Joseph A. Singler
Charles Smith, Joseph Singler, Harry Van Horn
Ed. Note: Following is a story written by a
man who know the Kankakee River and all its beauty before it was
drained. Mr. Singler
formerly lived in Chicago, but is now a resident of Alhambra,
It was in September 1891 (Gosh, how far away that seems now!)
that four of us had our first real outing, and one that meant so
much to us in later years.
Four high school boys just starting out in life, each one getting
his first earned vacation after a year’s hard work, and eager for
an adventure on the famous Kankakee River and marshes, some 65 miles
south of downtown Chicago. We
had heard fabulous stories about the grand hunting and fishing in
this region and were raring to go and try our luck.
We four: Charles Coventry, Charles Smith, Harry Van Horn and myself
met almost nightly in my fathers greenhouse in Morgan Park, then a
suburb of Chicago, and 13 miles from downtown.
My father was a wholesale florist and we had our meetings in
our greenhouse shop to plan our outing.
In those days, over half a century ago, conditions were rather
primitive and it meant careful preparation. Of course there were no autos to get any needed supplies, and
so we had to plan carefully.
My father seemed worried. Said
we were “babes in the woods” and would starve down there and
were in danger of wild animals.
We scoffed at this. As
a matter of fact when we retuned from the outing I was about six
pounds heavier and the other boys also gained their share.
As for wild animals, there may have been a few lone wolves in
the deep woods and marshes at that time, but I’m not sure.
And so, on the morning of September 19, 1891 (I never forget the
date) after weeks of careful planning and preparation, we boarded a
Panhandle (Penna. R. R.) train at Washington Heights for Kouts,
Indiana, and arrived there about two hours later.
Only three of us made the trip, as Harry Van Horn found it
impossible to get away but would take a train late in the afternoon.
We went to the only livery in Kouts, a small county hamlet of
a few hundred inhabitants at that time. An old friend of ours, who
hunted on the Kankakee quite often, had engaged a team for us, and
so we set out for the river, about four miles away.
Wilcox, Kate Wilcox, Harry Van Horn, Charles Smith in wagon
The country road was deep in sand and it was a tough haul for the
two horses. Finally,
about noon, we reached Baum’s Bridge and our first glimpse of the
famous Kankakee the river discovered and explored some centuries ago
by the intrepid La Salle and his faithful followers in quest of gold
and new dominions for their sovereign king.
The name of the gallant La Salle will be forever associated
with the Kankakee.
Centuries later this beautiful Kankakee region, famous all over the
United States as a wild life paradise was destroyed for the same
material gain. The
vanishing river is a sad example of misplaced ambition and human
greed. The march of progress (?) had to be satisfied but was
anything really gained? The purchase by the State of Indiana of
thousands of acres of marshland along the old riverbed and restoring
them to their original state to bring back the wild life is a
partial answer to this.
The Kankakee flowed through a mystic land peopled with the phantom
shadows of a departed race. Only
a short half-century before we first saw the river the Kankakee
country was the home of the Miami and the Pottowotamie Indians. And as we rounded bend after bend of the picturesque river on
the wings of fancy we could see the Indians in their wigwams,
hunting game in the woods, or fishing perhaps, when they needed
food. The romance of the past was present in the murmuring waters
and the silent woods.
With sweeps and bends the river wound out on open fertile plains and
into dense virgin forests, doubling to and fro in its course and
moving on to vast labyrinths of rushes, lily pads and brush tangles.
The main channel often lost itself in the side currents and
bayous. All this we
learned in the days that followed, days rich in anticipation and
As we reached the bridge we noticed Collier’s General Store on the
east bank; we bought a few supplies here while we were camping out.
Baum’s Bridge was an old wooden structure, erected before
the Civil War, and which had replaced a ferry that was used by white
travelers and Indian’s.
Smith, Harry Van Horn, Charles Coventry, Jim Collier
Our driver said he knew a fine camping spot on the west bank not far
from the bridge, and drove his team to it. It really was a lovely spot, well protected by large oaks and
maples and elms. WE
unloaded our tent and baggage and got busy with making camp.
Charles Coventry and Smitty decided to stay and get things in order
for a week’s stay, while I returned with the team to meet Harry in
Kouts, and hike back with him and help carry his luggage.
The train arrived near dusk and we started to trudge the
sandy road, taking turns carrying Harry’s luggage.
I remember well that hike. It
was long and dusty, but we enjoyed the novelty immensely.
The crickets and katydids kept up a lively chorus as we
trudged along. The
stars cam out, one by one, and shed their pale brilliance on the two
city lads, not a little bit weary, walking through the deep sand on
the way to the river.
At last we reached the bridge and saw the welcome sight of our
flickering campfire. Boy,
were we glad! And then
four ravenous lads sat down to their first outdoor meal.
I can’t remember what it was, but I know we cleaned it up.
We were new at this game, and because the trappers on the river had
a reputation of being rather hard characters we decided to take
turns watching while the others slept.
I took the first watch and wasn’t sorry!
The other boys were soon asleep for we were all dog tired.
I sat in front of the tent, musing on the events of a busy
day. And then, slowly,
majestically, the autumn moon rose through the trees, casting its
silvery, shimmering radiance on the shadowy forest. I sat entranced. And
then, faintly and sweetly, came the strains of a fiddle through the
soft night air.
And now came another sound, shouts of laughter, the shuffling of
feet, and then, quite clearly, came the calls for the various square
dance figures, swing your partner, alla-man left, and so on.
I longed to wake the boys and have us all go and join the fun, but
they were tired out and sleeping so soundly that I didn’t have the
heart. So I just sat
and listened to rustic swains and lassies at their moonlight
Time slipped by. The
moon rose higher. It
cast its mystic light on an unreal world, for to a city lad it was
like a page from a fairy tale book.
And now the soft murmur of the cool waters gliding by, the chirp of
the crickets and the little voices of night life in the woods made
me drowsy. The hoot of
an owl startled me, and then, down the dark stretches of water, came
the plaintive notes of “Home Sweet Home.”
Slowly, but too quickly, the laughter and shouting faded on
the air. The barn dance
I turned in, not even bothering to waken any of the boys to take the
next watch, and knowing they would bawl me out unmercifully in the
morning when I told them about the barn dance.
And they did. In
fact for many many years after that, if the subject of our trip came
up and the barn dance was mentioned they rubbed it in, hard.
And I don’t blame them very much.
We were awake with the larks, eager for the first day’s adventure.
While getting ready for out first breakfast, one of the boys,
I think it was Harry, baited his hook with worms and started fishing
in front of our camp, as the river was only about 50 feet away.
He had a nibble, a strike, and landed a nice fat sunfish in
the almost no time. There must have been a school of them for in a
short time we had a half a dozen nice ones and they certainly added
zest to our breakfast. We
were a cheerful lot.
A large flat stump of a former monarch of the forest, on the edge of
the riverbank served as a table for our meals.
It was an ideal spot for eating, where we could enjoy the
cool murmuring waters of the river.
Harry Van Horn, Charles Smith, Charles Coventry (?)
In the middle of the stream, and not over 100 feet away, was a nice
sandbar. And because
this sandbar was so handy and the weather real warm, we went bathing
a number of times during our stay, sans bathing suits, regular
September morns on a September day.
To be entirely frank, we had no bathing suits, and did not
know what they looked like. Our
feathered friends were the only ones around to witness out gamboling
in the river.
Before starting out to the things we met George Wilcox, who owned a
farm near the river and who was custodian of Gen. Lew Wallace’s
houseboat, and arranged with him for our daily supply of milk and
bread. He informed us
that Gen. Wallace spent all his summer vacations on the river,
traveling up and down in his houseboat and devoting a good deal of
his time to his writings. Almost all of “Ben Hur” was written on these river
In later years I had the pleasure and the privilege of meeting Gen.
Wallace a number of times and he informed me he was very fond of the
wild, picturesque Kankakee and spent all of his spare time here.
I was told he started visiting the river in the seventies.
After leaving George Wilcox we started to see and explore the
river, as we had heard much about its wild beauty.
Our anticipation ran high, and we were not disappointed.
First we noted the outdoor dance platform close to the Louisville
Clubhouse, and a little over a quarter mile from our camp.
Here I got another not too gentle poke in the ribs.
It was unseasonably hot for late September, in the nineties,
but it was quite cool on the river as we started the down trip.
A swift current and overhanging trees whenever the river
narrowed spelled for this comfortable condition on the hot day.
Each river bend, and there were many, brought new vistas to admire.
Magnificent trees, lily pads, autumn flowers blooming freely
on the banks and in river vegetation.
We found many cool retreats, with overhanging trees, near the
riverbanks. During our
weeks stay on the river we spent some pleasant hours in these cool
spots, anchored neat a big tree, still fishing or an effort at
casting or dreaming the hours away.
In those far-off days the pastime of angling was not as highly
developed as it is now, and the art of casting was in its infancy.
And we boys knew very little about it, as our outfits were
not of the expensive variety that now prevails.
Artificial bait plugs were unknown, at least as far as we were
concerned, and we use the old-fashioned lures-worms and minnows.
And I recall that we caught many nice big pan fish, all we
wanted, and some bass and pickerel, for the river was teeming with
Later in the day, when we rowed upstream, we found many beautiful
stretches of river, some with wild ivy creepers covering big trees
on the waters edge almost to the top.
We saw many turtles sunning themselves on logs and fallen
trees, heron stalking solemnly around in nearby bayous, and some
wild ducks feeding in small rice fields.
And during the week we found that the river woods were alive
with fathered songsters with owls and many crows.
Ever eat a squirrel pot pie while on a camping or hunting trip?
Try it, for it’s hard to beat.
The river woods were full of the frisky little devils and so
on the second morning we went gunning for them and in no time had
four or five. That evening we had pot pie and it sure hit the spot.
It was rather early in the season for ducks but some were on the
river so we decided to try our luck.
So the next morning we got up at dawn and in our two rowboats
rowed quietly down the river to some good hideout a short distance
away. I remember there
was a very heavy mist hanging over the river and we had some
difficulty picking out the spots we had located the day before.
We stationed ourselves a few hundred feet apart, so we would
have ample coverage.
In my location there seemed to be quite a few birds moving around
and guess they were mud hens. I
could see no ducks. At
last I saw a duck a short distance away and blazed away.
It thrashed around and then was still.
I kept my eye on the spot, you may be sure.
Apparently none of the boys had any luck for I heard no shots and
when they rowed up to my station sometime later, when the sun came
up and dispelled the mist, we picked up my dead duck. That’s all we could show for our morning work.
On the way back we met one of the trappers in his narrow sneakboat
and showed him my duck. He
snickered and said, “That isn’t a duck, it’s a hell diver.”
We were novices at the game of duck hunting, and when one of
us innocently inquired if the hell diver was good eating the trapper
grinned and said, “Yes, if you care to chew leather.” When we got back to camp we discovered that someone had been
there, for all of Harry’s 10-guage shells were gone. Nothing else was taken.
Fortunately, I had shells to spare and so was able to let Harry have
a supply. We reasoned
that one of the tough looking trappers had helped himself. So we took precautions after that.
These trappers, “river rats” made a good living trapping
muskrats and beaver, also hunting game in season (and out of season,
too). They were
picturesque figures, longhaired and much bewhiskered, standing in
their narrow pushboats, which they propelled with long push poles or
paddles. I can’t
recall of any of them using oars.
Their devoted dogs generally trained retrievers, often
occupied the bows of the little boars.
They live in rude shacks in the river woods or on the edges
of a swamp.
The river woods were full of noisy crows, and so one afternoon late
in the week we decided to have a crow hunt.
We thought there would be no trouble to bag two or three of
the black pirates in a hurry. And
because of our inexperience we approached the adventure in a spirit
of easy gayety. A
little too much so, perhaps, for we were going to take those sassy
ruffians for a ride. And
did we get a jolt that afternoon.
Well, sir, you maybe sure we did every one of us!
I spotted a noisy one on the limb of a nearby tree and slowly crept
up on him. Taking
careful aim I pulled the trigger of the 10-gauge shotgun. Click, but no report. I
pulled the other trigger, no report!
A decisive haw-haw greeted my ears as I turned around, and
there was Harry, giving me the merry laugh.
The rascal had abstracted my shells before we started out! A big noisy crow should have been dead, but was very much
alive as it slowly flew away. Its
harsh, mocking caw-caw floating down to us on the September breeze.
Drat the luck.
We pushed deeper into the woods after the pesky crows, but they were
scared and kept out of range. Our
plan was to work north and emerge from the woods at one of the river
bends and then follow the stream back to camp.
We often paused to admire the magnificent specimens of oak,
maple and elm that filled the forest.
It was very warm in the nineties, and little or no breeze in the
dense timber and we commenced to tire.
And we also commenced to worry, for there was no sign of an
opening showing a river bend, nothing but deep, gloomy forest. Had
we been experienced woodsmen, this should not have bothered us, but
we were just young greenhorns from a big city.
Ever get panicky? It
isn’t a pleasant feeling.
A couple of talkative crows offered a nice target, but we were no
longer concerned about the darned pirates. All we wanted was a glimpse of a river bend!
We trudged a little farther and then there seemed to be a
rift in the forest gloom. Yes, it was decidedly lighter now and
suddenly we saw an opening in the heavy timber ahead of us.
We hastened our steps and came out, not at a river bend, but
at the sandy country road leading to Baum’s Bridge!
We had made a complete circle in the river woods!
Our outing was about over. On
Saturday noon the liveryman came with his team and soon we were on
the way back to the big city, and the long years that lay ahead.
To us it was a most unusual and enjoyable vacation, and one
we never forgot.
Every year after this, for quite a few years, I made the trip alone
spending two full days at Wilcox’s and always in September on or
about the 19th. The
weather generally was ideal and it was a grand spot to relax and
hunt and fish, or to dream a few house away in some quiet nook on
the picturesque Kankakee, a place to fish and dream, a mirror for
clouds and shadows, and thoughts.
It was on those trips I met Gen Lew Wallace a number of times, a
most unforgettable character. And
the boys lost out on this.
I’ll never quite forget my last visit with Gen. Wallace.
It was late September, and after enjoying mild, balmy weather
for a few days. It turned very chilly, and we sat around the warm stove in
George Wilcox’s home. The
General was in failing health and had a shawl around his shoulders
for some extra warmth.
He was distinguished looking, courtly in baring, and thoughtful and
considerate of others in his conversation.
After discussing the fishing and hunting on the river, out
talk drifted around to a new historical romance the General was
writing at the time. So
finally I turned to General Wallace an asked, “ General, what is
the title of your new work?”
With quizzical smile he replied, “Young man, they don’t
name a baby until it is born.” I never forgot this remark, as he died a short time later and
the book is still unpublished.
A fine old warrior, a grand character, had gone to his reward.
Then my pals joined me and we had some grand outings on the river
and always in September. When
the auto came into general use we mad two trips each year.
In May and September, even after the river vanished.
We always stopped at Wilcox’s or at Collier’s.
The meals were so good and substantial that we always looked
forward to them and our appetite was always with us.
l-r Harry Van
Horn, George Wilcox, unknown, unknown, Charles Smith
About thirty years ago they started dredging a new channel, draining
away the old riverbed and the surrounding marshes.
It spelled finis to the hunting and fishing in the Indiana
region and also was the end of the fine river woods.
Old faces are gone, familiar landmarks have disappeared, favorite
spots of ours on the river and in the river woods are no longer
there, for the drainage channel was their death knell. However, the lure of the old river was strong and so we kept
on making out periodical visits.
But the romance of the early days is no longer there; the
Kankakee country of Northern Indiana is but an empty shell.
I wonder what Gen. Lew Wallace would say if he could see his beloved
Kankakee now, after a lapse of more than forty years.
Yes, I wonder.
Alas, no longer the old river flows;
years have passed us by:
when the evening twilight glows;
echoes wail and die
Some day perhaps, the Kankakee and the adjacent swamps will be
restored, in part, at least, so that future generations may enjoy
the wild beauty of this region just as their ancestors and the four
lads from Chicago did so many years ago. Some day------