Kaskaskia River damage after flood

The Kaskaskia River in Randolph County

Living conditions along the banks of the Mississippi were often determined by the whims of its mighty strength. The town of Kaskaskia was eventually destroyed by the river when it changed its course. This house, perched precipitously on the eroded banks, eventually succumbed to the powerful currents.
Living conditions along the banks of the Mississippi were often determined by the whims of its mighty strength. The town of Kaskaskia was eventually destroyed by the river when it changed its course. This house, perched precipitously on the eroded banks, eventually succumbed to the powerful currents.

The Kaskaskia River has greatly influenced the development of Randolph County. The Kaskaskia River flows southwest from Champaign, Illinois, and joins with the Mississippi River in Randolph County about fifty miles southeast of St. Louis, Missouri. The inhabitants of Randolph County have benefited from the river throughout their history. The lower Kaskaskia River Valley has long drawn people to Randolph County, with its abundant agricultural land and convenient transportation.

One of Randolph County’s most important industries has always been agriculture. Today 262,464 acres of Randolph County’s 380,000 acres are used for farmland. It has been the primary draw for most of the immigrants to the area, the Kaskaskia Indians, the French, the Anglo-Americans (mostly from southern states like Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas), the Irish, and the Germans. William Hayes, an early visitor to the county from New York, remarked that “The soil is rich, the fruits abundant.” The county’s river valleys form part of the exceedingly fertile American Bottomlands. The famous floods of the Mississippi River and its tributaries replenish the soil, making riverside property in the area both dangerous and some of the most fertile in all of Illinois. Yet in addition to the fertile bottomlands of the Kaskaskia and Mississippi rivers much of Randolph County is prairie. Seasonal fires, which burned away any young trees, created this fertile prairie. Horse Prairie, named for the escaped French horses that roamed it, was and is one of the most fertile regions of the county and attracted many German immigrants. Early disputes with Native Americans prevented Horse Prairie from becoming densely inhabited; however, the town of Red Bud sprang up nearby as a “depot and shipping point” for the agricultural products of Horse Prairie, according to historian John Williams. Most of the other towns in Randolph County began just as Red Bud did, serving as processing and distribution centers for the produce of the valuable surrounding farmland.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Kaskaskia River is its navigability. It has been valued for transportation since the French settlers arrived in the eighteenth century. In a time when roads were scarce and crude, waterways provided the best means of transportation. When British engineer Captain Philip Pittman surveyed Illinois in 1765, he noted how suited to water transport the river was: “This river is a secure port for large bateaux, which can lie so close to its bank as to load and unload without the least trouble; and at all seasons of the year there is water enough for them to come up.” This contrasts with his description of the dangers of loading and unloading along the Mississippi due to “the bank falling in, and the vast number of logs and trees which are sent down, with a violent force, by the rapidity of the current, as also on account of the heavy gales of wind to which this climate is subject.” This navigability allowed the settlers to export their grain without difficulty. Large grain shipments were sent out even in the earliest days of European settlement. On May 29, 1738, a shipment from the French village of Kaskaskia to New Orleans “brought from fifty to sixty thousandweight” of flour. By having access to a navigable river that connected to the Mississippi and in turn the Gulf of Mexico, export of products, particularly agricultural products, was made much easier. This no doubt encouraged the development of agriculture in Randolph County, especially in the days before railroads. Even today the river continues to be important for shipping crops. The town of Evansville contains facilities for loading barges with grain, and a former coal-shipping depot is being converted for the same purpose. The Kaskaskia River was and is an excellent means of transportation and greatly helped fuel the early growth of Randolph County by providing both a way for settlers to reach the area and a route to export their goods.

With the coming of the railroads in the nineteenth century the importance of the river for shipping declined. But in the twentieth century the presence of the river began to attract industry to Randolph County. In 1962 Congress authorized the Kaskaskia River Navigation Project to canalize the lower fifty miles of the Kaskaskia to provide a 9-foot by 225-foot navigation channel for the downstream barge transport of coal and other commodities. The combination of nearby coal and the presence of a river whose water could be used for cooling attracted a large coal-fired power plant in the 1970s. The number of citizens in Randolph County engaged in agricultural work decreased throughout the twentieth century as coal mining and other industrial jobs drew labor away from the small farms, which, due to lower crop prices, were becoming increasingly unprofitable.

The great boom in industry, which was expected to follow the Kaskaskia River Navigation Project, never quite developed as expected, and the coal mines, which once employed large numbers of people, have now closed, as have several other major industrial employers. However, new employers have also moved in preventing drastic changes in the economic landscape. Urban sprawl from nearby St. Louis has also begun to move into the area as it already has in the counties to the immediate northwest, placing Randolph County on the fringe of the metropolitan area. The Kaskaskia River may find a new importance as a recreational spot for fishing and boating. In the twenty-first century Randolph County may find itself developing into a suburb of St. Louis as more people continue to move out from the city center attracted by the countryside of Randolph County and the Kaskaskia River.

  • Paul M. Angle, comp. and ed., Prairie State
  • Natalia Maree Belting, Kaskaskia Under the French Regime
  • Fred Lampe, Michael Campbell, and Patricia Kinkel, The Cultural and Economic Landscape of the Kaskaskia Navigation Project Area Illinois
  • Margaret Stellhorn Pierce, Introduction to the History of Randolph County
  • Carol Pirtle, Where Illinois Began
  • John R. Williams, History of Randolph County
  • Ronald Yarbrough, Sharon Crouthers, Jack Humes, and Nancy Stahlschmidt, The Earth Resources of the Kaskaskia Navigation Project Area Illinois

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Ryan Langrehr, The Kaskaskia River in Randolph County, found in Illinois History, p. 35-36; Springfield, Illinois, Feb 2002.

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