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Sandwich IL 60548

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Davenport, IA 52807

Whiteside goes though change
Recreation sites replace businesses along the waters

By Todd Welvaert, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

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A big event in Propehtstown before the turn of the 20th century attracted horse and buggies from around Whiteside County.
About the same time a man named Jesus Christ is said to have taught the crowds n Galilee, an ancient and rich culture of Native Americans buried their dead in mounds on bluffs above the Albany area.

The same factors that drew this group of Native Americans to the Whiteside County area, rich in natural resources, are the same that drew Europeans to settle, and, eventually, Americans to stay.

Like much of the rest of the nation, Whiteside had a difficult start. According to Wayne Bastion's book, "Whiteside County," no less than four national flags -- Spain, France and Great Britain before the United States -- flew over the area from 1665 until 1778. Illinois became a state in 1818 and Whiteside, with the exception of parts of Prophetstown and Portland Township, became a county Jan. 16, 1836.

According to Bent-Wilson's "History of Whiteside County," it was named, apparently by consensus by the Illinois General Assembly after Gen. Samuel Whiteside, a prominent figure in the Black Hawk War and a one-time Galena resident.

Early development came primarily by way of the Mississippi River. In the early 1830s and 1840s, there was great expansion on the river. In 1857, a steamboat packet company called the Chicago, Fulton City and Minnesota Packet Company was organized in Fulton, then called Fulton City. It lasted only a few months, but the city's importance to river traffic grew after the Civil War.

Diamond Jo Reynolds, in collaboration with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad Company, hauled millions of bushels of grain from 1866 to 1887.

At the same time, the lumber business developed. Huge rafts of logs were floated from the rich northern forests to mills downstream. Fulton and Albany also grew with the trade.

Another important area business developed from the river was clamming. In 1888, German immigrants in Muscatine figured they could cut button blanks, at the time an expensive item, from the shells of fresh water mussels. One of the biggest and best beds in the Mississippi was located in Albany. In 1898, there were two cutting factories in Albany and one remained in operation until as late as 1949, when plastic buttons became a less-expensive alternative.

The Rock River, comparatively smaller than the Mississippi, also served an important part to Whiteside's development. Although portions were unnavigable to large steamboats and rafts, several communities sprang to life along its shores.

In 1836, Capt. D.S. Harris piloted his craft, the Pioneer, up the Rock River and sold goods to settlers. The community that was platted was named Harrisburg, allegedly after the captain. During that same period, another community was platted and named Chatham.

Stage coach lines also served as important community builders, especially to the smaller towns located away from the Mississippi. The coach lines operated for about 50 years in the early 1800s, with mail delivery one of their most important aspects. One of the most important lines ran from Dixon to Rock Island and included stops in Sterling, Como, Prophetstown, Portland and Erie and into Rock Island County.

According to the "History of Whiteside County," Erie's downtown area is still in the shape of a triangle, supposedly after the coach line routes. Prophetstown's Eureka Inn restaurant was one of the initial stops along the line.

There was one last gasp for waterway transportation in Whiteside County, the Hennepin Canal. Built in the 1890s, it was hoped the Hennepin Canal would bring wealth by the barge-full to the men who planned it and go the way of the I&M Canal and make the towns located along it rich.

The I&M detoured the unnavigable part of the Illinois River east of LaSalle-Peru and gave Chicago a direct route to the Mississippi. The supporters of the Hennepin proposed to shorten the way to the Mississippi by another 400 miles by running their new canal straight west.

The canal runs from the Illinois River on one end to the Mississippi on the other. A 29-mile feeder canal runs straight south from the Sterling-Rock Falls area and supplies the main canal with water from the Rock River.

However, when the Corps of Engineers finally started construction in 1890, small canals were already dying throughout the Midwest. The Hennepin was already outmoded by the time the first boat traveled it in 1907.

Although made obsolete by freight trains and other modes of transport, the canal did ship coal from central Illinois to Rock Island until the coal fields finally closed.

In two years, Morton Salt Co. sent a total of 3,200 tons of salt from Chicago to Davenport. International Harvester used the canal to move steel and scrap iron to Moline in the 1930s.

According to Mr. Bastion's book, "Whiteside County," riverboats and river traffic remained a staple for the area until railroads began to offer stiff competition for transportation of goods and services. In the 1850s and 1860s, rail expansion in Whiteside helped establish the towns and what the railroads took from the river towns it gave to the landlocked towns.

The Chicago Northwestern, The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul, and The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad companies all served various parts of the counties. The railroads built main lines and spurs that helped Whiteside into its initial industrial age.

According to Mr. Bastion's book, "Whiteside County," the city of Sterling is the result of the consolidation of Harrisburg and Chatham, necessary in an failed attempt to locate the county seat in 1842. In 1868, the city of Rock Falls was platted and recorded. These two towns would eventually become the industrial base for the county.

In 1907, Russell, Burdsall and Ward Bolt and Nut Company located in Rock Falls -- to manufacture bolts. The company was responsible for the first, automatic cold-heading machine. Previously bolts were forged, and the improvement gave the company a dominant position in the industry. To this day, the company, which now is under the name of Reliant Fasteners, is a leader in the industry.

Northwestern Barbed Wire Company was organized by W.M. Dillon and Captain W.C. Robinson in 1879. The company built a three-story factory in Rock Falls. In 1884, it produced more than 400 carloads of barbed wire, each carload weighing 20,000 pounds. On May 10, 1938, the company changed its name to Northwestern Steel and Wire Company, which despite increasingly stiff competition, remains one of the county's largest employers.

Other companies of national and international fame sprung from industrial bases in Sterling and Rock Falls. National Manufacturing Company was founded in 1901.

The company originally made wagon-end loaders for corn. It later switched to hardware. The Sterling company remains one of the county's larger employers.

Wahl Clipper, the internationally known manufacturer of hair clippers sprung to life after Leo Wahl returned from World War I. Mr. Wahl received his first patent on a clipper in 1919. It too, is one of the areas largest employers.

With the advent of better machines and computers to guide them in a new, global marketplace, industrial labor has began a decline. Northwestern Steel and Wire has announced layoffs and has lost a portion of its wire mill business.

Sally Heffernan, Whiteside County economic director, believes the rivers will return again to a greater importance in the lives of Whiteside County residents.

"The trend seems to be a course of decline in the number of labor intensive jobs," Mrs. Heffernan said. "It just doesn't take as many people to make the products as it did. We are seeing that here in Whiteside County. The percentages of industrial employment are dropping and we are beginning to see an increase in the service and retail jobs."

Mrs. Heffernan said renewed interest in the Rock and Mississippi rivers center on recreational and tourism.

` "We have some very interesting projects including the Great River Bicycle Trail and the Illinois Route 84," she said. "Traces of the ages that focus on that relationship between the area and the river."

Even the lowly Hennepin Canal, which proved a disaster for the people who built it, may prove to be a proverbial diamond in the recreational rough.

The paths that once were trod by mules hauling goods, are now recreational paths for walkers, joggers and cyclists. The canal, now under the eye of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, is a long, languid playground for canoeing, fishing, hiking, biking, snowmobiling, cross country skiing and camping.

Site superintendent Steve Mosher said the canal is used year-round by enthusiasts from Chicago to Southern Illinois.

"I think people are just now realizing how nice it is," Mr. Mosher said. "I think we are going to see an increase in the number of users."

Mr. Moser says the Illinois State Department of Natural Resources has plans to develop 64 miles of the canal into part of the 425-mile proposed Grand Illinois Trail.

Linda Engelbarts of Black Hawk Waterways visitor's information says with or without the new trail, the area really can offer something to everyone.

Mrs. Heffernan said fewer products are being shipped by barges on the river and more by truck, but the river will always remain an important conduit for goods.

"I think the river will always play an important role in the future of this area," she said. "Whether it be transportation or recreation. I think there is a big draw for people to live near the water, now we are seeing a trend to site industry away from the river where in the past, the river was always the place to site industry. As the river gets cleaner, and more regulations are placed on the industries that need it, I think we will see more industry sited away from the river and development of a different kind near the river."

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.