The meandering Mackinaw changes its course

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In this column we explore topics related to the history of Pekin and Tazewell County during the period of the past two centuries or so. This week, we’ll take a look at a remarkable matter of natural history having to do with one of our area’s natural, primeval features: the Mackinaw River, an important tributary of the Illinois River.

Water has probably flowed down the Mackinaw into the Illinois River far longer than anyone can imagine. The river’s source is far to the east, near the village of Sibley in Ford County, and it then meanders and wends its way for about 130 miles through McLean, Woodford and Tazewell counties.

However, a survey of old maps and atlases reveals that the Mackinaw River’s outlet was not always where it is today. The river formerly flowed through what it now Mason County, but, as David Perkins of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society recently brought to my attention, at some point between the 1830s and 1860s, the Mackinaw shifted its course. No longer did the Mackinaw River continue a generally westward course until emptying into the Illinois in Mason County near the spot where Chautauqua Lake is located today. Instead, the Mackinaw took a northward turn and found a new outlet at a location on the Illinois just west of the modern-day Powerton Fish and Wildlife Area.

Early Illinois maps and sources document the old course of the Mackinaw River. An 1815 map by Rene Paul (Plate XL in “Atlas: Indian Villages of the Illinois Country 1670-1830), for example, shows the “Macanac R.” flowing west-south-west into the Illinois River at a point nearly opposite the mouth of the “La Marche” river, a good ways south of Peoria Lake. No northward bend in the Mackinaw is shown.

Macanac River 1815

This 1815 map by Rene Paul (Plate XL in “Atlas: Indian Villages of the Illinois Country 1670-1830) shows the “Macanac R.” flowing west-south-west into the Illinois River at a point nearly opposite the mouth of the “La Marche” river, a good ways south of Peoria Lake. No northward bend in the Mackinaw is shown.

Another early publication, Zadok Cramer’s 1808 “The Navigator,” reprinted in 1818 and excerpted in the July 2009 Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society Monthly, describes the “Sesemi-Quain” and “De la March” rivers, tributaries of the Illinois, before coming to:

“The river Michilimackinac, comes in on the south-eastern side, above the two just mentioned, and 195 miles from the Mississippi; it is navigable 90 miles, 50 yards wide, and has at its mouth 30 to 40 small islands, which at a distance look like a small village. Some distance up this river is a coal mine, on the banks are red and white cedar, pine, maple walnut, & c.”

“Michilimackinac” was the full, original name of the Mackinaw. But the distance of “195 miles from the Mississippi” does not accord with the course and length of the Illinois River today. A 1998 edition of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ “Illinois Waterway Navigation Charts” shows the present mouth of the Mackinaw at about 148 miles upriver from Grafton, Ill. (which is where the Illinois joins the Mississippi River today), while the former mouth of the Mackinaw River was at a spot approximately 124 miles upriver from Grafton.

An 1819 map of Illinois by John Melish (Plate XLVI in “Atlas: Indian Villages of the Illinois Country 1670-1830), presents the “Michilimackinac R.” flowing much as Rene Paul’s 1815 shows the “Macanac R.” The same basic water course for the Mackinaw can be found on an old 1822 atlas map. Baldwin & Cradock’s 1833 atlas also shows the mouth of the Mackinaw far to the south of its present mouth – but significantly, this atlas map illustrates that before it found the Illinois, the Mackinaw flowed into an extensive swamp in what was then Tazewell County but is today Mason County. This old swamp bears on the changed course of the Mackinaw.

A map obtained by David Perkins, formerly a plate illustration in an 1879 book, shows northern and central Illinois in 1835. This map also shows the old swamp, but traces the course of the Mackinaw along the southern boundary of the swamp. Notably, however, the map also shows a stream or rivulet along the swamp’s western boundary, running in a generally northerly direction up to the Illinois River at a spot near the present mouth of the Mackinaw.

1835 Illinois map from 1879 book

This map, formerly a plate illustration in an 1879 book, shows northern and central Illinois in 1835. This map shows the old swamp, but traces the course of the Mackinaw along the southern boundary of the swamp. Notably, the map also shows a stream or rivulet along the swamp’s western boundary, running in a generally northerly direction up to the Illinois River at a spot near the present mouth of the Mackinaw.

It appears that around the mid-1800s some local event or events of a geologic nature – say, a flood, perhaps with agricultural activities in or near the swamp being a contributing cause – led to the Mackinaw River shifting its course. Abandoning its former course, the river was diverted, or diverted itself, into the channel of the northerly stream. Henceforth the Mackinaw no longer would flow through Mason County. Thus, an 1864 plat map of Tazewell County shows the Mackinaw following its present course, and all subsequent atlases and maps show the same river course.

1866 map of Illinois

This 1866 map of Illinois shows the present course of the Mackinaw River, as is typical for Illinois and Tazewell County maps from 1864 onward.

While such changes are remarkable, it’s well known that rivers can and do change their courses, whether in slight or major ways. The change in the Mackinaw River’s course no doubt was noticed and recorded by contemporaries, but as yet Perkins and I have found no historical notices of the change. Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County” makes no mention of it, nor do the historical essays in the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County” say anything about a change in the Mackinaw’s course. More recent reference works that we’ve consulted also are silent on this point.

The Mackinaw’s former course through Mason County still exists, and it even links up to the Mackinaw north of Townline Road in Tazewell County. At that point, one finds a drainage ditch that follows the line of Schuttler Road and then turns straight south along Dinky Ditch Road. Along the way south, it becomes Hickory Grove Ditch, flowing under Hickory Grove Road just east of Manito.

The ditch then makes an eastward curve before swinging diagonally southwest through Mason County – this stretch of the watercourse is known as North Quiver Ditch, but further on past Forest City, it’s the Mason Tazewell Ditch, until finally, past Topeka, it becomes Quiver Creek, which empties into the Illinois at Chautauqua Lake.

But once, way back when, it was the final western length of the Mackinaw River.

#mackinaw-river, #mackinaw-river-course, #michilmackinac, #old-maps, #tazewell-county-genealogical-historical-society, #tazewell-county-history, #tazewell-county-maps

Pekin’s phantom suburb of Hong Kong

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Probably few Pekin residents have ever heard of the city’s little suburb of Hong Kong. In contrast, however, perhaps most Pekin residents have heard of the old tradition of how Pekin got its name. This week’s “From the Local History Room” will explain how those two topics are connected.

We explored the question of Pekin’s naming about four years ago in the column entitled, “How did Pekin get its name?” (Pekin Daily Times, Dec. 3, 2011, page C2), which included the following quote from late local historian Fred Soady’s 1960 paper, “In These Waste Places”:

“After the completion of the plat of the new town in 1830, Mrs. Nathan Cromwell, for reasons still obscure, gave the city the name of PEKIN . . . It is speculated, and a common legend in Pekin, that the city was so named by Mrs. Cromwell on the belief that the site was exactly opposite the site of Peking, capital of China.”

Pekin is not, of course, “exactly opposite” the site of Beijing (Peking), but is approximately opposite Beijing on approximately the same latitude – Pekin is at about 40 degrees North while Beijing is at about 39 degrees North. In the 1800s and even the early 1900s, “Pekin” was the usual “anglicized” spelling of Peking/Beijing.

The earliest writers on Tazewell County and Pekin history also indicate, with varying certitude, an association of the naming of Pekin with Peking, China. Thus, Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County” says Mrs. Cromwell “gave to it the name of Pekin, we suppose after the celestial city of that name.” In his 1870 sketch of Pekin’s history, William H. Bates wrote that “we can only surmise that in the plenitude of her imagination she looked forward to the time when it would equal in size that other Pekin – the Chinese City of the Sun.”

The earliest historical reference associating Pekin with Peking is the 1860 diary of Pekin pioneer Jacob Tharp (father of Pekin’s first settler Jonathan Tharp), who wrote that the founders of Pekin in 1830 “were much exercised about the way in which to lay off the celestial city,” indicating that by 1860 – only three decades after Pekin’s founding – the city’s residents had already taken to associating their home town with its Chinese namesake.

It’s in the context of that old notional association of Pekin, Ill., with China that we should view a remarkable feature found on an early wall map of Tazewell County that was produced in 1857. David Perkins of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society, who has studied and indexed the county’s historical toponyms (place names), recently drew my attention to a particular place name on that map: “Hong Kong.”

The 1857 wall map places “Hong Kong” on the east bank of the Illinois River, due north of the old City Cemetery that once existed at the foot of Koch Street, and about two miles southwest of Pekin’s old downtown. The map displays a complete lack of a gridwork of city streets between Pekin and Hong Kong, which the map shows with nothing more than five or six streets.

This little “suburb” of Pekin is shrouded in mystery. As far as we can tell, no plat map of Hong Kong, Ill., was filed with the Tazewell County Recorder of Deeds, or at least no such plat has survived. The only evidence of this Hong Kong’s existence is this 1857 map. The 1864 M. H. Thompson map of Tazewell County shows no trace of Hong Kong, displaying instead a single road (today South Front Street) and a single building (presumably some kind of factory or distillery or industrial business), nor does little Hong Kong appear on any other early maps or in any other atlases and historical documents. That area has long been Pekin’s industrial district, and Praxair Inc. now occupies a spot at or near the land formerly called Hong Kong.

According to Perkins, despite what the 1857 map says, Hong Kong may never have really existed. It’s possible that a land speculator platted out Hong Kong as a proposed town and tried unsuccessfully to attract settlers and businesses. The little settlement may have existed for a very short time, having a very small population, or perhaps Hong Kong never had a single inhabitant. It may have been nothing more than a name on a map.

The significance of the name, however, may be readily seen. Because Pekin bore a name with Chinese overtones, someone apparently thought it only fitting that there should be another town in the vicinity named for Hong Kong. We may not be able to learn anything definite about Tazewell County’s Hong Kong, but we at least can see that this mysterious name from 1857 – three years before Tharp’s diary – is an additional bit of evidence that the association of Pekin with China goes back to the days of Pekin’s pioneers.

image0000

The little settlement of “Hong Kong” is shown in this detail of an 1857 wall map of Tazewell County. The map was formerly displayed in the Kuhfuss & Kuhfuss law offices in downtown Pekin. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE TAZEWELL COUNTY GENEALOGICAL & HISTORICAL SOCIETY

#1857-tazewell-county-wall-map, #city-of-pekin, #hong-kong, #tazewell-county-genealogical-historical-society, #tazewell-county-maps, #tcghs