The Kankakee Marsh
Nature Bulletin No. 75 July 20, 1946
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Clayton F. Smith, President
Roberts Mann, Superintendent of Conservation
THE KANKAKEE MARSH
The Kankakee Marsh is coming back. Indiana is trying to rectify her
great mistake. Portions of what was one of the richest wildlife areas in
the nation are being restored. It was called the "Grand Marsh" by the
early French explorers who came upstream on the St. Joseph River from
Lake Michigan to what is now South Bend, where they made a short
portage to the headwaters of the Kankakee. From there, paralleling the
southern tip of Lake Michigan, the great swamp extended to the
limestone ledge at what is now Momence, just west of the Indiana-
Illinois state line. As late as 1882 there were almost 500,000 acres of
marsh in an area 75 miles long and 30 miles wide, described then as
"From its source to the state-line there is a direct distance of only 75
miles, but within this distance the stream makes 2,000 bends and flows
a total length of 240 miles .... The water has an almost imperceptible
flow, and in many places wild rice, rushes, lily-pads and aquatic grasses
channel.... It resembles an immense sponge, slowly absorbing the water
during the wet season and as slowly giving it forth during the dry, so
that the flow throughout the year is quite regular and uniform in
It teemed with fish, waterfowl, furbearers, upland game birds including
quail, ruffed grouse, prairie chicken and wild turkey, and many other
forms of wildlife now extinct in this region, such as trumpeter swan,
sandhill cranes, buffalo, elk deer, black bear, timber wolves and
During the next 50 years the land companies and farmers took over.
The river channel was dredged and straightened. The rock ledge at
Momence, which had held water in the marsh, was cut down several
feet. Lateral ditches and levees were constructed everywhere. But
eventually it was found that much of the drained land was not good for
farming. Crops drowned out in wet years and burned out in dry years
because of a sandy subsoil which does not hold water and a loose
mucky topsoil that drifted like snow. Many farms later sold for as low
as $5.00 per acre.
Now the tide has turned. More than 15,000 acres have been restored to
their original state by the Indiana Department of Conservation and a
few private land-owners who realize the values of native wildlife. Many
thousand more acres will be similarly restored. Wild geese and ducks
are wintering on the 7500-acre Jasper-Pulaski Game Preserve.
Furbearers and upland game are becoming plentiful. Beaver have been
introduced and are multiplying rapidly.
The plan for the proposed Kankakee Basin Public Lands Area provides
for the acquisition and restoration of about 100,000 acres, all of it
submarginal lands unsuitable for agriculture. This includes the 24,000
acre Beaver Lake Area, south of the main Kankakee basin and adjacent
to Lake Village on U.S. 41, of which only 2000 acres would be flooded.
The total area to be flooded would total roughly 26,000 acres. The
border marsh lands and knolls would provide 48,000 acres of waterfowl
area. The remainder, including most of the Beaver Lake area which still
has a sizable colony of prairie chicken, would be habitat for upland
game and furbearers.
We are learning some of the principles of proper land use. We are
heeding the warning of Gifford Pinchot: "A nation deprived of liberty
may win it, a nation divided may reunite, but a nation whose national
resources are destroyed must inevitably pay the penalty of poverty,
degradation and decay."
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Update: June 2012