04 November 2013

Everglades of the North



What I imagine the great Kankakee Marsh looking like this time of year....taken at the Kankakee State Wetlands
No doubt at least a few of you have watched the program on local public television entitled "Everglades of the North".  The show has been on once or twice, and is being featured at the Marshall County Genealogical Society's annual meeting this month.

The "everglades" refer to the vast inland Kankakee marsh that once extended from the western regions of Saint Joseph and Marshall Counties westward to the state line following the watershed area created by the Kankakee River.  The stories about this area are fascinating.  Isolated islands of oak trees on sand bluffs called oak savannas filled the marsh.  Vast wetlands filled with waterfowl would "blot out the sun" when lifting off en mass.  Hunters and trappers used the area from prehistoric times into the first decade of the 20th century.  These included presidents and tycoons who came to well-established hunting lodges along the Kankakee.

And then man felt that they needed many more acres of less-than-marginal farmground for production and the great dredge began.  The land went dry.  The wildlife left.  And the lodges became shuttered as the huntsmen became as rare as the game they sought.

C. 1880 map of Newton County, Indiana showing Beaver Lake
I'm admittedly fascinated by historic landscapes-those untouched by man.  I often try to imagine on this rolling acreage we call home, what it looked like 200 years ago before the ax fell the tree and the plow turned the sod for the first time.  So imagining the great Kankakee marsh becomes almost dreamlike because of its vastness.  The documentary about the everglades of the north included mention of a huge lake called Beaver Lake that existed in northern Newton County.  The lake was over 36,000 acres.  To put this in perspective, the largest natural lake in Indiana today is Lake Wawasee......it measures just over 3,000 acres, or nearly one-twelfth the size of Beaver Lake.  The great lake was drained when a ditch was completed between the lake and the Kankakee in 1873.  Lemuel Milk the "Prairie King" was responsible for buying the lake and draining it to sell land.  About 1/10 of the lake remained, though most of its marshes were dry.  Within 20 years the last of the lake dried up.

The sole reminder of Beaver Lake and Bogus Island, on U.S. 41
Outlaws including horse thieves and counterfeiters used an island in the middle of the lake as a hiding place from law enforcement.  The island was called Bogus Island.  It was several acres in size and 75 feet at its precipice.  A recent visit to the area revealed that the island was likely carted away for sand many years ago.  Today a portion of the lake bed is owned by the Indiana chapter of the Nature Conservancy and is filled with prairie grasses.  The site is a few miles south of Highway 10 on Highway 41 in Newton County.  While I applaud the work of the Nature Conservancy, one can't help but get a sick feeling in their stomach when faced with the loss of one of the largest, and most unusual natural features in Indiana.

1 comment:

Kestrel said...

The Grand Kankakee Marsh WAS the North American equivalent of the African Serengeti.
The very first time I went to Canada fishing when I was 14 an Indian Guide told us that his ancestors once fished and hunted on the southern edges of Lake Michigan.....The Grand Kankakee Marsh!