It’s probably been awhile since you’ve taken a walk along the Des Plaines River in Swan Pond Park. Unless you slipped past the construction fencing after work hours or had an invite, it’s been months since you’ve strolled through.
Along the river, the transformation is striking. All of the buckthorn that shielded views of the river from the walking path has been removed. There are now large uninterrupted views of the river and easier access to the riverbank (including via one long-obscured stone stairway).
The expansive views reflect the vistas from a riverbank path that Frederick Law Olmsted touted in his Preliminary Report of 1868. Of course, Olmsted also suggested raising the height of the dam that existed at that time in order to create opportunities for “boating and skating.”
On this, history has proved Olmsted wrong. The dam eventually built by George Hofmann created a health hazard upstream as well as a safety hazard. While Hofmann’s boat slips are testament to some sort of the recreation boating that went on in the vicinity of the dam at one time, the large warning sign on Hofmann’s fanciful tower suggests that boating near a dam is not such a hot idea after all.
Looking at the river now, a couple of months after the removal of the dam, suggests that the dam itself was not such a great idea in the first place. The original dam was built to help power a saw mill and later served Hofmann’s own private interests – perfect examples of abusing public assets for private gain.
The final dam, built by the government to address not flooding, but the opposite – a river that at times appeared all but dried up – simply served no purpose any longer. Urban sprawl and additional waste water treatment facilities upstream of Riverside negated the extreme low-flow conditions evident more than half a century ago.
While the presence of the large boulders on either bank upstream of the river may seem jarring, they are necessary to stabilize the toxic sediment that has built up in the area specifically because of the dam’s existence.
Next year, when the banks are planted with shrubs and plants begin to return, they’ll soften the impact of the stone.
Apart from that, the transformation of the river upstream of the former dam has been nothing short of remarkable. It’s a river again – irregular and meandering. Water rushes through narrow, deep cuts and riffles down from higher elevations. The rains from the last weekend livened up the river dramatically.
And while there is no doubt that the normal flow of the river will be lower than it was previously, the experience of the past summer has proven that the river is in no danger of running at a trickle. Nor will there be large expanses of exposed sediment dotted with pools of stagnant water, serving as mosquito breeding grounds.
Instead, area residents for generations to come will be able to stand on the Barrypoint bridge and gaze at the river’s natural beauty, amazed that anyone ever built a dam across it in the first place.