Richard Anderson can’t tell you how many blue herons he has seen while plying the waters of the Fox River in his red-and-white paddlewheel tour boat.
But that doesn’t mean Anderson – second-generation owner of his family’s business, St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboats – ever tires of the sight.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, piloting these boats,” Anderson said. “You’d never see a blue heron, or a lot of other big, beautiful things that feed on fish.
“But now we see them every trip. This river, it has changed quite a bit.”
The Fox River has stood at the center of life in the Tri-Cities of Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles throughout their history, as well as for the other communities lining the river’s shores.
Originally, the river offered a source of commerce, power, food and transportation for those who called Kane County home.
But the Fox River also has enhanced its residents’ quality of life in less tangible ways, offering both natural beauty and opportunities for fun as a regional playground.
“There are photos and accounts of people using the river for all sorts of fun, all year-round,” said Natalie Gacek, director of the St. Charles Heritage Center. “In the summer, you’d see people boating, fishing, swimming, you name it.
“And in the colder months, we have photos of people curling, ice skating and playing hockey on the river.”
While local residents used the river for fun and recreation throughout the 19th century, it was in the early years of the 20th century that the Fox River in the Tri-Cities reached its heyday as a source of local recreation and a true vacation destination.
With the arrival of the inter-urban railroad lines, wealthy Chicago residents had easy access to the Fox River, offering a summertime escape from the suffocating heat and pollution that characterized the city.
“Just a short ride on the train, and you felt like you were in the country,” Gacek said. “For many of them, this probably felt like paradise.”
In response, cottages were built by the dozens, opening resorts up and down the Fox River, with much of the activity focused on the section from South Elgin and St. Charles.
Soon, resorts – often called “camps” or “summer colonies” – with names such as Jones Woods, Oak Ridge Cottages and Rainbo Springs packed in hundreds of visitors each summer to play on sandy beaches, paddle a canoe, fish or picnic along the river’s banks.
In the 1930s, the camps also drew in live entertainment, as big jazz bands, including the Guy Lombardo and Wayne King bands, brought their sounds to dance pavilions at the camps.
The onset of the Great Depression and World War II, however, forced many resorts to close. Those that remained after the war found it difficult to survive, as musical tastes shifted and Chicagoans developed a taste for more exotic and far-flung vacation destinations.
Eventually, some of the clusters of cottages became neighborhoods of permanent residents, Gacek said, while other resort land, such as the land now occupied by Pottawatomie Park, came under public ownership.
Canoeing or picnicking at the parks became popular pastimes for area residents.
But in subsequent years, the river fell out of favor as a recreational destination for many – and that decline can be traced to pollution.
“It wasn’t at the forefront of people’s minds to maintain the river as a clean waterway,” Gacek said. “It really did damage to the river, and it really did stall any further expansion of recreation activities around it.”
While other historical uses of the river faded into the past, industry remained a vital cog of the local economy. And many of those industries, with their mills, factories and quarries, streamed waste into the channel, sickening the waters.
Dave Phyfer, a videographer who produces historical videos for the Geneva History Center, is creating a short film on the history of the Fox River in Geneva.
He said throughout most of the region’s history, locals and visitors alike enjoyed similar recreational activities – except for a few decades just past the middle of the 20th century, which Phyfer called the river’s “real nightmare.”
By the 1960s, the river had become a natural roadblock to avoid, rather than a resource to enjoy, Phyfer said.
“Nobody went down there,” Phyfer said. “It didn’t look good or smell good, and you certainly didn’t want to go in it.”
Anderson, 64, grew up working on the river with his father, Chet, who founded the St. Charles Paddlewheel Boat tour concession in the late 1940s.
He echoed Phyfer’s account.
“Nobody wanted to live by the river for a really long time,” Anderson said.
By the early 1970s, articles about the river marveled at the tales of older Tri-Cities residents of a river once clean enough to play in, let alone eat anything, such as shellfish, that came out of it.
The passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972 led to the birth of local organizations that attempted to restore the Fox.
In the late 1970s, local officials began talking with counterparts from other parts of the country where similarly polluted waters had been restored. Ideas to make it become a desirable destination again included creating bike trails, canoe chutes and whitewater courses for kayaks.
Those ideas began to take shape in the 1980s, as the Kane County Forest Preserve District and local park districts purchased land along the river and pieced together the Fox River Trail, which now runs from Algonquin through Elgin and the Tri-Cities to Aurora.
By the 1990s, the river’s plight had gained national attention, as environmental groups ranked the Fox among their 10 Most Endangered Rivers and the federal government put the river on its priority list of rivers to be cleaned.
And by the early 2000s, signs of success were evident. Key sensitive species, such as the caddisfly, rebounded strongly, signaling the river’s return to natural health.
Phyfer and John Hoscheit, who has served as president of the Kane County Forest Preserve District for more than a decade, said the development of the river trail, as well as restoration of the river as a fishery, have been key to rallying public support.
“It made the river open and visible to people in a way it wasn’t before,” Hoscheit said. “There were some areas of the river you just never saw, unless you were out on a boat. With the trail system, it opened all of that up.”
“Before the trail, the river was just something you crossed on a bridge, on the way to where you were going,” he said. “Now people could get down there and enjoy it.
“It renewed people’s connection to the river.”
And as the health of the river rebounded, recreation also increased. The river has in recent years become a haven for outdoorsmen, birdwatchers and boaters.
Paddlers, for instance, established a river trail, complete with signage, for kayakers and canoeists to traverse its length by water.
Mark Miller, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said the Fox River stands as an Illinois success story.
“The Fox River is a tremendous resource for fishing, paddling and other pursuits,” Miller said. “It’s a tremendous asset that should really be enjoyed by all.”