by Lorri Coey

In the early 1900s, the resources of the Illinois River must have seemed infinite. More than 2,000 commercial fishermen worked the waters in 1908, and their harvest averaged 178 pounds of fish per acre. Black bullheads, largemouth bass, channel catfish, and carp were some of the species caught in the early years.

Circa 1910; courtesy of INHS ArchivesMussel harvesting was also a big industry. Around 1910, more than 2,600 boats were engaged in mussel fishery between Peru and Grafton. Enough mussels were pulled from the river in 1912 to keep 15 factories busy producing mother-of-pearl buttons.

Stories are told of hunters shooting 100 ducks a day to provide meals for restaurants in Chicago. And when the backwater lakes froze in the winter, businesses cut blocks of ice and used them to keep fish, fowl, and produce fresh during shipping.

By the middle of the century, the bounty was gone. Over-harvesting made the mussel industry short-lived, and by 1929 the abundance of mussels was gone. Natural ice lost its market with the advent of the refrigerated boxcar, while fish and waterfowl populations decreased dramatically as habitat loss, pollution, and flood-control measures increased.

Today, those who use the waterway are learning to work within the natural limitations, and there has been a resurgence of both the environment and economic activity along this key river. Bob Frazee, University of Illinois Extension educator, natural resources management, at the East Peoria Center can list many uses.

“The Illinois River is the most important inland water resource in the United States,” Frazee said. “The Illinois car- ries more tonnage and dollar value of commerce than the Mississippi north of St. Louis.”

More than 30,000 barges traveled the Illinois River in 2001. Typically, barge tows include 15 barges lashed together, each capable of carrying 1,500 tons. One barge could be loaded with 52,500 bushels of corn or 453,600 gallons of petroleum. Shipping the contents of just one barge would put 58 more tractor–trailer rigs on the road or add 15 jumbo hopper cars to a train.

However, although transportation is a key asset, the economic value of the Illinois River is more diverse than navigation alone.

More than 30 million tons of cargo passed through Peoria in 2001, almost half of it corn, soybeans, and wheat. But barges aren’t the only traffic on the river-2,039 recreational boats also passed through the lock.

What’s more, fish populations have increased along with sport fishing. Both the Bassmasters and National Walleye Tournament have been hosted on the Illinois. Bird-watching brings people to the water, as birders keep a lookout for eagles hunting along the river from January to March. And then there are people who just enjoy a riverside stroll.

Recreational fishing; photo by Michael R. Jeffords

Recreational fishing on the Illinois and Michigan Canal, Lockport.

“People like to get down to the water,” Frazee said, “... breathe some fresh air.”

Cities and industries up and down the river also make use of the water. Peoria gets half of its water directly from the river, and power plants use the water for cooling.