The Legend of Starved Rock
From Ottawa Delivered
By: Greta Lieske
Thursday, March, 17, 2011
The history of Starved Rock State Park spans 100 years. But the history of the bluffs, canyons and the prominent butte known as Starved Rock have a history that spans thousands of years.
According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the area of Starved Rock has been a home to humans since 8000 B.C. when Hopewellian, Woodland and Mississippian Native American cultures thrived there. And from the 1500s to the 1700s, the Illiniwek called the area their home. On the banks of the Illinois River, spanning the area of the current park, nearly 7,000 Kaskaskias - a sub-tribe of the Illiniwek - built a village.
Starved Rock State Park, one of the first state parks created in Illinois, today spans 2,816 acres on the banks of the Illinois River between Utica and Ottawa. In the park are 18 canyons etched out of St. Peter sandstone, 13 miles of trails and numerous waterfalls - or ice falls, depending on the season. It seems out of place in the farmland and flat perspective of Illinois, transforming the area into an oasis of natural history.
The story of the land in the park can be told by the ever-changing canyons, where precipitation and visitors leave their mark on the weak sandstone walls, where the laws of nature determine where a tree falls and where animals, whether it be deer, pheasants, bald eagles or wild turkeys, make their home.
The land of Starved Rock State Park is just as alive today in 2011 as it was 425 million years ago, when glacial melt waters created an inland sea and carved the makings of its future landscape. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, stone tools and other artifacts left by inhabitants as far back as 8,000 B.C. help tell the history of humans who first called the area of Starved Rock their home. But how do we tell the story of Starved Rock State Park, its evolution, the people who helped create it and those who choose to visit it?
The stories of originators and visitors of Starved Rock State Park 100 years after its inception cannot be fully told by the trails, trees and canyons of the land. The stories are kept in treasure troves in La Salle County by those who seek to preserve its history. They can be read in the many photographs, notes and post cards left by those who lived through the decades from 1911 to 2011.
A history in messages
Look through the Starved Rock State Park binders in the La Salle County Historical Society Museum in Utica and you will be bombarded with more than a hundred post cards. Post cards with painted pictures, photographs and the occasional messages regarding Starved Rock State Park fill the binder pages, as well as newspaper clippings.
A post card written in 1913 tells the recipient how much fun he's having in the park and asks, "How's the farm coming?" with a painted portrait of the Devil's Nose on the reverse side. Another written with a child-like scrawl says how much fun it is in the park spending time with cousins. Another with a portrait of Starved Rock from 1912 was simply saved as a reminder of the visit, with the phrase "Visit this place July 10, 1912 with a crowd from Elwood, Ill."
"Picture post cards used to be the way to communicate," said Kathy Casstevens, Director of Marketing for the Starved Rock Lodge and Conference Center. Casstevens said her family has a collection of post cards started by her grandmother. Many of them are unique cards from Starved Rock.
"But people don't do that anymore. We still sell post cards, but it's not the same. It used to be you could send the post card and it spoke for itself."
From photos and messages on random cards, a portrait is painted of Starved Rock State Park as a family gathering place in the last 100 years. In pictures from the 1930s, women are seen hiking in heels, white gloves, hats and purses at their side. This doesn't change much even into photos and video clips of the state park in the '50s. Going to Starved Rock State Park was a time to dress "appropriately," even if you were hiking.
"A handbag and heels - that's a proper woman," Casstevens said of a photo from 1931 showing a woman atop the rock, dressed to the nines. "They could come here after church. Now, people come from Wal-Mart. And I'm one of them!" she joked.
In the park's creation, there was one group that wasn't always in their best clothes. They were the ones busy building bridges, parts of the current lodge and roads. They were the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Starved Rock State Park was purchased by the state of Illinois in 1911, but there had already been development on the Illinois River bank spanning back to the 1890s. The Starved Rock Hotel, dance pavilion and swimming area had been constructed, but being so close the river, the structure didn't last long. Flooding took its toll, and the swimming area eventually began to leak.
In the 1930s there came a solution to fix up the park and help families hurt by the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt began the national CCC program, which was part of the New Deal. More than 2.5 million young men participated in the program, which situated camps in different locations to complete work such as building bridges and roads to help conserve the nation's resources.
Between 1933 and 1939, three companies (Companies 614, 1609 and 2601) were stationed at Starved Rock to complete work. Each company had about 200 men, who had to be unemployed, unmarried, physically fit and between the ages of 18 and 26 to participate. They received lodging (first in tents, then barracks) clothes, immunizations, healthcare, three meals a day and their choice of vocational, academic or recreational instruction. At Starved Rock, the men's wages came to $30 per month, $22 to $25 of which was normally sent home to their families.
"The CCC men were poor," Casstevens said. "Before the CCC they had no health insurance, no job, no education."
But it was those men who helped the development of Starved Rock State Park. The CCC constructed bridges, shelters out of limestone and large timbers, more than 25 miles of trails and a portion of the current lodge. The new lodge was built on the bluff overlooking the Illinois River in an effort to combat the flooding issues that plagued Starved Rock Hotel. (Additions to the lodge, including an indoor pool and more hotel rooms, were completed in the '80s.) Camp 1609 even cultivated a tree nursery that produced thousands of varieties of trees native to Illinois.
The goal of the CCC camps was to preserve the park from erosion, flooding and deforestation, while making it a destination. Many of the structures, including a portion of the lodge built by the men of CCC, still stand. Casstevens added that there is also still a barrack from a CCC camp standing near the IDNR offices in the park.
In the last 100 years of Starved Rock State Park, many changes have come but some things have stayed the same. Casstevens said Starved Rock State Park was one of the largest state projects for the CCC. The park is still one of the top employers in the area, she said. And she thinks people will continue to gravitate to the area, just as they did years before a state park ever existed.
"The most fascinating thing to me is that in the continuum of time, since humans first lived here 8,000 years ago, it's always been an attraction because the river runs through it. Water has always been a source of life. … Now, it's a source of entertainment and commerce. And as far as history goes, it's the vantage point. Where in the whole Illinois Valley can you get a panoramic view like you can on the top of Starved Rock?"
Casstevens added that since 1981 there has been a steady increase in visitors to Starved Rock, which she doesn't expect to decrease any time soon.
"The interest of Starved Rock- it's worldwide. It's a very, very special place that has touched the lives of millions of people - generations. That's why it's such a cool place."