Kane County History: Aurora Will Never Forget The Great Flood of 1857

Kane County History: Aurora Will Never Forget The Great Flood of 1857

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was contributed by Aurora Historical Society Executive Director John Jaros and AHS Board President Mary Clark Ormond. All photos are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.

Rivers are, quite literally, the lifeblood of the North American continent. They drain the high lands, create fertile valleys and provide food and transportation to those who live or travel alongside.  But they are not without one big problem.

They flood.

When the first white settlers arrived in the Fox Valley in the early 1830s, they commenced shaping the river to suit their needs.  With dams and mill races and settlement along the embankments, they subtly narrowed the river, and then, to make the river bow further to their convenience, they built bridges.

In the frigid winters of this latitude, even a swift-flowing river freezes solid, the ice achieving a thickness of 1 or 2 feet in the most severe seasons. This was a lavish gift of nature to the pioneers in the era before electricity because it created a “winter crop” that did not have to be plowed, planted, or fretted over through unpredictable growing seasons.

Best of all, it was free for the taking. In most winters the ice harvest provided enough ice for a year-around supply of refrigeration for the perishable food of the early settlers. On the farm, the family would cut ice from the farm pond, but in the city, ice was cut, stored in sawdust and eventually delivered by horse and wagon to the back doors of homes throughout Aurora.

So far, so good, with this wonder crop. But alas, it had a shadow side, and it was a dark shadow, indeed: the unpredictability of the spring thaw.

In February and March, the boom of cracking ice could be heard across the valley. Underneath the frozen surface rising water from upstream runoff and from early rains lifted the gigantic floes and sent them on an uncontrolled joyride downstream to first the Illinois and then the Ohio River and thence in liquid form to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.

In its natural state, a river in flood, bearing miniature continents of ice on its crest, would scour its banks and deposit ice floes there harmlessly, creating flatlands along its verges.

But a river that has been altered must run through a chute of sorts, picking up more water and velocity and growing in destructiveness as the ice is relentlessly tossed about with greater and greater energy. No longer just trees and rocks, but buildings and bridges must give way to this fearsome power.

In the pioneer era, late winter or early spring thaws brought flooding of various severity almost annually. Often those first bridges, made of wood, were no match for rushing water and ice. An early history of Aurora, from the Aurora City Directory for 1858 and 1859, gives this account:

“As early as 1836 a bridge had been built over Fox River; but it was swept away in the Spring of 1837, re-built in 1838, at a cost of $2,000, swept away again in 1840, when a ferry was used until 1845, when it was again rebuilt.”

We know from historical accounts that additional major devastating floods occurred in March 1849, February 1857, March 1868, and February 1887.

Of course, because much of Aurora lies on high ground on either side of the river, most of the springtime damage was confined to the island, the riverbanks, and the “flats” closest to the river.

The floodwaters of March 11-12, 1849, occurring after a cold and snowy winter and prompted by a thaw and heavy rains, washed away almost everything in its path. Up and down the Fox, dams were swept away and bridges washed out or damaged.

Then came an even bigger event: the “Great Flood” of Feb. 7, 1857. In Aurora, Stolp Island was completely submerged, and all four bridges were washed out, along with many structures.

The Beacon reported this hair-raising story:

“During the night of Thursday and of Friday, torrents of rain fell, which, owing to the frosted state of the ground, found its way almost immediately to the river, and at daylight on Saturday morning, evidences of a coming flood were too apparent to be mistaken.Soon the ice began occasionally to give way at different points, and then blocking up again, formed a dam a mile or so above the town, where the ice was piled to a height of more than twenty feet.

“Another gorge was formed also at the railroad bridge, just below town, which caused the water to set back on a level with the dams above. At this moment, while the bridge was being heaved and tossed by the force of the swiftly descending bodies of ice, a train of cars approached it at the rate of twenty or twenty-five miles per hour. The engineer, discovering an unsteady motion in the train, applied full steam and succeeded in passing safely over. Soon after this, the bridge was swept away.”

Upriver, everything went out but the dam at St. Charles.  The damage in Aurora was estimated as anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000, a staggering sum at the time.  The flood became a benchmark, and thereafter, most events were recalled as occurring “before” or “after” the Great Flood.

Documented By D.C. Pratt

This flood was actually documented with photographic images — D.C. Pratt, pioneer Aurora photographer, made two photographic plates. The Aurora Beacon noted, “Pratt, the artist, has two very accurate pictures, embracing views of the river, taken while the ice was going out on Saturday. — The two together comprise the whole field of disasters, and forms a very sublime representation of the destruction that was wrought on that memorable day.”

The Great Flood had become just a distant memory for old-timers when in early February 1887, the newspaper headline read, “After Thirty Years – Fox River on a Bender.”

The  ledger page is from Wm. Tanner’s store books.

Warm weather and then two days of almost continuous rain had raised the water to its highest level ever. On Feb. 8, 1887, almost 30 years to the day of the Great Flood, “the ice on the river broke up and came booming down in great masses, varying in thickness from eighteen to thirty inches.”

In this reprise, the island was again badly flooded, and in the flatlands near the river, fences and outbuildings “were swept away like chaff.”  Many bridges up and down the river were destroyed or damaged, but the old dam at St. Charles once again held.

The flood left a legacy of destruction – and ice. According to the Aurora Beacon, “Families residing on the flats in the lower portion of the city are treated to as much ice and water as they will probably desire to see for years to come.”

Some residents had several summers’ supply of ice literally at their doors. Gigantic pieces, some over two feet thick and often up to 10 feet square, and weighing as much as 40 or 50 tons, were strewn about and piled up on shores and against buildings. The ice that had just pummeled the area was now in piles, in some places reaching 8 or 10 feet high.

The total damage was estimated at $30,000 the day after the flood — a catastrophe for property owners because there was no area flood insurance. This “Great Flood” led the newspaper to pronounce, “The oldest inhabitant cannot brag any longer. The flood of 1857 is nowhere behind that of 1887.”

And once again, as 30 years previously, Pratt the photographer was on the case. The Beacon noted, “D.C. Pratt, the enterprising photographer and his son Edward, were very busy yesterday and to-day photographing the flood scenes and ice gorges in this city and neighboring towns.”

The 19th century was a memorable one along the Fox River.

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