Port of grand detour” read the address on freight and crate bound for that bustling village or emanating from it on the Rock River. “Port” you exclaim!
Steamboats were just one more feature in the history of that community, history that went back in time to the eighteenth century and the fur trappers.
Steamboats were able to ascend the river from its confluence with the Mississippi passing rapids at such places as Rock Falls or Oregon as far as Rockford where, too, there were impediments. But they got as far upriver as Janesville, took the Yahara River to Madison and gave rides to the citizens of Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin.
There was talk and some little activity at Rock Falls by building a canal around the rapids but all that resulted was an ugly, muddy ditch eight feet at the bottom, four across the top. It was an eyesore.
There had been talk, too, of blasting a clear path through the rapids but no engineers could be found to do the job. For awhile the cumbersome boats were towed over the rocky mass, those loaded with goods, mind you. Details of this project can be read in PDQ Me, the Book from Sept. 30 and Oct. 7, 1987. Interesting.
Those plans were in the minds of men who were far ahead of their times and mechanics to do them. Then in 1844 the mighty Mississippi taught humankind a lesson that, of course, she had the upper hand, as always. But they didn’t fully learn.
It was a year of immense flooding. Little settlements riverside had never known such high water and were swept away. Water backed up into the tributaries, surprising those few settlements, too. But, of course, paying no attention, steamboats willy-nilly, steamed up the Rock River and anywhere they could sail. Every kind of craft made its way upriver, down river. Boat landings were planned, ports of call became the newest goal of many settlements including Grand Detour. Oh, how the Plow Works could benefit by having their materials come by boat so easily without the struggle overland on rutted roads, if you could call them roads.
The steamboat, Lightner Keel made its way upriver that year, 1844, in that record-breaking ascent, three hundred miles on the Rock, it told previously. Some of these craft were a hundred foot in length, thirty feet wide, not exactly that maneuverable. And remember, the native Americans had called the stream “We-no-sha-na-gra” while the French trappers simply called it “River de le Roche.” Boulders, stones, rapids littered the channel just beneath the surface, waiting to poke a hole in the boats or crush a raft or keelboat. But do you think those entrepreneurs of yesteryear paid attention what with flood waters letting them sail blithely on?
They were optimistic and went ahead with landings and ports of call.
A bill of lading was preserved from that time, July 27, 1844 giving us a glimpse of one transaction. It was from “Lyons and Short Co.,” St. Louis,
Missouri to the “Port of Grand Detour” on Rock River. It was to go to Leonard Andrus “or his assigns” at that point, the Grand Detour Plow Factory ... a load of iron and steel, the ... The charge, 50¢ per 100 pounds of product.
The partners at the Plow Works, Andrus and Deere, had moved into the modern day by taking up that new way of transport instead of hanging to ox power.
The steamboat era was relatively brief when compared to other periods in the Village history but it was colorful and exciting at the time. Each period saw rivalry between villages and towns which was what kept many progressing. Grand Detour was just one in the competition. From about 1840 to the mid-1850’s it dominated the development of any settlement in Ogle County with its many industries and energy. Close by, Dixon, Lee’s County Seat, was pressed to keep up, too. The Big Bend was the hub from which a demanded product, the steel plow, was the pulse that beat strong and spurred the economy.
Water power was the driving force at the detour. It powered the grist and flouring mill and a sawmill, the necessities. The newspaper reported in the middle 1840’s that water wheels were being constructed to propel a carding machine (wool) and a cloth dressing machine ... to make cloth. Those weren’t ordinary. The item in the paper ended by saying, “We know of no other town where mechanics are better patronized than here. There is still room for more and the work is much needed.”
The grist and flour mill was such a major money maker that even in pre-dawn hour thirty or forty wagons could be seen waiting in the dark to be taken to the mill at the ferry sites. (There were two.) The output of the flour mill alone was six to eight thousand barrels a year. The grain cradle factory hit 5,000 annually (last week).
There was a cheese factory, two shoemakers, tinner, cooper, buggy, carriage, wagon factory, wheel wright, cigar maker, sawmill, three general stores, one of which made $40,000 in yearly sales alone, two dry goods, one of which had twelve clerks, tailor. This was reported in 1842, published in the Rock River Register, a five column folio. It was quite early for such a remote place to have a newspaper. There was every possible nineteenth century amenity appearing at Grand Detour. Indeed, it was grande!
The water power had served from the wilderness days before white settlement. Animals whose pelts were key to trade thrived in the Rock River Valley; water powered mills as the white man came on, while fish and water animals provided foods for them as it had the native Americans. The water was a highway for people of all races and cultures, a gliding boat could cover many miles of the Rock’s length. Log rafts from the pineries of Wisconsin floated down the stream. It was “steam” for that sort of craft. Rivers enticed settlement. Even at the Big Bend where the water was described as “doubling back on itself” (see last week’s map).
By 1848 all talk was about the Illinois-Michigan Canal that’s joined Lake Michigan to the Illinois River. You could leave the East, New England, up the Hudson River, pass through the Erie Canal into the Great Lakes, arrive at Chicago to take the I-M Canal to the Illinois River whose current met with the Mississippi that joined the Gulf of Mexico at the Delta and then to oceans beyond then the World. Right at your dooryard. What a time to be alive. Canals were the answer to many problems.
The 1987 PDQ Me article focuses on the rapids at Rock Falls but there were many others like them. Was Grand Detour pondering “canal” also? The map with this article was taken from an early day Ogle County plat. It shows a “canal reservation.” This, if built, would have saved several miles less around the Bend. When this occurred or by whom, we didn’t discover. It would have been costly because a lock system would have had to be installed. But certainly the Hydraulic Co. could take up that project as it had all others.
We inquired of Duane Paulsen of Grand Detour, retired teacher at Sauk Valley College, historian and author. His recent book is a history of Grand Detour and has one in hand about the Rock River and the Dixon arch. You may have seen his byline in the “Dixon Telegraph” or in the “Sterling Gazette” as he’s always at the history desk. But Duane wasn’t certain about the “canal reservation” either. It needed more study. He did say, however, that a street covers the site. It is at the northern limits of the John Deere Historic Site which covers about seven acres presently in that village. Look for it. Duane Paulsen’s books may be had at “Books on First” in Dixon. So informative. Thanks for your contributions., D.
The John Deere Historic Site is a charming re-creation of Deere’s blacksmith shop where in 1837 he built the steel plow that changed the course of agriculture around the world. His home (last week) is the original and furnished with goods of the day. Antique lovers will appreciate the kitchen!
The output of the Grand Detour Plow Factory steadily rose and, perhaps, seeing how efficient was the transport of goods by steamboat (for however short a period) John Deere saw advantage in moving to a more metropolitan area with much river traffic and great water power—the Mississippi. In 1848 he announced he would withdraw from the Grand Detour Plow Factory. He and Leonard Andrus had for nearly a decade. What were the emotions experienced at this profitable break-up? Each was doing his own thing. Deere would go to Moline, Illinois and as an early Ogle County History stated ... “He became the noted plow manufacturer who made a world-wide reputation and a colossal fortune.”
NEXT WEEK. What occurred at Grand Detour, their move and the second nationally known plow maker who manufactured its product from Dixon, too.