Kane County History: Batavia's Fox River Channel Has Changed Through History

Kane County History: Batavia’s Fox River Channel Has Changed Through History

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Batavia Park District Marketing and Communications Coordinator Kristen Zambo. All photos are courtesy of the Batavia Depot Museum.

For generations, Batavians have relied on the Fox River, and its various dams and ponds, for transportation, entertainment and industry.

With the current dam badly in need of repairs or removal, Batavia Depot Museum staff and volunteers say they have been fielding more inquiries about the history of this area and how it once looked.

The U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co. is visible in the background.

Depot Pond used to be part of an open channel on the Fox River, which was backfilled. Before the existence of McDonald’s and strip malls, there was just open water flowing into the heart of what now is downtown. The river, its second channel, and the pond variations ebbed and flowed in appearance.

Even their very existence were based on the times and how people reliant on them sought to use and benefit from them.

The Fox River, like many rivers in its day, was the lifeblood of the community that sprang up around it. Water power was utilized for the Appleton Windmill factory, Shumway Foundry and Newton Wagon Company. Historians recount that the waterway was polluted by factories’ use of this valuable resource, but Batavians always used it for recreation, as well.

Throughout the community’s history, dams in the Batavia area have been called Batavia Dam, the dam, Challenge Dam, Cotter Dam and Batavia’s dam, according to Depot Museum archives.

This color slide from 1991 shows an aerial view of Houston and Water streets.

In the early portion of the 1800s, Titus Howe bought some land on the west side of the river with the intention of building what was believed to be the first dam across the Fox River in this area. He also erected the frame for a saw mill at the lower end of the island, but the following spring saw the dam washed away in a flood, according to “Historic Batavia.”

Discouraged, Howe sold his property to the VanNortwicks, who gained control of the community’s water power. VanNortwick, a contractor in New York State, worked as superintendent of canals in northern New York before resettling in Illinois.

The VanNortwick dam, as it was referred to, wasn’t built like dams today. A pier was built in the middle of the river, about halfway between Duck Island and the east bank of the Fox, because the current was so swift through this portion.

This photo, shot in 1973 from the east side of the pond, shows the Depot building being backed into place in its new location along Houston Street. It now houses Batavia Depot Museum.

A log dam, it was built in sections, called cribs. As each crib of logs was finished on a large scow that was attached to the pier by a long rope, the crib sections were floated into place using this rope.

Once each piece was in the right spot, the cribs were sunk and then spiked into place along already-completed sections. The resultant space then was filled with rocks that were removed from the east bank near the dam, according to “Historic Batavia.”

The dam painstakingly was constructed in a semi-circle from the eastern shore to the western shore. The top was planked over and rocks filled in the area behind the dam. VanNortwick also built a flouring mill and saw mill.

By the 1870s, men had dug out – by hand – the second river channel, “Historic Batavia” shows. That’s because more industrial factories needed that water power to operate. That man-made second channel was crucial to provide power to those additional industrial sites, such as and Batavia Paper Manufacturing Company.

It was by the 1960s that workers began filling in more and more of that second channel and portions of the pond to make way for redevelopment. Shopping centers and businesses could be constructed on that newly created land.

A watershed moment came in the summer of 1972. Ground fill was dumped into the last remaining holes along West Wilson Street where the second river channel and portions of the pond once existed. From that time, Batavia no longer was known as “a two-channel town,” “Historic Batavia” recounts.

The McDonald’s fast-food restaurant and First National Bank of Batavia sit where individuals once ice skated. At one time, ice skaters could travel out to Fabyan Forest Preserve simply by donning a pair of skates and setting out.

The sight of those ice skaters on the pond was so idyllic to artist John Falter that he sketched its charming beauty and created an oil painting. “Skaters on the Pond” was published as the cover image for the Jan. 11, 1958, issue of the “Saturday Evening Post” and the image became iconic.

The painting now hangs in the Batavia Depot Museum for all to enjoy.

Feature Photo Caption

This color slide from 1991 shows an aerial view of Batavia Depot museum and Depot Pond before creation of the Batavia Riverwalk and additional development. (Batavia Depot Museum photo)

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