Sunday, September 9, 2012

Kickapoo Floodplain History

It seems so simple.  If you live in a house that occasionally has floodwaters running through it, you have two options.  You can move from that house with its flood prone location or you can move the house away from the floodwaters.  In either option, you are relocating away from the floodwaters.  It seems like a clear-cut solution to the problem, but here in the Kickapoo Valley it has not always been so simple to achieve.
            “The last rescue proved to be one of the most dangerous.  The family of Cora Henry was stranded in their home, the original Dempster Seely house, on the northern end of the village in Seelyburg.  The house stood several hundred feet out in the still raging floodwater.  Dave Elliot, who had been rescuing people for nearly twelve hours, decided to get to the Henry house.  Four times he flung his boat into the raging torrent, but was washed downstream before getting to the house.  Finally he launched his boat far up shore from the house and negotiated the torrents to land at the front porch of the Henry house.  Mrs. Henry and her four children were quickly loaded into the boat for the long haul back to shore.  A tired Elliot started to row through the swirling muddy waters.  It was a terrific pull and when he was still many yards from the shore, Elliot was unable to row farther and called for help.  Five youths on shore, Royal Donovan, Si Paul, Cedric Neefe, Francis Moon, and Furley Hodge, some of the same young lads who had begun the original rescue the night before, plunged into the water and pulled the loaded boat to safety.  Miraculously, none of La Farge’s residents were seriously injured or killed in the mammoth flood.”
            This harrowing account from the 1935 Kickapoo River flood, which I excerpted from Chapter 5 of Volume I of my history of La Farge book, describes the terror and danger inherent in the great floods of the Kickapoo.  Again, it seems so simple; move the people and the houses away from the path of the river’s floodwaters. Relocate out of the flood’s path.  Easier said than done in the Kickapoo Valley.
            To understand why “relocation” was such an unpopular concept for much of the history of flood control efforts in the Valley, perhaps we need to go back to the beginning as to why people settled so close to the Kickapoo River in the first place.  Why does someone build a house in a river’s floodway?
            Many of the first people to settle in the area around La Farge were drawn to the region because of the potential of waterpower provided by the Kickapoo River.  In the narratives of the original land surveys done in 1846 and conducted by the federal government surveying team, it was noted the potential for waterpower by damming up the Kickapoo River near La Farge.  In describing waterpower potential, the surveyor’s narrative mentions in particular a site in section 20 (what would become Seelyburg) and another in section 28 (in the area where Bear and Otter Creeks join the Kickapoo) that would be excellent places for dams and mills.
            Thomas and Anson DeJean and Dempster Seely would soon follow and construct the dams and mills at those places on the Kickapoo.  They also built houses right next to the river, close by their mill sites.  As the lumbering boom followed in the northern Kickapoo Valley, many of those who worked at the mills also built houses along the river.  Soon villages bloomed along the banks of the Kickapoo from Ontario to Steuben.  And those villages, being constructed in the later half of the 19th century, flourished during those early years of existence.  Were they hit with catastrophic floods in those early years, like they would be in the following 20th century? 
Evidence would suggest these early settlements were not in peril from the Kickapoo’s mighty floods, so common after 1900.  Those early settlers were not stupid people, who would establish their entire towns in harms way.  Prudent men would not build houses in areas where the safety of their family might be in jeopardy because of rushing floodwater, would they?  What happened to a river where it was once safe to build communities along its banks?
The very nature of the watershed that supported the river changed drastically in those early years of settlement along the Kickapoo.  The change in the watershed caused the river to undergo drastic changes as well.  It is not to say that the river did not flood during those early years of settlement, because all rivers have floods and the Kickapoo was not an exception.  But those early floods must have been tolerable for the people who lived near the Kickapoo River, because the riverside settlements continued to grow and prosper.  It was the river that changed; by the end of the nineteenth century, the Kickapoo River became a flooding machine.

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