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Barry Schrader


I currently write a column each Tuesday for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. The column will also appear on this website each week and be added to the archives.

The Articles started December 2007.


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Uncovering fascinating facts about Kishwaukee River

By Barry Schrader.................................November 24, 2009

Since I was a youngster at one time living near the Kishwaukee River on Baseline Road between Genoa and Sycamore, I have wondered where the river came from and where it ended. Well, last week I finally found out.
Al Roloff, Natural Resources Manager for the DeKalb County Forest Preserve District, took me for a ride to see the beginnings of this little waterway. It is a bit more complicated than just finding a spring gurgling out of the ground. I learned there are two main branches, one north originating in McHenry County and the “South Branch” getting its start in DeKalb County. But then there is the matter of two parts to the south branch, a western tributary emerging north of Shabbona and an eastern one originating between Cortland and Sycamore, not far from the intersection of Pleasant Street and Hartman Road.
My guide first drove me south into Shabbona, then headed north on Shabbona Road, then west on Cemetery Road about a half-mile to a small concrete bridge. Stopping to take a closer look, one can see three field drainage tiles that are buried in the ground emptying out into a ditch just south of the road, then a stream heading northward on the other side. That, I found out, is the start of the western part of the southern branch of the Kish.
Roloff explained that vegetation and large reed grasses tangling above the water as it meanders between farm fields make it impossible to traverse that branch by canoe or kayak up to the DeKalb area. But the eastern branch holds more promise for water travel.
We next drove back up through Cortland and turned east on Pleasant Street, where we reached a culvert just before coming to the intersection with Hartman Road. Roloff told me that two Union Drainage Ditches (Nos. 1 and 2) come together there to send water north under the road up to a tree line 50 yards or so to the north. Then driving up Hartman Road a short distance, we came to a bridge which traversed Union Drainage Ditch No. 3, heading westerly to merge with the other two ditches at the tree line, easily seen from the bridge. That is where the eastern tributary of the South Branch begins.
Just this past summer, Roloff and a friend, Joel Plapp, canoed that branch all the way north past Sycamore. Earlier they had gone from north of town to the Winnebago County line, so this completed their adventure on the water using that branch. Roloff said they had to get out and go around logs and debris blocking their way three times.

Al Roloff stands on the Cemetery Road bridge where the western tributary of the South Branch of the Kishwaukee begins, north of Shabbona.

Al pointing toward a tree where this drainage ditch meets two others and then becomes the Kishwaukee between Cortland and Sycamore, beginning the eastern portion of the South Branch.

The eastern and western streams merge north of Sycamore between Motel Road and North First Street, then wind north to Genoa, heading west toward Kirkland and the MacQueen Forest Preserve, then past Fairdale, where it crosses into Winnebago County. There, the Northern Branch of the Kishwaukee, coming from McHenry and Boone counties, joins the South Branch and empties into the Rock River near Cherry Valley. The Rock then goes southerly toward Moline, eventually emptying into the mighty Mississippi River.
Another nagging question that always intrigued me was: Why does the Kishwaukee flow northerly, when most other rivers in the country flow south? Recently, a friend, Terry Martin, shattered my belief that the Kish is the only river in the state that flows north. So I asked Roloff for more details, and he explained that it is all about topography. Water runs downhill and the Shabbona area is slightly above the average 800 feet above sea level for most of the county, so the river runs downhill until it meets the other branches and heads into the Rock. I could get into the Glacial Age and how that impacted this area, but let’s save that for another time. He also told me about all the Native American encampments along the Kishwaukee hundreds, and even thousands, of years ago.
I still had one last burning question: What does the name Kishwaukee mean? I found that answer in the book “Place Names of Illinois” written by Edward Callary. Some early histories claim it was an Indian name for “fish eaters” or “clear waters.” But a more plausible explanation seems to be that it came from a Fox word meaning “sycamore tree.”
So now you probably have learned more than you ever wanted to know about our meandering muddy Kish.

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115