Like history, a river is ever-flowing, ever-changing, and forever giving us new perspectives on the world around us. The Fox River of our illustrious valley is certainly no different.
The Fox River, which has surged from Waukesha County, Wisconsin, to the Illinois River for centuries, is the reason why so many people flocked to this area in the 1830s. It drains about 2,600 square miles of land. Below the Fox Lakes, the river widens and gathers momentum. That momentum is constrained by the numerous dams it flows over as it passes through Kane County. Below the Yorkville dam, the river widens and the current becomes swifter. In all, the river drops 470 feet in elevation. Its riverbed of shale, limestone, and dolomite is covered by fertile loam soils – another incentive for incoming settlers during the early 19th century.
When St. Charles founder Evan Shelby arrived in the Fox River Valley in the fall of 1833, after many Native American tribes had already settled here, it exceeded his wildest expectations. Along the river was high timbered land for building, and the swift, flowing waters provided great potential for waterpower. The rolling hills surrounding the river were russet and gold and alive with game. Significant native vegetation still thrives along its banks, particularly in the many forest preserves found along its way. Excellent examples of native grasses, shrubs, and hardwoods still exist. Opossum, raccoon, red fox, and white-tailed deer are also still prominent in the area. The Fox River valley sees many waterfowl, including Canadian geese, mallards, small-mouth bass, white bass, channel catfish, bullheads, walleye, crappie, carp, northern pike, blue gill, and muskies.
Evan Shelby selected a tract of land on the east side of the river, about where Baker Memorial Church in St. Charles is now located, and he drove stakes and blazed trees to mark the boundaries of his claimed land. The year following his claim, many settlers from the east coast traveled to the Fox Valley Area to settle and restart their lives on the frontier.
Before the people from the East Coast settled here, the Fox River was home to many Native Tribes, including the Potawatomi. For centuries they called the Fox River Valley their home largely due to the resources of the river. However, in 1833, they were forced to move out of the area to make way for the East Coast settlers as mandated by the government. Many of the Potawatomi went north to Southern Wisconsin, while others made their way to Oklahoma to the Osage Reservation. They attempted to settle in Missouri but were unfortunately forced out there as well.
Kane County’s reach of the Fox extends about 35 miles over as many as 11 dams. The river’s elevation drops 160 feet from the northern boundary of the county to the southern. In an environment where more and more open space and natural recreational amenities succumb to urban development, the Fox River also becomes an increasingly valuable asset as society offers more leisure time. Scenic and recreational activities such as water sports, biking, walking, fishing and outdoor recreation have become much a part of life along the Fox River.
In the early days before refrigeration technology, the Fox River provided economical value because it was ideal for ice harvesting. There were several ice houses located north of St. Charles near Ferson Creek. These houses would be insulated with packed sawdust and used to house blocks of newly harvested ice. This enabled dairy farmers to ship their product safely to Chicago without spoilage. This feature of the Fox River certainly made this area ideal for dairy farming, in addition to the rich soil of northern Illinois. On display at the St. Charles History Museum is a large saw that was used to harvest ice on the Fox River, as well as some ice block tongs.
From St. Charles to the Black Hawk Forest Preserve, the Fox is predominantly wooded and wide. Large attractive homes dot the banks and can be seen tucked among the trees. Several shale outcroppings and a hidden waterfall can also be spotted. Jones Woods and Ferson Creek Fen are excellent examples of naturalist areas and serve as a gateway to the more densely populated areas of St. Charles.
Long ago, the dam in downtown St. Charles impounded water for many mills located on or near the river, including the current sites of both the art-moderne Municipal Building and the Spanish-revival Hotel Baker. Below this dam are a series of bridges, including Main Street Bridge, mark the waterway as it winds its way toward historic Geneva and Batavia.
At the current location of the St. Charles Municipal Building, the Stewart Brothers Flour Mill tragically burned down in April 1915. The City’s fire alarm sounded to alert volunteer firefighters to a massive fire that broke out in the mill. Within minutes, the building was a raging inferno. The fires raged so hot that the fire melted windows in surrounding buildings, and firefighters had to shield themselves behind protective barricades. By later that morning, the whole front facade of the mill had fallen into the street below, and winds out of the north had blown embers across the street that severely damaged the Osgood block across the street, and four buildings had to be torn down. The Fox River has certainly born witness to beauty as well as tragedy.
As late as 1914 it had become evident the river was a depository for human and industrial waste. Sawmills, grain mills, paper mills, and limestone quarries had drawn on the river for their resources and then deposited wastes back into the water. There was a push to clean the waterway in the 1970s under the Clean Water Act, which was initiated by the Illinois EPA and the Sierra Club. Through their diligence and efforts, the Fox River is now a “Class C” river, which means its water quality to fish is “fair.”
Now, the Fox River has not only improved significantly in water quality, but it continues to provide so much to the people who live in the area and those who come to visit. From Pottawatomie Park, to the bike path in downtown Geneva, to the Batavia Depot Museum and beyond, the Fox River has graced Kane County with its beauty and its versatility for centuries.
Currently, in the 2020s, you can find so much to do along the river. Whether you’re looking for the perfect home, the best spot to photograph bald eagles, or to simply sit along the shores on a park bench. There is an energy that hums in the Fox Valley that excites people and attracts them from all over the world. That is due largely in part to the majestic Fox River that ripples and shimmers through Kane County. The Fox River has always flowed alongside history, intertwining with the unique and rich stories that emanate from the communities along its shores.