Central Illinois – Gateway to North America’s Grand Prairie
Read Dr. Clark Bullard’s article on HOW THE MIDDLEFORK GOT ITS NAME
In 1836 the Illinois country was the frontier, and many forts and outposts were vying for the role of “Gateway to the West.” One competitor was Amando D. Higgins, a real estate developer from New York who traveled up the Wabash and followed the Vermilion River into the Illinois country. West of Danville, he followed the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River into the Grand Prairie. Stopping at a point where the river was more than 150 feet wide and still navigable to steamers, and ample firewood was available, he founded Higginsville — the Gateway to the West — and advertised lots for sale in the New York papers. His 1837 plats show he named the town “Vermilion Rapids,” for the barrier that marked the end of the navigable part of the river.
According to The History of Vermilion County (1879), Higgins had great plans for his town, “where boats could take on products of the rich farming lands for miles around… Direct communication would be kept up all year with New Orleans, Rio, Cuba and Europe…” Unfortunately the draining of the prairie wetlands caused all rivers in Illinois to shrink substantially during summer months, after carrying off the spring rains in raging torrents. Many mills went bankrupt and had to move to larger rivers.
Higginsville today consists of only a few houses and a cemetery. It is better known as the most popular put-in point for canoeists enjoying Illinois’ only National Scenic River. Permanently protected since 1989 by the state and federal governments, this 17-mile segment of the MiddleFork and its 8,000 acres of adjoining public parks and wildlife areas is a truly unique recreational and ecological resource.
National Scenic River designation followed a bitter 22-year battle over a proposal to drown the river and its valley under a proposed “MiddleFork Reservoir.” By blurring the words together, dam boosters attempted to deprive the MiddleFork of its identity as a river. The semantic conflict was a subtle yet powerful dimension of the political debate.
That struggle is behind us now, and Illinois has a National Scenic River protected by state and federal law and National Park Service regulations. The future generations who enjoy the river will know it by its proper name: The MiddleFork of the Vermilion — Gateway to North America’s Grand Prairie. Another place claimed the honor of being gateway to the West.
More details on the history here: http://prairierivers.org/MiddleFork/MiddleFork/MiddleFork/Home.html
And photos from a trip on the MiddleFork by Voytek Miezal.