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Columns

Reflections: The Fox: River of not enough respect?

File photo: Mill Street bridge over the Fox River in Montgomery
File photo: Mill Street bridge over the Fox River in Montgomery

I’ve lived along or on the banks of the Fox River for most of the years since I was 8 years old. And one of the things those of us who grew up on the river know is that it quickly can become dangerous, and therefore demands respect.

Far too many of those who live in the Fox River Valley take the stream for granted. It’s “only the Fox,” I hear far too often. And while it generally is a fairly placid, well-behaved stream, it can and often unexpectedly become a danger to the unwary.

When the settlers moved here, they knew the river posed its greatest danger during the spring breakup when heavy rains and melting ice created a raging stream that bore no resemblance to what it was like the rest of the year. But sudden storms at any time of the year also could turn the Fox into a dangerous antagonist.

The valley’s early residents called those floods freshets. Major ones were recorded in 1840, 1857 and 1868. It was the consensus that the 1857 event was by far the worst. Oswego resident J .H. Sutherland wrote in the Oswego Herald in 1907 that the 1857 spring freshet was still clear in his mind.

“When I arose next morning at about seven o’clock, lo! and behold, the river was a raging torrent. A lumber yard owned by a Mr. Rowley was floating downstream, and was all lost during the day; the bridge was washed away, a sawmill at the east end of the mill dam also floated downstream, the flour mill was seriously damaged, and the mill dam was washed out.”

The river’s freshets were destructive, but most people knew enough to stay out of the river while they were happening. At least most did. Sometimes, however, people just didn’t pay attention and were in danger of paying with their lives. A good example of daring the river to do its worst was recounted in the autobiography of silent film star William S. Hart.

Hart’s father was the miller at the Parker & Sons gristmill on the west bank of the Fox just above Oswego. In spring 1870, the ice was just going out of the Fox River, with huge, thick floes rushing down the stream and across Parker’s dam. At the sawmill across the river at the east end of the dam, the sawyers needed supplies from the Hart family at the gristmill. The supplies were loaded aboard a rickety rowboat and Nicholas, William’s father, prepared to set off to deliver the supplies. Like kids anywhere, 6-year-old William and his sister begged to go along for the boat ride. Astonishingly, their parents agreed.

Off the party went, the plan being for Hart’s father to row upstream along the west bank to Bullhead Bend – opposite today’s Violet Patch Park – before turning across the current to land at the sawmill on the east side of the river. As Nicholas battled the current and the ice floes battered the flimsy rowboat, the family dog, Ring, suddenly decided to swim out and join the fun. They managed to get the dog hauled aboard, but by that time the boat was dangerously close to the dam. Had it gone over, the roller wave at the base of the dam certainly would have drowned all three Harts. But through a truly Herculean effort, Nicholas somehow managed to make it to the east bank and get everyone ashore, although the boat was badly damaged in the process.

Then there was the March 1879 adventure of teenagers Etta McKinney and Hattie Mullen who went down to the flooded river by the Oswego bridge with friends and found a rowboat tied up along the bank. The two thought it would be great fun to float downstream, Etta promising she “knew how to make the boat go.” But once underway, Etta found she couldn’t control the boat in the flooded river and couldn’t get back to shore, either. Meanwhile their friends ran for help, shouting that the two girls probably had drowned by then. Etta managed to get close enough to shore that Hattie sensibly jumped out and waded ashore, but Etta couldn’t gather the courage to jump, and instead continued downstream, “industriously singing Sunday school hymns,” according to the newspaper account. Eventually, adult help arrived and got the boat to shore and Etta rescued. When Etta was finally rescued, and despite singing hymns, she maintained she hadn’t been frightened a bit and that “it was the best boat ride she ever had.”

Not everyone was so lucky, however. A month later, young Ed Moore was swept over the Yorkville dam, bounced around badly on the river bottom and nearly drowned. In January 1880, George Wormley, a relative of the Wormleys on the west side of the river, and his friend George Pollard were rowing their boat across the river just above Oswego when they struck a sandbar just below the Oswego dam, overturning the boat and drowning Wormley.

In April 1896, 10-year-old Willie Stein fell in the flooded river at Montgomery while fishing and drowned. And in June 1908, Israel Blume and Louis Spink drowned at Yorkville when their rowboat went over the dam and they were caught in the roller wave at the dam’s base.

In most of the cases of people drowning in the river, in the 19th and 20th centuries, and right up to the present day, the deaths can be attributed to people being unacquainted with the river and not taking the stream, when flooded, seriously. After all, it’s only the familiar old Fox. Those of us who grew up on the river know some of its secrets: where the occasional deep holes are, places where the currents can play havoc with boats and canoes, and where dangerous rocks and bars endanger those using the river. But for the occasional canoeist, kayaker, or angler, the Fox can present problems that sometimes can turn dangerous – or even fatal.

• Looking for more local history? Visit http://historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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