Overview and Some History

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The Kankakee River is one of Indiana's most extensive water drainage systems. It encompasses approximately 3,000 square miles of river basin which includes at least thirteen northwestern Indiana Counties. The topography of the watershed is flat to moderately rolling, expressing the effects of extensive glaciations. Sand and gravel river bottom and scoured bedrock are indicators of the glacial activity.

The Kankakee River is unique in that it has an ancient Indian portage at one end and an atomic age power plant at the other. One historian noted that between these two points there are a thousand strange tales.

Early explorers jokingly said that the Kankakee was as wide as it was long. Old maps show the many names of the river -- the Thekiki, Huakiki, Aukiki, Sauwauseebe, and finally Kankakee. The French explorer and mapmaker Siegnelay also used the names: Akaki, Tiahkekink, Kienkiki, Theaskiki, Auequeque, and Quinquiqui.

The Kankakee River rises from the springs and swamplands of Northwest Indiana about three or four miles southwest of the southernmost bend of the St. Joseph River, where the City of South Bend is located. The village of Crumstown is considered the nearest settlement to the marshes that indicate the beginning of the river. Historians have written that it was probably used as a canoe waterway well over a thousand years ago.


Two views of the Kankakee River, before dredging -Left: unknown collection. Right: Starke County Historical Museum Collection.

In the 1880 the Grand Kankakee Marsh was recognized as the largest fresh water wetland in the Midwest, extending for approximately a million acres mostly through Northwest Indiana (600,000 acres) and partially into Eastern Illinois. The fertile, ancient marshland provided a welcomed safe haven for migrating waterfowl. It was once a winding, thriving wetland providing lush habitats for a diverse menagerie of creatures from insects to fish, birds and buffalo. Ducks that migrated through that area more recently are descendants of millions of transient waterfowl which once frequented the Grand Marsh.

Until the mid-1880’s it was the home to Potawatomi Indians who relied on its natural riches for their sustenance. “Kankakee” is based upon an old Bodewadmi/ Potawatomi word roughly meaning “My Mother’s breast.” That whole area, including the wetland, river valleys and marshlands was considered “Mother’s Breast” to early Native people who trekked those lands searching for food, shelter and clothing.

(Photo) Mastodon Bones found near Walkerton. -Walkerton Area Historical Society Photo- During the straightening of the river in the early part of this century, bones of ancient animals were discovered, including mastodon, saber-toothed tiger, giant beaver, and a type of large elk, all dug up by the excavating machinery. In all its twisting and turning, the river was nearly 200 miles long, but today, after the dredging and straightening, the length is about 120 miles. It meets the Des Plaines River in Grundy County, Illinois, to form the Illinois River.

Charles Bartlett, in his book "Tales of Kankakee Land," had this to say of the Kankakee: "More than a million acres of swaying reeds, fluttering flags, clumps of wild rice, thick growing lily pads, soft beds of cool green mosses, shimmering ponds and black mire and trembling bogs -- such is Kankakee Land." He wrote that the wonderful marshes with their silence, their vastness, their misty haze and their miry depths, make them the very realm of forgetfulness and oblivion.

Pioneer John Brown wrote in 1884, when he was Auditor of Lake County, "It is a slow sluggish stream with a fall of from one-to-one and one-half feet to the mile in this state. It being very crooked and the land on either side being low and marsh, the water moves very slowly and these low lands, forming what is familiarly known as the Kankakee Marsh, are for a period of time each year covered with from one to three feet of water.

In those early days, about six sections of land in the southeast corner of Lake County were covered with timber, composed mostly of ash and elm, with some sycamore and gum trees, and with oak on the islands. The balance of these wetlands running west to the state line was open marsh, covered with heavy growth of wild grasses, wild rice, and flags. 'Flags' are varieties of plants with long sword-shaped leaves, including plants of the Iris family. Photo Right: The wide Kankakee at English Lake

The French explorers, Charlevoix, La Salle, Tonti, and Father Hennepin, were the first to give an account of the characteristics of the Kankakee region. This valley they entered at its source near South Bend, Indiana, after experiencing much difficulty in locating the portage between the St. Joseph River, up which they had ascended from Lake Michigan, and the source of the Kankakee, which they regarded as the headwaters of the Illinois River. Here they came into contact with the Potawatomi Indian, who found the marsh a refuge against the ferocious Iroquois of the East.

(Photo) Looking out over the marsh and marshgrass in LaPorte County. This marshgrass was harvested by the early ice industry for insulation. -Michigan City Library Collection- While some of the Indians appear to have settled more or less permanently on the marsh margin or on islands within the marsh or swamp, the majority seem to have migrated back and forth, in summer occupying the marginal moraine or Lake Michigan plain, and in winter retiring to the swamp (or marsh) island,

Before the pioneers and early settlers arrived in the northwest corner of Indiana, the Kankakee attracted many tribes of Indians and was the home of French traders and trappers. It is believed that the first tribe in possession of the Marsh lands were the Miami, then the Wyandottes, followed by the Illinois, and finally the Potawatomi, the principal tribe in the area.

The Potawatomi migrated from Wisconsin in the late part of the 17th century and replaced the Illinois Tribe. They spoke the Algonquin language and were closely related to the Ottawa and the Ojibwas, with whom they had once formed a single tribe.  It is surprising to read that some of the "Last of the Mohicans" came from the east and hid themselves on the islands of the Kankakee, an asylum for a persecuted race and a place where the camp fires of their tribe went out forever.

(photo) Abundent water fowl was present in the marsh. -Michigan City Library Collection- Indian Island near the Kankakee was the Indians' camping ground. During the hunting season of the fur-bearing animals, from early autumn to late in the spring, this island was their home.  Around  the first of May they would pack their hides, furs, and with their squaws and children they would start for the Lake Michigan region to meet the fur traders. About one mile up the river from Indian Island was another Indian camp ground, known as Indian Garden. The Indians in selecting a camp ground always located on a point of high land which was well fortified and could not be invaded by the enemy.

A French trader named Laslie ran a store on Big White Oak Island south of Orchard Grove. Pioneer Charles Kenney told the story of visiting the Frenchman and his Indian wife on New Years, 1839. He and his son had been in the marsh looking for horses, stayed all night and enjoyed the hospitality of the trader and of the Indians on the island. After treaties in 1832 and 1836, the Potawatomi relinquished control of their lands in northwest Indiana, and all but a few moved from the Kankakee River basin. The fur trappers derived most of their wealth from muskrat pelts, although beaver and other fur-bearers were harvested. The muskrat harvest during the 1834-1884 period averaged between 20,000-40,000 pelts per year.

The Indians in the area in 1834, when Lake County was surveyed, and when the pioneers came, were those who acknowledged the white man as a conqueror. Some of the Potawatomi were still on their hunting and trapping grounds when the first settlers came, and were mostly friendly.

(Photo) Typical hunting cabin of the Kankakee -Northwest Indiana Genealogical Society Collection- The original influx on non-native settlers began homesteading lands surrounding the marsh in 1834. Shortly thereafter an 1850 Act of Congress gave title of the Kankakee Marsh wilderness to the State Of Indiana. The next significant development was the construction of a permanent bridge crossing the Kankakee at an important site, which became known as Baum’s Bridge

Word quickly spread around the area and continent about the abundance of wild life and game. As word continued to spread some of the continent’s most affluent and influential sportsmen, extolling the availability of extraordinary hunting began forming clubs. In 1869 the first sportsmen camp was built by Heartand Milligan of Chicago.  This is the beginning of the heyday of the hunt clubs. Several clubs were located near Baum’s Bridge in Northwest Indiana. Other hunt clubs and lodges that catered to a stream of wealthy visitors were: Mac Saw Ba Club, Nickel Plate Club, Ben Hur Landing,  Camp Milligan Cumberland Lodge, Valley Hunt Club/ White House Hunt Club, Rockville, Terre Haute and Indianapolis Club ( later became Donely Resort), Diana Club, Fogli Hotel, Alpine Hunt and Sports Club, Louisville Club House, Pittsburgh Hunt Club, White Oaks Shooting Club, Alhgrims Park and the Grand Colliers Lodge.

(Photo Right) Baum's Bridge 1907 Five of these clubs were built in convenient proximity to Baum’s Bridge. “The Grand Marsh” supported a local economy that was built around water fowling and the fur trade. With waterfowl in abundance, sportsmen came from all over the world to hunt.

Some notables who regularly visited Kankakee Marsh clubs were, Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison and Lew Wallace, famous author and Civil War General. The original name of the Valley Hunt Club was changed to the White House Hunt Club because of the frequent presidential visits by Grover Cleveland. The Studebaker Family of automobile fame, L. M. Wainwright of Diamond Chain Company, William Thompson of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and William Short of Western Hide and Tanning Company were business movers and shakers as well as principal owners of some of the clubs.

A number of railroad executives were attracted to this area after branches of their railroads reached the Kankakee area. The Chicago, Indianapolis and Louisville (Monon), Indiana, Illinois and Iowa Railroad (3 – I,  later New York Central), Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, Erie Railroad, Nickel Plate Road and Pennsylvania Railroad soon served these clubs and the area. Some traveled in lush comfort in private Pullman cars stationed on sidings for the duration of their visits to the hunting clubs. Places like Water Valley, Shelby, Wilders, Davis Station, Chambers Landing, Willvale, English Lake and Riverside soon started appearing on these railroad’s time tables and the railroads hastened to build stations or schedule stops to serve the local clubs. A separate section on railroads will be included in this presentation.

Our tour and look at the Grand Kankakee Marsh and the sports clubs will begin in St. Joseph County and move west to the Indiana/ Illinois line.

This web site will mention some of the more well known clubs, and areas.  We are sure there are ones that we have missed. During the late 1800 and early 1900’s  there were literally hundreds of places along the Kankakee River where people hunted, fished and enjoyed the experience of the river.


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