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Thursday, June 3, 2004 11:12 pm

Shawnee’s stone forts

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A stone fort at Giant City State Park, which borders Shawnee National Forest
Photo by Walt Zyznieuski

Southern Illinois was inhabited as early as 10,000 years ago by people attracted to the region's abundant natural resources, plentiful game, and numerous shelter bluffs that offered refuge from the elements. Chert, used to fashion stone tools and weapons, was also prevalent in the region.

Back in the Woodland period of American Indian history, about 1,500 years ago, the natives who lived in the region north of the Ohio River began building a series of stone walls or "forts" on top of isolated bluffs or hills. They placed the boulders they found in the region's rolling hills and creek beds in rows, stacking them to heights of six feet. Today, at least 10 stone walls remain on isolated knobs throughout southern Illinois -- some with steep drops on three sides, others along the edges of bluffs.

I have been exploring southern Illinois and the Shawnee National Forest for a quarter-century, since attending Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and I've always had a keen interest in the stone forts.

A few years ago, my sister, brother, and I camped in the SNF during the Memorial Day weekend. We decided to try locating Stonefort, a secluded structure overlooking the Little Saline River.

After parking our car along the road, we noticed a bunch of vehicles parked near the old dirt lane we needed to take south toward the fort. We were baffled as to why so many vehicles were in the exact area we wanted to explore.

We soon ran across a small crowd working on an old log cabin. Realizing we were on private property at this point, we politely apologized for walking on their land as we searched for the stone fort on SNF property. A nice elderly woman invited us over to the cabin. We took her up on the offer, but first we went and saw the stone fort.

The rock wall was visible but not as tall as we had expected. After viewing the remains of the fort and the valley of the Little Saline River, we made our way to the cabin, where we were greeted by two sisters. They were there with other family members and friends, as part of a family reunion, to work on the Civil War-era log cabin they were raised in, before the designation of the national forest in the 1930s.

One of the sisters gave us a tour of the cabin and told us that during the Great Depression, the government had wanted to purchase the family's property for inclusion of the forest, but the sisters' father refused.

During our tour of the old cabin, we were informed that the rock-lined fireplace was constructed of remnants of the old stone fort we had come to see, a fate that befell many of Southern Illinois' stone forts. Of course, this was way before any historic-preservation laws had been enacted to protect and preserve these cultural features.

Two years ago I went to War Bluff, on the southeastern side of the Shawnee National Forest near Golconda, to view a stone fort there. During this visit I noticed depressions in the ground on the top of the bluff -- perhaps representing a house foundation of some sort -- as well as the stone-wall enclosure. Just east of the stone fort is the War Bluff Valley Sanctuary, a great place to explore nature and a good place to park a vehicle -- the dirt road leading to the fort is muddy and rutted, so hiking to the fort is a good idea.

On the eastern edge of SNF, visitors can get to the Rim Rock Trail and the stone fort found there. Today the site is home to the Rim Rock Picnic Area. The Rim Rock Trail leads visitors to the top of the hillside, past the stone fort, and on to a series of rock formations. A wooden staircase takes visitors down to the valley, where great rock formations are visible. Ox-Lot Cave is located at the bottom of the cliff. The Beaver Trail follows the base of the bluff and takes visitors to the Ponds Hollow Lake and Recreation Area, which offers facilities for fishing, boating, swimming, camping, and picnicking.

Millstone Bluff in western Pope County, a protected archaeological site located west of Glendale, features a short interpretive loop trail that takes visitors to the top of the bluff, where a Native American village was once located. Near the top of a steep flight of wooden stairs, the stone fort is visible. The loop trail then runs past a cemetery, petroglyphs on a rock formation, and depressions in the ground that are the last traces of the homes once occupied by Native Americans.

West of Millstone Bluff, visitors can drive to Trigg Tower, the last fire-service tower in the SNF. A climb to the top of this observation platform reveals an excellent view of Millstone Bluff and the surrounding Shawnee Hills. To the south of Millstone Bluff, visitors can camp at the Lake Glendale Recreation Area.

South of Carbondale is Giant City State Park. This park, bordering Shawnee, offers enough outdoor activities to easily fill a weekend: In addition to the short Stone Fort Trail, this park boasts nature and interpretive trails, horseback riding, and a backpacking trail. The numerous rock formations, rolling hills, and sandstone outcrops and the famous Giant City Lodge are sure to please visitors. In addition to the lodge, rental cabins, a campground, and various picnic facilities and shelters are available.

Take some time from your busy schedule and head down to southern Illinois to explore the structures built by Native Americans. Not only will you be able to ponder the purpose of these forts, but you'll also see a truly scenic part of the state.

Three stone forts that are relatively easy to reach by car that feature trails (some involving a steep climb or running along the edge of a cliff) are located at Giant City State Park, which features the Stone Fort Nature Trail (618-457-4836), and the Millstone Bluff Archaeological Area and Rim Rock Trail and Picnic Area, both located in the Shawnee National Forest (800-MY-WOODS).

To reach Giant City State Park, take the Giant City Blacktop Road 13 miles south from Illinois Highway 13 in Carbondale. To get to Millstone Bluff, take Illinois Highway 147 1.4 miles west of the junction with Illinois Highway 145. To reach Rim Rock, take Illinois Highway 1 south from Illinois Highway 13 for eight-and-a-half miles to Pounds Hollow Road. Turn west and go three miles until you see the Rim Rock sign on the north side of the road.

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