Lee County Illinois
Part of American History and Genealogy Project

Review of Inlet Swamp, Lee County, Illinois

By A. C. Bardwell

In the eastern section of Lee county is a large body of land known as ''Inlet Swamp" which until recent years was not only of little worth, but seriously depreciated the tracts that bordered it. The more depressed portions were submerged in wet seasons, so that large areas were converted into lakes and ponds. The prevailing growth in this part of the tract was slough grass horse high, cattail, bull rushes and the like. The land coining within this class had no market value. In dry seasons the finer grades of slough grass were cut for hay, but in wet seasons hunters enjoyed the only revenue. It is difficult to estimate the acreage in the slough proper, but it was probably not less than ten thousand acres.

A marvelous change has been wrought in all this section by the organization of Inlet Swamp Drainage District and the work it has been carrying on and has brought to final completion this winter. The district was organized in the county court of Lee county, the Hon. R. S. Farrand, judge presiding, by an order entered Aug. 5, 1887, the petition there for having been filed on the 10th day of the preceding November. Much bitter opposition was aroused and every conceivable obstacle interposed by a large element of the interested landowners, who seemed to labor under the conviction that the movement was destined to result in virtual confiscation of their property. The feasibility and utility of the scheme was doubted by many who believed that the cost of the work would greatly overmatch the benefits to be derived, but HOW that the hopes of the most sanguine have been realized, the work is generally regarded as a great success. In view of developments, it seems unaccountable now, that the undertaking should have met the antagonism it did from the very landowners who have since reaped rich benefits in yearly incomes from once unsalable property, and in the consequent enhancement of values.

Though little has been said or known about this work outside the immediate vicinity where it has been going on, and aside from occasional articles in the Amboy Journal and brief references to it in other papers and the formal legal notices appearing as required, the press has been silent regarding it; the fact is that no public work ever carried forward in Lee county compares with it in magnitude of wealth created or reclaimed. It has raised whole farms from the mire, and converted an unsightly, pestilential swamp into a rich agricultural district, where lands unsalable before are bringing from sixty dollars to eighty dollars an acre.

It has added an average of nearly 40 per cent to the assessable value of the lands within the district. By towns the increase has been as follows:

Alto from $11,798 in 1886 to $14,722 in 1899
Bradford from 21,791 in 1886 to 34,010 in 1899
Lee Center from 26,219 in 1886 to 32,420 in 1899 Willow Creek from 6,228 in 1886 to 6,402 in 1899 Viola from 59,177 in 1886 to 120,083 in 1899
Reynolds from. 28,556 in 1886 to 47,569 in 1899
$183,769 $255,206

The increase in actual market value, as indicated by the price at which lands have been sold and are now selling, is very much greater than these figures would indicate.

The process by which such beneficent results have been accomplished may, therefore, be a matter of public interest, and it is due to those who have encouraged and supported the enterprise, as well as to the officers who have borne the burdens of the task and surmounted its many difficulties and discouragements, that the story of the task be told.

The district embraces 30,079 acres, all of which was formed by the court to need drainage, although much was fair pasture and hay land in other than wet years. The four main ditches or channels have a total length of thirty-two miles, into which empty over seven and one-half miles of smaller ditches and ''laterals.''

Preliminary to the order organizing the district the court appointed E. C. Parsons, Wesley Steward and John Nelles, commissioners to lay out the proposed ditches and report plans, profiles and estimates, including the probable cost of the work. They first called to their assistance the county's old reliable engineer, William McMahon, Esq., but he soon discovered that he could not go on with the work to the end. Mr. A. E. Rutledge, a thoroughly-competent young engineer of Rockford, took his place and Mr. McMahon contributed such counsel as was needed. As far as weather would permit advantage was taken of the frozen condition of the ponds the following winter to make the surveys, and on April 21, 1887, the commissioners submitted their report. The engineer estimated that the proposed district drained a watershed of about one hundred and fifteen thousand acres, and that the construction of the ditches as located by his survey would require the removal of 1,544,817 cubic yards of earth and 79,700 cubic yards of stone. The commissioners reported that the work, including all expenses of the district, would probably reach $185,000. When the report came up for hearing the Protestants were numerous. Every available lawyer in the county, and some from neighboring counties, were enlisted and the court room was crowded with indignant landowners from far and near, clamoring for protection against what was characterized as a high-handed outrage on the part of the commissioners.

After patient hearing the court ordered the commissioners to estimate and report the probable cost of a modified system, terminating the ''Main Ditch'' 2,600 feet below the Birdsall bridge, instead of at the Badger dam, as recommended by the commissioners, lessening the depth and width of the rock cut at Inlet, generally contracting the size of the ditches throughout the district and reducing the estimated material to be removed to 640,000 cubic yards of earth and 10,400 cubic yards of stone. The commissioners reported the probable cost of such work at $67,000. On the basis of this report the court granted the order organizing the district, the purpose being to construct the ditches according to the modified system. Time has shown that the one first advanced by the commissioners should have been followed, but public sentiment in that as in most matters had to be educated up to the point of wisdom. Drainage was then in its infancy and must needs slowly win its way to public favor, as it has most triumphantly done. The ditches, as at last constructed, conform substantially to the lines and dimensions laid down by these first commissioners and their young engineer.

The contract to do this first work was let Feb. 15, 1888, in two portions, the larger to Pollard & Goff who sublet it to McGillis & Company, the lesser to Gilbert F. Henning.

A jury composed of William McMahon, foreman, J. C. Howlett, James Kirby, John Fruit, John Holdren, Abram Bennett, Jerome Bennett, John Nass, George Carey, G. A. Lyman, E. W. Pomeroy and James King, was impaneled to spread the assessment on the lands of the district for the required $67,000. This work was done during the fall of 1887, and was very thoroughly performed, every tract throughout the entire district being inspected carefully by the jury in a body, the work covering a period of nearly three months. The land in tracts was classified in proportion to the benefits to be received from the drainage, from 5 to 100; that is, those tracts receiving the least benefit were marked 5, the next in order of benefits 10, and so on, the tract receiving the greatest benefit being marked 100. The $67,000 was then apportioned to each tract from these figures according to the number of acres in a tract. Work was begun and was pushed vigorously during the year 1888.

A year later, Feb. 15, 1889, the commissioners made a report, based on the actual result of the year's work, to the effect that the first assessment would fall short of completing the ditches, and asking for a second assessment. After due hearing at which the prior opposition was renewed, the court ordered an assessment of $17,000 to finish the work undertaken, and a jury to make the same was again impaneled, composed of William McMahon, foreman, J. C. Howlett, Jerome Bennett, A. J. Tompkins, Abram Bennett, John Holdren, James Kirby, John Fruit, George Carey, John Nass, G. A. Lyman and A. B. Fitch, and their labors were confirmed by the court May 6, 1889. In the course of that sum-mer the ditches were completed.

Aug. 3, 1891, the court ordered the commissioners to extend an assessment of $2,800 for purposes of repair, and their action was confirmed by the court Dec. 7, 1891.

As the season went by it became more and more apparent to the commissioners and to the ardent friends of the work, that the ditches were entirely inadequate to thoroughly drain the swamp and give the owners of lands the relief sought. The swamp was a vast basin of wet or soggy land, dominated by ledges of rock at Inlet, the only place of escape. The level of water was gauged by the lowest point in this barrier. Below this the water saturating the soil could not fall, excepting by evaporation, any more than a full barrel could empty itself. As completed, the opening through the rock was eighteen feet wide at bottom, and about five feet deep. Through this aperture the floods of the rainy seasons were compelled to pass, and it was impossible for the water to get away quickly enough and lower the water level in the soil sufficiently to render the wetter lands reliable for tillage. This was evident to any unprejudiced person.

With the hope of remedying this radical defect the commissioners petitioned the court, July 18, 1893, for authority to widen the rock cut to the width of twenty-four feet at bottom and to deepen it four or five feet, and to extend the ''Main Ditch'' to the Badger dam to secure the necessary fall. But at the hear-mg the opposition on the part of many of the landowners was so stubborn that the court was compelled to refuse the petition of the commissioners; and thus did the contesting landowners once more accomplish the temporary defeat of thorough drainage, and postpone the benefits ultimately to be attained. It will be seen that at no time was it the fault of the commissioners that the system stopped short of the highest efficiency; but by a strange blindness to self-interest, and an unaccountable disrespect of the law which prevents water from running up hill, the contesting proprietors obstinately set themselves against the necessary improvements. This was in 1893. At this writing (December, 1900) an outlet of much greater capacity than here proposed is carrying away the water of the district.

Restive under the restraints and losses inflicted by a policy so short-sighted, a number of owners of lands in the district, residing in the central part of the state where the value of drainage had been demonstrated, generously offered to pay the expense of widening the rock cut. The proposition was submitted to the court and the commissioners were authorized to accept the proffer and do the work. The cut was thus made twenty feet wider down to a line within a few feet of the bottom at a cost to these people of $10,241.81, for which they have received no reimbursements other than the benefits resulting to their holdings in common with the rest of the lands of the district. These non-resident landowners were represented by Mr. E. F. Nichols of Delevan, Ill., whose intelligent judgment and persistent labors in supporting the com-missioners and promoting the interests of the district deserve to be here recognized as well nigh invaluable.

In July, 1895, the commissioners reported a shortage of funds needed to keep the ditches in good condition; that trees were becoming rooted and bars were forming. After due notice and hearing the court impaneled a jury to levy a fourth assessment amounting to $9,000 on the lands of the district, James Kirby, foreman, Abram Bennett, Warren Smith, Dennis Bradshaw, John M. Sterling, F. E. Rogers, George Carey, W. B. Merriman, Hi-ram Hetler, M. M. Avery, H. E. Chadwick and W. W. Gilmore, comprised the jury. Their work was confirmed by the court Nov. 4, 1895.

In 1897 the commissioners made a third and successful effort to extend and enlarge the outlet and increase the capacity of all the ditches to proportions adequate to carry off the water as quickly as possible. Proper profiles, plans and estimates were made and presented to the court with their petition May 19, 1897. It was noticeable on the hearing of this petition that the grounds of opposition had shifted. The ditches had been for years arguing the cause of drainage, and their logic had compelled recognition. Now the question did not turn on the advisability of greater capacity and swifter flow, but on the adjustment of the tax among the different owners.

On the hearing of this petition the court found ''that it is necessary that the ditches of the district be widened, extended and deepened, as hereinafter ordered, in order to secure the proper drainage of the lands of the district;'' and that ''the probable cost of said work, together with charges and expenses necessarily incident thereto will be fifty-five thousand dollars.'' Accordingly the court ordered the commissioners, June 7, 1897, to extend an assessment of that amount on the lands of the district for the purpose of lowering the cut through the rock four to five feet and widening it to the width of thirty feet and extending the ''Main Ditch" to a point 100 feet below the Kreiter dam and lowering correspondingly the North Ditch, Fourth Ditch, Middle Ditch and South Ditch, as well as certain laterals. This work has now been completed; and thus has been vindicated, by both court and public sentiment, after a long and often disheartening struggle, the policy recommended by the first commissioners and their engineer and advocated by their successors. The loss caused by its belated victory has fallen on the property owners.

This fifth assessment made by the commissioners was confirmed by the court Sept. 13, 1897, and on the 16th day of the same month the contract for the work was let to John W. Boyer of North Manchester, Ind. Mr. Boyer's prosecution of the work was so dilatory and unsatisfactory that the commissioners rescinded their contract with him and relet the job to Mr. John E. Burke of Chicago at the same figures. Notwithstanding the many unexpected difficulties encountered by reason, principally, of unfavorable weather, he hung manfully to his task and fulfilled his con-tract to the letter, except in the date of completion, which was extended as the necessities of the situation required. Mr. Burke's work showed him to be a thoroughly reliable contractor.

But the money raised by the fifth assessment proved insufficient to finish the job and the commissioners were forced to petition the court for a sixth assessment. After due hearing, at which many landowners appeared, the court ordered that $15,000 more be raised to complete the work and repair the ditches. This order was entered Jan. 13, 1900, and a jury to extend the assessment was impaneled, consisting of James Kirby, foreman, Jesse Cole, Hiram Hetler, Edward Lamb, Abram Bennett, E. L. Thorp, F. L. Childs, F. E. Rogers, Frank Messer, George W. Smith, William V. Jones and B. F. Lane, whose assessment was confirmed by the court July 6, 1900.

The ditches of the system being now finally completed it only remains to maintain them in such condition as will render them most serviceable. The assessments aggregate $165,800, and this plus the contribution mentioned must be set down as the cost of ditches to date, less such portion of the last assessment as will be left for repair purposes.

The work done under the contract with Pollard & Goff was at the rate of ten to twelve cents (according to locality) per cubic yard for earth, fifty-five cents for stone and thirty-five cents for hardpan. The rate under the contract with Henning was nine and one-half to twelve cents (according to locality) per cubic yard for earth, twenty-five cents for stone and hardpan; but the Pollard & Goff contract embraced all the rock and hardpan work. Under all the contracts with Boyer and Burke the price was ten cents per cubic yard for earth, fifty-five cents for stone and forty cents for hardpan. The three contracts were let to the lowest bidder and were considered to be very favorable to the district. In each instance there was sharp competition among contractors seeking the job.

The assessments were made payable in installments. The last installment of the several assessments fall due as follows: Of the first in 1902; of the second in 1895; of the third in 1896; of the fourth in 1900; of the fifth in 1912; of the sixth in 1905. Of the first assessment $21,000 of the principal has been paid, $12,000 of principal will be paid this year (1900), $15,000 in 1901, and the balance, $19,000, in 1902. The second and third assessments have been fully paid. The last installment ($630) of the fourth assess-ment will be paid this year. The sixth assessment is payable in three installments, of $5,000 each, in 1903, 1904 and 1905. The fifth assessment is divided into nine installments, payable each year commencing in 1906 and ending in 1912. The policy of the court in so adjusting the several assessments was to postpone the heavier payments until such time as the owners would be receiving the benefits of the work. The amount due this year, including interest, is substantially the same as last. Next year if will be $1,600 more and in 1902 the climax will be reached, the amount then falling due with interest being $20,140. After that the burden, exclusive of interest, which will lessen with every payment, will average about $7,000 a year (not taking into account payments made in advance), or about 25 per cent more than the rate of 1897. The assessments all draw interest at the rate of 6 per cent per annum.

Inasmuch as the payment of the assessments was postponed, and it was necessary to have funds available to pay contractors and meet the general expenses of the district, the court directed the commissioners to borrow money on the bonds of the district, payable out of the several assessments when collected, except the last. Of this last assessment $8,945.39 has already been paid by the landowners and they have received their releases from further liability on account of the sixth assessment.

Six series of bonds have been issued, all bearing interest at 6 per cent per annum, but all except the first issue of $6,000 were sold at such a premium as in effect reduced the interest much below this rate.

The tax on the lands of the district if distributed equally would be approximately five dollars and fifty cents per acre, but as the constant effort has been to adjust the load according to benefits, many tracts are charged with much more and many much less than this. The record shows that the largest total assessment paid by any one is ten dollars and forty cents per acre.

The work of the civil engineers who laid out the ditches and supervised their construction has been from the first extremely satisfactory. Mr. G. H. T. Shaw of Dixon succeeded Mr. Rutledge, and by his ability and fairness has added to a well earned reputation in both respects.

Josiah Little, the old-time and always reliable banker of Amboy was early appointed treasurer of the district and still securely holds the purse, the details of the office being discharged by his efficient cashier, Mr. F. N. Vaughan.

The district has been fortunate in its comparative immunity from litigation. Portentous clouds gathered in the early days, and various mutterings such as the lawyers of the county combined were capable of, disturbed the air, but in due time the clouds drifted away, the threatenings subsided, and calm prevailed. One landowner appealed from the assessment of damages awarded him. The contest ended with the verdict of a jury in the county court

The failure of Glann & McDonald, subcontractors under Boyer, to comply with the terms of the contract, and their abandonment of the job leaving workmen and material, men unpaid, forced the commissioners again into court. Something over $2,000 was due Boyer on final settlement. Glann & McDonald insisted that the money should be paid to them, and the people whom they owed also contended for it; while Boyer, who was disposed to pay the men, but refused to pay the defaulting subcontractors, demanded the money. Under this sort of cross-fire the commissioners were compelled to bring an interpleader suit in the circuit court whereby the rights of the contestants should be deter-mined. Glann & McDonald, claiming to be non-residents, removed the case to the United States Court in Chicago, where it is still pending.

In extending the ditches beyond the original boundaries of the district as required by the court's order of Jan. 7, 1897, it was necessary to condemn the right of way or acquire it by purchase. Not being able to come to an agreement with the owner of the Badger dam, the destruction of which was necessary, a jury was called to assess the damage. Only one other contest has been experienced. Indeed it was the only genuine lawsuit in the history of the district, and was occasioned by the erection of a temporary dam at Inlet to produce backwater sufficient to float the dredges. A portion of the farm of Austin Willis was overflowed and he sued the commissioners personally as well as in their official capacity for damages. He recovered in the circuit court, but the appellate court reversed the judgment and dismissed the suit. A. C. Bardwell, of Dixon, has been the attorney for the district from the first. The organization was effected, all assessments were made and all bonds were issued under his direction, and he has had charge of whatever litigation has occurred. It may be fairly said that he has always faithfully seconded the commissioners in their policy of patience and conciliation, by which the district has been safely steered through and beyond the shoals of complicating litigation which frequently threatened it.

But credit for the successful development of Inlet Swamp Drainage District is chiefly due to the court and the commissioners, a court that had faith in the possibilities of drainage and at the same time proper regard for the views of the land-owners and commissioners who were steadfast in their purpose to accomplish the thorough drainage of the lands of the district. It, doubtless, would have been much more economical if the required funds had been raised in one or two assessments instead of six, and greatly to the benefit of the proprietors if the work as first proposed could have all been done under the first contract; but conditions which could not be ignored demanded a slower, though more expensive process.

As already noted the first commissioners (the ones who may be justly said to have laid the foundations of the work) were E. C. Parsons of Dixon, Wesley Steward of Steward and John Nelles of Viola. On the organization of the district the court appointed William S. Frost of Bradford, Henry B. Cobb of Viola and Wesley Steward, their successors. Frost was made president and Steward Secretary. The board as thus constituted continued without changes until Sept. 12, 1899, when Xavier F. Gehant was appointed in Mr. Steward's place, and succeeded him as secretary. They have all accounted to the county court for every dollar of the funds expended by them, and every expenditure, item by item, will be found spread upon the records of the court, where he may read who cares. That these several commissioners should each be some-what proud of their part in the work as finally consummated is not strange. No better nor more enduring monument marks the faithful services of public officers in Lee County.

In 1901 the 30,000 acres comprising and bordering the old Inlet Swamp will take their place among the most productive and valuable agricultural districts in the county to which they belong. The only solicitude now yo be indulged is that a network of drainage on which so much has been expended may not be properly cared for. If not kept clear of the industrious and prolific willow, and if bars are allowed to form, its service will rapidly decline and the lands will suffer accordingly. It is to be hoped that in maintaining the ditches up to the highest state of usefulness the commissioners will receive the active cooperation of all persons interested therein.

Inlet Swamp

Lee County History


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