 1908, Aurora citizens were polled on what they considered the “principal events in the history of Aurora.” One of the events at the top of their list was “The getting of the post office at Aurora away from Montgomery.” As a result, Montgomery didn’t get its own post office until 1848, something that undoubtedly had a negative effect on the village’s growth.

The Galena Road is also an excellent illustration of how fords dictated the routes of roads. As noted, the original Galena Road crossed the Fox at Montgomery. But instead of heading northwest to Galena, the road bent fairly sharply to the southwest. Why? Because the only good ford across Blackberry Creek was southwest of Montgomery. Good fords across the Blackberry apparently were so scarce that even after Aurora stole the stage road from Montgomery, the Galena Road continued to make that southwest bend to cross Blackberry Creek. And, in fact, the old ford still is the location of a modern Galena Road bridge across the creek.

Meanwhile, downstream at Oswego, there was another high-quality ford across the river. The bottom of the ford was smooth limestone all the way across, and at that location, just above the mouth of Waubonsie Creek, the Fox ran particularly shallow, with low banks that allowed easy access to the river. The ford had been used by Native Americans long before white settlers arrived, and continued to be used by the pioneers who began arriving in the early 1830s. The ford was so good that the first bridge at Oswego wasn’t built until 1848.

Fords dotted the countryside back in the day, and more than a few of them became locations where towns and villages grew up. The hamlet of Little Rock in northwest Kendall County grew because of the Little Rock Creek ford, Plainfield got its start (as Walker’s Grove) because of the DuPage River ford located there and Millbrook was the site of the Millbrook Ford across the river. In the village of Bristol – now the north side of Yorkville – there not only was a ford across the creek near its mouth, but also across the river near the creek mouth. Batavia and Geneva (where the ford was named Herrington’s Ford) both grew because of the Fox River fords at those locations.

These days, we don’t worry much about the old fords across area streams, unless we’re canoeing during low water and happen across them. But the time was they were such important economic assets that they led to the creation of many of the communities we live in today.

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