Monday, November 03, 2014

I&M Canal NHC at 30: Buffalo Rock State Park

A few miles west of Ottawa--and a few miles north of the Illinois & Michigan Canal--is one of the best kept secrets along the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor--Buffalo Rock State Park.

The Illinois River from the park. Buffalo Rock got its name from a blind canyon that Native Americans used to herd cattle into during hunts; the park is situated on a bluff that once was an island.

A co-worker asked if I had any pictures of barges from my canal trip. Yes, here is one. This barge is a mammoth. Fortunately, a small boat near the Buffalo Rock side of he river provides size reference that drives my point home.

The park used to be a private campground and sanitarium for ill employees of the Crane Company. Then the firm purchased a larger site and donated the 43 acre plot to Illinois to be a state park. In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed picnic shelters and made other improvements to the land.

But while this was happening, strip-mining for coal was taking place on 200 acres of adjacent land west of the park. But that endeavor didn't last much longer--and by the 1980s the land was a barren wasteland, albeit one that was popular with dirt bikers. The land was owned by the Ottawa Silica Company Foundation, whose chairman, Edmund Thornton, was the area's prominent philanthropist, conservationist, and patron of the arts. Yep, a mining guy can be a good guy.

Thornton commissioned artist Michael Heizer, noted for his earth art, to beautify the dirt and shale rubble. Local contractors followed Heizer's strict specifications to create five mounds. Behind the cottonwood tree is one of them.

After the mounds were created it was important to ensure they weren't eroded away.

From the Chicago Reader in 1992:
Once the mounds were shaped they were covered with mats of "excelsior"--shredded aspen fiber woven into a plastic netting that was meant to hold the soil in place until grass could take root. Then workers used trucks to blow shredded straw, grass seed, and fertilizer over the site. The area around the mounds, too, was graded, fertilized, and reseeded.
The work is titled Effigy Tumuli, and they honor the work of the Mississippian Culture Indians, also known as the mound builders. One of my earlier posts in this series was about the Briscoe Mounds in Channahon.

The earthen sculptures depict five animals, which range from 340 feet to 2,070 feel long, that are found along the Illinois River valley: a water spider, a frog, a catfish, a turtle, and a snake. Shown here is part of the snake, the longest effigy. Altogether Heizer's creation is among the largest works of art in America.

I believe this is part of the turtle effigy. It's difficult to tell, except for the snake, which effigy is which, unless you are flying over it, which of course I didn't do. How do you botch a massive public artwork? In essentially-bankrupt Illinois it's easy. Half of the signage is missing along the trail that connects the effigies. Worse, if there is a notice in the park that the effigies are works of art and not Indian mounds, I didn't see it. I spoke with a young couple from Ohio who were on standing with me top of--I think--the catfish effigy, and they told me that they had recently visited the Hopewell Mounds in the southern part of their state, which are 2,000 years old. They believed the Buffalo Rock mounds were built by Native Americans. I didn't have the heart to tell them they were built 30 years ago.

On the flipside, since no one is buried--as far as anyone knows--under these mounds, no one minds if you stand on them.

Not much to see here--except a stunning red oak.

Right next to the snake is an abandoned sand quarry. Imagine for a moment that you are looking at Bryce Canyon.

Nature always finds a a way.

One last look at the snake.

Heading back to see...

...the park's bison. Here is one of the two buffalo at Buffalo Rock State Park.

Our next stop awaits us.

Next: Starved Rock State Park

Note: Many thanks to the Chicago Reader for much of the background for this story. However, in their article about the park, they came down hard on a nearby family-owned shooting range. Too hard, in my opinion.

Earlier I&M Canal NHC at 30: posts:

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