Maybe you’ve strolled along the banks of the Des Plaines River near Riverside and had your breath taken away by the sight of a bald eagle or an osprey. Or maybe you’ve paddled in a kayak from the north, shot through the swift waters of the narrow channel above the Barrypoint bridge and then downstream under the Swinging Bridge.
Or, perhaps, as an angler you’ve marveled at the resurgence of fish species in the Des Plaines River through its Riverside segment, especially upstream of the Barrypoint bridge – largemouth and rock bass, bluegill, sunfish, channel catfish, gizzard shad and northern pike.
In many ways, that enjoyment is due to the untiring efforts of John Mach, perhaps best known in Riverside as the longtime president of the Hofmann Dam River Rats, who died Jan. 30, 2022 at the age of 75.
According to Janine Prorok, one the directors of the River Rats and a member of the organization since 1998, Mach was volunteering with the Cook County Forest Preserve District at a burn in the Golfview Road/First Avenue woods on Jan. 22 when he collapsed.
After being treated at Loyola University Medical Center, Mach later was placed in hospice in Naperville, where he died, Prorok said.
“Everything I know about the river system and the [Hofmann] dam I learned from John,” said Prorok, a longtime resident of Brookfield.
Scoffed at early on for his insistence at improving the Des Plaines River ecosystem by removing the Hofmann and Fairbank dams, Mach eventually won over his doubters, gained the support of local, state and federal agencies and saw his dream come true in 2012.
The dead pool upstream of Hofmann Dam sprung to life almost immediately. Just months after the dam’s removal, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources reported 20 species of fish in the formerly lifeless channel upstream of the dam’s former location.
“He was an outsider who was dealing with extreme prejudice,” said former longtime Riverside resident Howard Brundage IV, who was one of the founding members of the Hofmann Dam River Rats in the mid-1990s. “No one was talking about taking the dam out. But over the years, he won over the Olmsted Society, the Army Corps of Engineers, the IDNR.
“He was a diplomat, gentleman and encyclopedia of historical and natural facts. It was the force of his kindness and his ability to be thick-skinned. He was slighted a million times in my presence, but he kept hammering away.”
Steve Pescitelli, who retired as a stream specialist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in 2021 after 27 years, worked closely with Mach and the River Rats on various projects, including pushing for the removal of the Hofmann Dam, which Pescitelli called a “keystone” moment.
“It was a success thanks to John and a whole lot of other people,” said Pescitelli. “It spearheaded the dam removal fund that Governor [Pat] Quinn established in 2012, and it resulted in the removal of a ton of other dams.”
The last two dams on the Des Plaines River were finally removed in 2021.
“It was a huge success considering where we came from,” Pescitelli said.
Mach did not cut a figure as an eco-warrior. By day he toiled in his machine shop, General Tool Making Co., which he established in 1968 in his early 20s and operated out of a warehouse on 26th Street in Cicero.
When Mach attended village board meetings and other gatherings in Riverside, it was often right after work. His clothes would be caked in grease and dirt, and when he rose to speak, he did so with a quintessential Chicago accent.
In Riverside, he was a fish out of water.
“I was on the [village] board when he first started coming to meetings,” said former Riverside resident Jerry Buttimer, who served as a village trustee from 1995-99. “The whole board was looking at him like, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Mach won over Buttimer to the extent that when Buttimer was in the midst of developing an “axipod” – a cross between a monopod and a tripod that can be used to hold any image-capturing device and modified for ease of use by those in wheelchairs – he called on Mach to create a special clamp to make it work.
“I call him a Renaissance man. His scope of knowledge was so broad,” Buttimer said.
Even early allies thought Mach’s mission to notch or remove Hofmann Dam was quixotic. Anglers drawn to the Des Plaines River just below the Hofmann Dam loved the ease with which they caught fish trapped by the concrete barrier. For local residents, the dam was a landmark, a picturesque one at that. It appeared immovable.
“I was part of the resistance at first,” said Forest Park resident Johnny Simonetta, another founding member of the River Rats who first met Mach along the banks of the river in Lyons where they would cast lines regularly. “We had a good thing happening right now, why ruin it?”
Even though fishermen love the natural world, Simonetta said, there was a certain selfishness when it came to catching fish.
“The reason we liked it was we caught fish. If we got rid of the dam they could go wherever they wanted,” Simonetta said. “What I really learned from John was that there’s power when you do things that are selfless and for the right reason.”
Mach grew up in Berwyn, the son of Anna and James Mach. He attended Morton High School. His brother, the late Edward Mach, was a longtime science teacher at Hauser Junior High in Riverside.
A lifelong bachelor, Mach lived in an apartment across the street from his machine shop in Cicero. When he wasn’t working, he was fishing along the riverbank near Hofmann Tower in Lyons or volunteering with River Rats and the Cook County Forest Preserve District.
“I mean, I’ll be honest and tell you that from the time I could sneak out of the house on my bicycle, I was going fishing,” Mach said in a 2019 online profile published by the forest preserves. “I can remember the river when it basically didn’t have much in it, and at times it smelled bad. You didn’t want to go anywhere near it. But I’ve seen a reversal here in the water quality, in the fish population and the macroinvertebrate population that’s just out of sight.”
Mach not only advocated for removing Hofmann Dam to bring the river back to life, he was also determined to improve the ecosystem along its banks. Mach propagated and raised water willow plants in his apartment and then planted them by the hundreds to stabilize streambanks. According to Pescitelli, Mach was responsible for planting thousands of water willow plants along the Des Plaines through the years.
“He was an amazing guy,” he said.
The tide in the campaign to remove Hofmann Dam turned the weekend after Sept. 11, 2001, said Brundage, at the first Meet Your River Day sponsored by the River Rats.
“The whole village showed up,” Brundage said. “It was a huge event and that’s when people started to change their minds in Riverside.”
Since the removal of the dams in 2012, Riverside residents have benefitted from a stream reborn.
“He had a huge impact on the quality of their life,” Simonetta said. “He gave so much of himself to Riverside and he did it under the radar. You can never walk that stretch of river without paying a debt to him.”
Prorok said a memorial celebration is planned for April 30 at 10 a.m. near the Hofmann Tower in Lyons.