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Thursday, Oct. 28, 2004 07:06 am

Still waters

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Springfield park policeman M.B. Horn and children at the iron spring in Washington Park in 1902
PHOTO BY GUY MATHIS / COURTESY OF THE ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY

Who has not gazed upon picture-book renderings of Ephesus, Rome, Tyre, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, and other fantastic sites of archaeological remains and not wondered about the civilizations that inhabited those places? No one who is interested in history can view the pillars of a once-great temple, or a paved roadway that in its day was an important highway but which now leads nowhere, or the broken archway of a medieval monastery, and help but wonder about the people who built these structures. What were their languages, what were their customs and practices (all very queer and foreign, no doubt), and what would it have been like to be an ordinary citizen living among them? For me, that sort of wonderment is the very essence of a real, honest, and true appreciation of history, and nothing, for me, brings history alive as does a tangible record of events both great and mundane: ruins, artifacts, documents -- indeed, any object by which I can connect myself to the past through the tactile sense.

Though I have only seen it in a book, Capt. William Clark's branding iron, found on the banks of the Columbia River in the 1890s, holds a tremendous fascination for me, as do a thousand other things both near and far -- the silver coins and gold ceremonial drinking goblets unearthed by "metal detectorists" in Britain, the Gettysburg Address written in Lincoln's own hand, and, yes, even Gen. Santa Ana's wooden leg, captured in bloody battle but now reposing in quiet retirement at Camp Lincoln. One of Springfield's best-kept archaeological secrets is the disused, crumbling, overgrown stretch of U.S. Route 66 that runs through what is now Carpenter Park (accessible only by entering the Rail Golf Club grounds.) It's on your left, behind a braided-metal rope and a "No Trespassing" sign. Tom Teague, former executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society, told me about it before he died. I find such things tremendously interesting because each tells a story, and I love a good story. If you're weird like me, you'll (surreptitiously) walk down the center of that now-forgotten highway, close your eyes, and imagine the noise and smell of the passing cars and trucks, the wayfaring travelers and their destinations, and even the reasons for their journeys. To think that this old road, narrower than most suburban driveways, once carried interstate traffic is, well, kinda neat.

On the north side of Washington Park, midway between the base of Park Street and the western edge of the lagoon, smack-dab in front of the small parking lot, is a low, moss-covered, keyhole-shaped wall of stone in decrepit repair. Because it fits so naturally into the rustic landscape, it's easy to overlook. How many hundreds of times have we walked or ridden by there without a glance or passing thought as to what this curiosity might be? Here is a genuine Springfield archaeological ruin of the late Victorian age. At one time, life hummed here, and the living things of the earth -- yes, people, too -- came here to slake their thirst with the coolest, sweetest, most refreshing and basic element offered up from the bosom of Mother Nature herself -- water.

This is the site of the famous (in its day) iron spring, which has been gone long enough now to be relegated to the dusty closet of historical rumor, and yet here is the historical proof. If history is anything that re-creates a life, a time, a place and which in its way enables us to inhabit the same, then go to the park and stop by the spring (the pool of water still bubbles, if you look long enough; how foolish, and presumptuous, of man to think that he could, and should, stop the flow of this primeval tap) and stand, or sit, and enjoy the quietude of the place, and close your eyes, and if your reverie is broken by the muffled sounds of laughter and children at play, allow yourself the indulgence of imagining that it is the year 1902 and you are part of the group in the photograph that accompanies today's column. It was taken by Guy Mathis in the nascent days of Washington Park, and the inchoateness of the scene is almost startling to we who are accustomed to seeing the overhanging verdure and exposed roots of the century-old oaks that present themselves to the eye of the park visitor of today. At that time, the area of the iron spring had not even been landscaped.

The photograph at first glance appeared to me to be a photograph of a gendarme gone to Lourdes to take the cure with some schoolchildren, or perhaps the kindly old woodcarver Geppetto seeking the runaway Pinocchio. Even after reading the following passage from the Springfield Park District's first annual report, I'm not so sure that the Springfield park policeman, identified in our files as M.B. Horn, wasn't there for health reasons himself. In any event, he surely is the creakiest, most aged, and least authoritative-looking peace officer in the history of law enforcement. The 1902 report reads (in part):

For many years the existence of an iron spring, on what is now Washington Park, has been known. During the life of the late Horace Leland the water was kept on draught at the Leland Hotel and was highly valued by Mr. Leland and others for the cure of rheumatism, gout and indigestion. After his death the spring was used for watering cattle and finally was abandoned altogether and allowed to fill up. At the time we commenced work in the park, the only sign of a spring was a little trickle of water at the foot of a steep clay bluff, forming the south bank of Williams' branch, near the northern boundary of the park. This lead was followed back into the earth till the source of the spring was found in a cave of flinty sandstone underlaid by blue clay. The mouth of the cave was walled up by a concrete dam four feet in thickness, on which an 18-inch brick wall was erected, to sustain the rocky roof of the cave. A 2-inch pipe was inserted in the bottom of the dam, through which the water was conducted to a basin made of a single block of Bedford stone. The bluff was terraced back from the basin as a center and a foot bridge built over the branch with a walk up to the basin.

Already the spring is a popular attraction and in pleasant weather is visited by hundreds daily and the water is used by many sufferers from rheumatism and kindred complaints who claim to be much benefited by it.

The same yellowed newspaper clipping that identified Mr. Horn (but not the children) also reported these long-ago reminiscences: "In those days, there were often long lines of family rigs awaiting the turn to fill gallon jugs and other containers for table use."

Today, especially in this autumn season, the low rock wall, though nature is taking it back, is a good place for a visit, particularly if you don't mind if a certain pensive melancholy steals over you in the quiet contemplation of the slow, steady, and almost palpable passage of time. No aqueduct built by Roman hands could speak to me more eloquently.

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