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.
If you've missed any please follow the links on the dates
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Imagine steamboats on the Kishwaukee
By Barry Schrader.................................March
waters, and the damage was confined to the cellars of
Living along the Kishwaukee River for 10 years while growing
up, I sometimes imagined what it would be like to be Tom Sawyer
floating down the Mighty Mississippi while in my old rowboat.
Those memories came flooding back recently when I
spotted a news item from 100 years ago in The MidWeeks
Looking Back column, a popular weekly feature in the Daily Chronicles
Dated Feb. 15, 1911, the report
taken from the Daily Chronicle stated: The wild and woolly
Kishwaukee River has been on the rampage for the past couple
of days and last night was completely out of bounds. As navigation
had not yet opened on the stream, there was no damage to the
steamboats which ply its turgid
This drawing of Combs Mill on the Kishwaukee River near Brickville
Road north of Sycamore appeared on an early 20th Century postcard
My mind filled with visions of
a paddle wheeler like the Delta Queen chugging along all the
way to the Rock River, where it could eventually hook up with
the Mississippi. But then reality set in and I called the foremost
local expert on the Kishwaukee, Al Roloff, who is natural resources
manager for the DeKalb County Forest Preserve District. Back
in 2009 he gave me a tour of the two south branches of the Kish
and explained its origin and why it flows north, contrary to
the popular belief that all rivers flow south.
was almost positive there could not have been steamboats on this
waterway. He said the state of Illinois defines this little river
as not navigable for commercial traffic and not even
passable with a propeller-driven motor except during flood stage.
So the 1911 account must have been a joke or a stretch of the
However, Al shared
some history that I found fascinating. At one time prior to 1900
there were as many as eight mills operating along the river between
DeKalb and Fairdale. These were either sawmills or grist and
flour mills, powered by waterwheels or small turbines. They were
named after the builders or owners, such as Jenks, Combs, Miller,
Gleason, Gault, Lee, Lacey, Hicks and Thompson.
had done some research on the Combs Mill, which was the most
prominent among them, located not far from Brickville Road north
of Sycamore. It was built on the west bank, half set on piles
over the water on property now owned by Wilbur and Mary Kocher.
Al produced an article from the Sept. 4, 1880, Sycamore True
Republican telling about the Annual Farmers Picnic
held near the mill that drew hundreds of people.
part it reported: A large boat drawn by a horse upon its
bank was running briskly up and down the stream. It can be run
for a mile and a half, and (John) Fisher, the jolly miller is
intending to build a large boat and fit it up with a dancing
platform so that parties can have a boat ride of three miles
by moonlight and dance on board. When Fisher clears out the underbrush,
erects permanent seats and tables
Combs Mill will
be a place of still more generous resort. But the mill
was dismantled a few years later so the plans never materialized.
This mill was built in the mid-1840s by William Miller,
the same pioneer who built the log cabin now being reconstructed
on Pleasant Hill Road near Russell Woods Forest Preserve. He
also constructed a second mill near the forest preserve. When
the Combs Mill was torn down, one of the round grinding stones
was reportedly moved to the old high school grounds, but no evidence
of it exists today.
Now heres a far-fetched
idea to bring river traffic back to the county and create a tourist
attraction. The DeKalb County Convention & Visitors Bureau
could acquire a couple amphibious ducks like those used at the
Wisconsin Dells, store them at the NIU lagoon, and offer rides
on the Kish from DeKalb to Genoa and back. I would be first in
line to take that nostalgic journey.
The columnist can be reached via email at :
or by snailmail at:
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115