Soon after returning from a visit to Washington D.C., I realized that although I’ve lived most of my 60-years in Illinois, with the last 28 within an hour of Springfield, I had never visited the Capitol building. This despite having driven past the Capitol many times to see the downtown Lincoln sites or on trips related to my work with the state of Illinois. It was past time; so on a cool, cloudy late November day, my wife, Julie, and I traveled to Springfield specifically to visit the Capitol building.
On the way to Springfield, as I considered why I had never thought to visit the Capitol building, all I could think of was that it never occurred to me that it was a place for public visitation. Being a working building, not just an old domed building maintained for show, with its Greek Revival and Renaissance Revival architecture, I envisioned it filled with busy bureaucrats carrying papers from room to room or talking on the telephone. In such an all-business environment, I imagined the rooms rather plain without much decoration, maybe even a bit dingy; nothing much to look at. A visitor would be in the way. On the weekends, the building would be closed.
And I was wrong on every count. The Capitol building may be a serious building for state business, but it is also an impressive museum with fine art in full view at every turn, with a richly ornate interior exhibiting close attention to minute details, pristine, and welcoming to visitors. In the rotunda, one can look up into the dome and be mesmerized by the color and intricate patterns. The governor’s office is just down the hall, but with only a few office workers during our visit. In fact, it almost seemed that, overall, governmental operations were a secondary purpose of the building. And nowhere is this more the case than in the hall of paintings which contained river scenes of key importance to Illinois’ history…and, in fact, my own history as well.
The Capitol in Springfield, Illinois
Looking up into the Capitol's dome
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One painting showed an early 1800s scene of the Chicago River as it enters Lake Michigan, with Fort Dearborn in view. Of course, this same area is now covered by the great skyscrapers of downtown Chicago, sidewalks, and pavement. But the river is still there, although in a highly altered state. As a child learning about Fort Dearborn, I once imagined a scene just like the painting, even as I looked upon the modern scene. The Chicago River is one of my earliest recollections of rivers along with the nearby Des Plaines River. I wrote about these two rivers in my book Side Channels (pages 23-24) in a chapter entitled “Illinois’ Continental Divide: Mud Lake and the Chicago Portage”:
“Long before Chicago was settled by Americans of European descent and the landscape became highly altered, the Mississippi River and Great Lakes basins were separated by a shallow marshy area called Mud Lake. This prairie marsh fed into the Chicago River, which, at that time, flowed into Lake Michigan. (The Great Lakes’ waters empty into the North Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River.) The nearby Des Plaines River flows toward the Illinois River, the Mississippi River, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. The Chicago Portage, a traveler’s trail across the Mud Lake marsh, was located at the point where the Des Plaines and Chicago rivers were at their closest approach. The strategic importance of this site was never obscure to anyone, least of all the Native Americans.”
The Chicago River at Lake Michigan
Mill at New Salem
The reconstructed mill at New Salem State Park
Standing before a painting of the 1830s mill on the Sangamon River at New Salem, I recalled my first visit to this site on a grade school field trip from Cicero—a nearby Chicago suburb—in 1971. The teachers set the class loose at New Salem State Park to walk among the reconstructed log buildings. I remember the bare logs and wooden planks of the buildings, the crude tools and machines, and split rail fences. But I do not recall seeing the river and mill, although both surely were there. And it was years later that I read the story of how a young Abraham Lincoln solved the problem of a heavily loaded river barge stuck on the dam; Carl Sandburg wrote the following description of this eventa: “On April 19, rounding the curve of the Sangamon at New Salem, …[a] boat stuck on the Camron milldam, and hung with one-third of her slanted downward over the edge of the dam and filling slowly with water, while the cargo of pork barrels was sliding slowly so as to overweight one end. She hung there a day while all the people of New Salem came down to look. Then they saw Lincoln getting part of the cargo unloaded to the riverbank, boring a hole in the flatboat end as it hung over the dam to let the water out, plugging the hole, then dropping the boat over the dam and reloading cargo. As she headed toward the Mississippi watercourse, New Salem talked about the cool head and ready wit of the long-shanked young man.” Of course, on that 1971 field trip I thought about Abraham Lincoln at New Salem 140 years earlier, but that was an ancient time beyond comprehension; I might as well have been pondering the beginning of time. Even my high school graduation four years into the future seemed too far away to contemplate, let alone where I would be living, not far from that very site, 46 years later.
Starved Rock on the Illinois River
The Illinois River at Starved Rock State Park was another early river encounter for me, happening sometime in the middle 1960s. The Capitol’s painting of this site shows what might be a pre-European-contact scene from a Native American village on the north bank of the river, facing the rock on the south. Side Channels (pages 13-15) has a short chapter about some of my perspectives of Starved Rock:
“The Illinois River came into view as I approached the base of Starved Rock, just before beginning a daunting climb with my father and brother to the top of the rock, 125 feet above the river. It was the first time I had visited Starved Rock State Park, sometime in the middle 1960s, and the first time I had seen the Illinois River. A short distance upstream of the rock, the crashing, turbulent waters of the river passed through the partially open gates of the Starved Rock Dam. Behind the dam, the water spread out into a large lake nearly one mile wide and seemed, to all appearances, stagnant. Was this a river, as I had been informed? I was familiar with the sluggish Des Plaines River coursing through the forest preserves near my Chicago home, and that river flowed freely. So the body of water before me only vaguely seemed like a river; not even the dam seemed consistent with the image in my mind of what a dam should be: a large concrete wall completely holding back a large body of water, with nary a drop of water making it through the dam. What purpose, I thought at the time, could there be for a dam that allowed a torrent of water to pass through….
But such engineering technicalities aside, from atop Starved Rock, one cannot help but be pensive, literally standing upon history, with thoughts pulled back hundreds of years. Names such as La Salle, Hennepin, Tonti, Marquette, and Illiniwek floated in the air and are written upon park landmarks and trail heads. Yet all around the park, the modern works of man cannot be ignored, and one may wonder what the river and its valley might be like hundreds of years into the future, how primitive today’s view from the rock would be to a hyper-technological society with everyday contrivances unimaginable during our era, much as cell phones and wireless Internet on laptop computers would have been unimaginable to the French explorers of the seventeenth century.”
Fort de Chartres on the Mississippi River
Fort Defiance at the Mississippi and Ohio river confluence
Two paintings depict scenes along the Mississippi River, at the French 18th century Fort de Chartres in Randolph County and at the Civil War’s Fort Defiance at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, where I once sat at the neatly manicured state park observing the joining of these two great rivers. In Side Channels I wrote about sitting “…on the piles of rock used to stabilize the riverbank; on the right was the Mississippi, on the left the Ohio. At over one mile in width below the confluence, the Mississippi stood alone, second to no other river in North America, waters from New York to Montana mingling in one massive, muddy, rolling, and eddying force of nature.” It was a lonely spot, perfect for contemplating history, the scene depicted in the painting long gone.
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And so, looking for new adventures, we traveled to a city familiar to us both, which might seem to be in the wrong direction to fulfill our goal. But it was the right move; the Capitol building left such an impression that I thought about it for weeks; those paintings of the river scenes I could not escape. They have become more fine Illinois memories.
aFrom Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years, One-Volume Edition, by Carl Sandburg, A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc., New York.
The book Side Channels is available in hard copy from a variety of online booksellers including Amazon.