Jack Klasey: Growing the state park

April 6, 2019 GMT

An island that was home to a rare wildflower was part of the first step toward what would become, within a period of a half-century, the 4,000-acre Kankakee River State Park.

Langham Island in the Kankakee River, where the endangered Kankakee Mallow is found, was included in a 1938 gift of land to the state of Illinois by Mrs. Ethel Sturges Dummer, a prominent Chicago civic leader. The 35.6 acre plot she donated to establish a state park was located just outside the tiny village of Altorf. Most of the tract was on the north side of the river, but it also included the island (sometimes called Kahler Island) and a narrow strip of land on the south side.

That small tract represented a major step forward in a decade-long effort to create a state park on the Kankakee River. As early as 1927, the Chicago Regional Planning Association was promoting the development of state parks within a 50- to 60-mile radius of the city, especially along the Kankakee and Fox rivers. One 1928 plan, published in the Chicago Tribune, showed two large parks on the Kankakee: One extending along the river from Momence to near Aroma Park, the other at the confluence of the Kankakee and Des Plaines rivers, west of Wilmington.

Focus of the state park effort later shifted to the portion of the Kankakee downstream from Altorf, where huge tracts of land had been acquired by the Illinois Light & Power Co. for a proposed hydroelectric dam project. Plans for the dam fell through when the stock market collapsed in 1929; ownership of the land passed to Public Service Co. of Northern Illinois (which eventually became Commonwealth Edison Co.).

“This whole reach of the Kankakee River, with the unusual and spectacular gorge up Rock Creek, is one of the best possible sites for a state park,” wrote one of the strongest advocates of the state park project, Robert Kingery, of the Chicago Regional Planning Association.

In a 1948 letter to the director of the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings, Kingery noted the site was located between paved roads north and south of the river in both Kankakee and Will counties.

“These counties are growing, as is the population in southern Cook County, and privately-owned lands along the river will not remain available for very many years more,” he warned.

Kingery had a powerful ally in Springfield: state Sen. Victor McBroom, of Kankakee. Since being appointed to the Senate in 1946, McBroom had worked with state government, landowners and local organizations to seek expansion of the then-small state park.

During the first five years of its existence, the Kankakee River State Park grew slowly from its original 35.6 acres to 191.77 acres, as a result of two “land swaps” between the state and the Public Service Co. The next addition came in 1946, when a Kankakee Chamber of Commerce committee (chaired by another McBroom, the senator’s brother Vernon), raised $17,000 to purchase an 86-acre tract that was then deeded to the state.

The year 1946 also saw a major donation of land by the Public Service Co., although it would not be a part of the state park. The power company donated a 50-acre site along Rock Creek to the Northern Illinois 4-H Camp Association. The land would be developed into today’s “Camp Shaw” (more formally, Camp Shaw-Waw-Nas-See, named for the Potawatomi chief whose village was located along Rock Creek).

The rugged and scenic Rock Creek Canyon itself was added to the park Dec. 24, 1948.

“News of the purchase by the state of Illinois was made today by Sen. Victor McBroom,” reported the Kankakee Daily Journal. The newspaper reported the 92-acre parcel was purchased for $200 per acre, “less than that paid by the Public Service Co. for this land many years ago.”

Addition of the Rock Creek land to the park brought the total land area to more than 370 acres. Even more significant, though, was the fact that the park now extended in an unbroken stretch along the north bank of the Kankakee River from Altorf to Rock Creek.

In February 1956, the park area more than quadrupled in size when Commonwealth Edison donated more than 1,700 acres along the Kankakee River to the state of Illinois. About 800 of the acres were in Kankakee County and 900 in Will County. With the additional land, Kankakee River State Park stretched from Altorf in Kankakee County to a point 2½ miles east of Ritchie in Will County. Later gifts by Commonwealth Edison brought the park’s total area to 4,000 acres.

Through the years, the park has been one of the state’s most popular, attracting millions of visitors to its hiking trails, fishing spots, picnic areas and campgrounds. State budgetary problems and other factors forced a closure of the camping areas in 2015, causing a decline in the number of visitors. The campgrounds are expected to reopen this summer.