PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM HANDY
An eagle swing at the Lake DePue village park. The habitat for actual eagles has been badly degraded.
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"Populations” and “communities” are
ecological terms describing scientific premises, but the large groups of
waterfowl resting on Lake DePue, chattering among themselves, seem to imply
community in its human sense — that of homes and the relationship of
one being to another. The lake sits just above the point where the Illinois
River turns to the south, approximately 145 miles north of Springfield. The
entire Great Bend area is rife with history, both human and natural. Birds
have been coming here for 12,000 years, and humans most likely followed
1,000 years later. It was a place of Indian encampments and French
explorers and is still a migratory mecca for birds. However, human and
natural history have collided at Lake DePue. It is at once a significant
wildlife refuge and an EPA cleanup site. The lake is battered but
Lake DePue is an oxbow lake of the Illinois River,
and such lakes are happening places. These bodies of water are typically
connected to the river at the upper or lower end, although not all have
maintained a connection. Having been stranded behind natural levees that
were created when silt was dropped at the Illinois River’s quieter
edges, they supply crucial environment in a chain of abundance that leads
up to the arrival of winged and bipedal creatures. Lake DePue has lured
breeding fish, nesting eagles, rookery-building herons, and town-building
people. It has been the setting for the genesis of life and lifestyles.
The purity of spring-fed Lake DePue was once
renowned, so much so that the small town of DePue became famous for its ice
industry, supplying the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis. There were
icehouses and fish markets and fishermen’s shanties lining the lake,
from which a 100,000-pound catch of legend was reported in the late 1800s.
In addition, railcar loads of mussels were shipped out to button-makers,
and the numbers of waterfowl visiting the lake were astounding. Livelihoods
were pursued in close connection to the water, and the wildlife continued
Today there is a village park next to the lake with a
pavilion, playground equipment, and benches facing the water, adding ease
to the practice of birdwatching in DePue. During each visit to the park I
have been privy to remarkable days in the lives of the lake’s natural
inhabitants — a young bald eagle, testing its skills, flying nearly
overhead as adults watch from a vantage point in the trees; a group of
white pelicans, thought to be making their spring arrival, meandering about
the sky in their no-particular-place-to-go style of flight. On spotting a group
of great blue herons in winter, I learned that both the herons and great
egrets are staying in DePue year-round and that the herons number more than
1,500 — a population nearly that of the village.
While at the park it is easy to imagine a long-ago
time and the idyllic scenes of human activities on and near this lake as
conjured in “History of DePue,” a booklet published in 1976 in
commemoration of the nation’s bicentennial that I found at the
town’s library: “The sound of a boat’s calliope as it
entered the mouth of the lake was an exciting sound, for it promised magic
in the form of a live performance on the lakefront. The young boys in town
looked forward to the coming of a boat because the paddlewheel supplied
them with a diving board for their summer swims.” The history
includes tales of excursion boats with dance orchestras and the celebration
of fellowship at ice-cream socials held lakeside to take advantage of the
sights and the breeze.
However, the early 20th century would mark a time
when sedimentation and pollution from upstream urban areas and agriculture
began descending the Illinois River and into all backwater areas. Like a
reminder of life in sudden transition, a single wall of a fisherman’s
house still stands near Lake DePue like a monument — or a memorial
— and it becomes all too easy to imagine the ensuing and bewildering
transformations that took place. It became an era of factories and
immigrants with hope, and the lake so cherished by the people and home to
so much wildlife would witness dramatic changes.
The first plant was built in DePue in 1903 for the
production of slab zinc, which was used in the automobile and appliance
industries, as well as sulfuric acid. It was the largest plant of its type
in the United States, and an even greater demand for the plant’s
products arose during World War I. Although the early labor force in the
New Jersey Zinc plant was made up of local people, growing labor demands
attracted immigrants from Poland, Slovenia, Spain, and Mexico. Others came
from Italy, France, Greece, and Bulgaria. A lithopone plant was built in
1923, a fertilizer plant in 1966. Life seemed easier. The company took care
of the town and its people, and surely the waters would wash away the waste
entering the lake.
It was a miscalculation made by industries at
waterways around the world. Robert Gottlieb, in the 1993 book Major Problems in American Environmental History,said that the period between the 1860s and World War I can be
thought of as “laying in place the contemporary environmental hazards
of daily life in urbanized and industrialized America.” DePue is not
alone in suffering the legacy of early industry. The influx of sediments
continues to be a problem for all lakes as well. A 1986 report on backwater lakes along the
Illinois included a discussion of human impact. The report chronicled
continuing sedimentation from the Illinois River during flooding, as well
as the addition of increasing sediment from a tributary input resulting
from erosion from agricultural lands. It noted that lakes everywhere along
the river are being suffocated and subsumed by silt. Two decades ago, in a
report published by the Illinois Natural History Survey, scientists
predicted that “half of the meager volume of these lakes will be lost
in a relatively few decades.” We are running out of time.
The factories are now gone, the last one closing in
1990, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, along with the U.S.
EPA and the former owners, is working to restore some semblance of the
area’s former self. It is thought that heavy metals still lie at the
bottom of Lake DePue, and other waste piles dot the landscape of the town.
Now recognized are the all-important relationships — of one being to
another, of actions to unintended consequences — and human beings and
nature will need to work together for the lake to survive.
The Illinois EPA is not the only government agency in
town. Researchers have determined that the Great Bend is the apex for three
major waterfowl flyways, and so the Illinois Department of Natural
Resources maintains a presence here to manage the Lake DePue State Fish and
Wildlife Area and the 3,015-acre Donnelley/DePue State Park, a significant
sanctuary for migratory waterfowl. Both agencies have found the area
consequential enough to place managers on site.
These managers deal with deadlines and aggravation,
and yet wonderment often invades their stories. Rich Lange of the Illinois
EPA tells me about the removal of metals-laden soil lining a drainage ditch
to the lake while good-naturedly complaining about the interference of the
beavers. The eagles never cease to amaze either man. Mike Resetich of DNR
tells me about the incredible size of a branch a bald eagle was
incorporating into its nest, and Lange shows off a picture he snapped of an
eagle found sitting in a tree in the lakeside village park. I am regularly
updated on sightings of eagles — both mature and immature.
Lake DePue sits poised between human and natural
history and all the encounters between the two. The area boasts the legend
of Starved Rock, located 21 miles to the east of DePue, and the ongoing
story of a smashingly successful wetland restoration at the Hennepin and
Hopper Lake basins, 10 miles to the south. DePue itself may one day provide
a new chapter in the story of human-nature encounters. A pilot project of
native plantings on a phosphogypsum waste stack outside the town is set to
take place this summer, as is the study of the lake and its future.
Backwater lakes are few, and they are important.
Unlike many backwater lakes that were drained for agriculture, Lake DePue
still exists, and with existence comes hope. There has been so much done to
our natural resources that cannot be undone, so much lost that cannot be
recovered. But the animals here are true survivors, and so there remains
the remnant of possibility, the suggestion of something awe-inspiring. The
term “communities” does indeed imply the homes and
relationships of one being to another — the wildlife, the village,
and the agency people. This can be seen in the possibilities for the
wildlife, such as the river-otter reintroduction that has been successful
beyond expectation; and in the possibilities for the town as it is
considered for inclusion in the Grand Illinois Trail, which joins existing
and proposed state and local trails to create the longest continuous
recreational trail between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River; and in
the contributions of the agency personnel who are working to build a future
Lake DePue may be battered, but with any luck it will
one day be better — and still it is beautiful.
More information about the Donnelley/DePue State Park
can be found on the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Web
site, dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/PARKS/R1/Don.htm. Donnelley/DePue State
Park and many surrounding areas of interest are included in the Illinois
River Country Nature Trail, Princeton Loop. Information can be found at
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