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Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014

The river Lincoln loved

The state’s plan to make the Sangamon a destination

A handful of canoes and kayaks float down the Sangamon River near Petersburg.

 View the plan online in a pair of PDF files here:


In the spring of 1831, when Abraham Lincoln was just 21, he and two other young men navigated a canoe down the Sangamon River. Lincoln grew to love the river, and his influence on it is still evident today.

The Sangamon River is a 264-mile tributary to the Illinois River, draining more than 3,000 square miles of land in central Illinois. It starts as little more than a drainage ditch near Bloomington-Normal and ends north of Beardstown as a strong but unhurried flow more than 200 feet wide in places. All but one of the 300 species of birds native to Illinois – including the revered bald eagle – live on the Sangamon River, and nearly half of the documented plant life in the state can be found there. Despite its rich history and biodiversity, the river is mostly undeveloped and overlooked. However, a movement is growing to make part of the river more accessible and, in the process, make it into a destination of its own.

The Lincoln Heritage Canoe Trail, which spans the section of the Sangamon River between Decatur and Petersburg, was designated in 1965 by then-Gov. Otto Kerner as the first water trail in Illinois. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources last year commissioned a study on potential tourism, recreation and stewardship of the river. The resulting plan, completed in time for next year’s 50th anniversary of Kerner’s declaration, presents an ambitious but realistic future for the river, with positive payoffs for Springfield and other cities along the trail.

The proposal calls for bike, pedestrian and car trails near the Sangamon River, along with historical markers and new river access points for public use.

Flowing with history

Abraham Lincoln was the only U.S. president to hold a patent, and it stemmed from his travels on the Sangamon River. The 16th president’s patent is for a series of buoyancy chambers to raise a boat in shallow water, using essentially the same principle as a submarine. The patent application was filed in May of 1849, while Lincoln was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, nearly two decades after his first documented trip down the Sangamon River. Lincoln’s time on the river undoubtedly contributed to the development of his patent.

Lincoln’s family moved from Indiana to just west of Decatur in 1830 and built a cabin near the Sangamon River. After his first trip on the river in 1831, the 21-year-old Lincoln was hired to build a flatboat and take supplies to New Orleans with two other men. Shortly after starting the trip, however, the boat got grounded on a dam constructed to power a mill near New Salem. With help from the locals, the boat was freed, and Lincoln eventually moved to New Salem, which is now Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site.

Lincoln’s appreciation for the Sangamon River was so great that in his first political announcement in March of 1832, he advocated improving and clearing the river to accommodate large boats for commerce.

“I believe the improvement of the Sangamo river, to be vastly important and highly desirable to the people of this county,” Lincoln wrote in his announcement. “And if elected, any measure in the legislature having this for its object, which may appear judicious, will meet my approbation, and shall receive my support.”

Much like his patented boat buoying system, Lincoln’s plan for the Sangamon River was never implemented.

Aside from transporting goods, the Sangamon River has been used for irrigation, as a source of ice in cold months and even as the setting of the Old Salem Chautauqua, a local iteration of the nationwide public education movement during the late 19th century. Created by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and situated near Petersburg with the river as its western boundary, the Old Salem Chautauqua grew into a small town from 1898 to 1916 and hosted famous speakers like politician William Jennings Bryan.

Abraham Lincoln’s patent application shows his idea for lifting boats over sandbars and other obstructions. His time on the Sangamon River undoubtedly helped him develop the idea.

For thousands of years before white settlers even reached present-day Illinois, the Sangamon River offered native peoples a source of food, water, spiritual connection and more. According to one historical account, the name Sangamon supposedly comes from a Pottawatomie Indian word “sain-guee-mon,” meaning “where there is plenty to eat.” That account is the most charitable of many conflicting explanations.

Poet Edgar Lee Masters wrote in The Sangamon, part of “The Rivers of America” series, that the origin of Sangamon may come from an Indian word “Sau-kie-min,” meaning “good earth” or perhaps from the Sauk tribe, or even from the word “sa-gie,” meaning a lake, and “mong,” meaning a loon.

Historian Virgil Vogel concluded in his “Indian Place Names of Illinois” that the most likely origin is an Indian word meaning “place of the outlet” or “river mouth.” Local historian Chris Patton bolstered Vogel’s explanation in the May 1982 issue of Historico, the journal of the Sangamon County Historical Society. Patton wrote that that Jesuit missionary Pierre Francois Charlevoix probably named the river inadvertently in 1721.

“As the party comes abreast of the mouth of the Sangamon, he points to it and inquires through his interpreter, ‘What is that?’,” Patton wrote. “The Indian guide to himself says, ‘Stupid white man, that’s the mouth of a river!’, but aloud he speaks the Indian word for river mouth, ‘san-ge-nong’. Charlevoix, assuming he has been given the Indian name for the river, dutifully records in French orthography: ‘Saguimont.’ And thus, today, our beautiful stream bears the undignified name of ‘River-mouth River.’”

The river runs through private land, limiting public use.

Natural beauty

Dan Williams of Petersburg says one of the things he loves most about the Sangamon River is its natural beauty and serenity. Williams is tourism director for Menard County, but he’s also a photographer and avid outdoorsman.

“Until I kayaked, I never had an appreciation for how pretty it is,” Williams said of the Sangamon River. “There’s essentially very little development. You can spend all day on the river and see maybe a few houses, and that’s about it.”

Williams is among those interested in seeing the river become more accessible. He points to Abe’s River Race, one of a trio of events using the river as a race course near Petersburg.

“It’s probably one of the few chances to see the river,” he said. “Other than a few vantage points, people can’t get to the river, so they can’t see that it’s really pretty out there.”

The plan commissioned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for the Sangamon River would likely encourage the development of more events like Abe’s River Race by cleaning up parts of the river, removing obstructions and increasing public access. Also included in the plan are a proposed bike and pedestrian trail and a driving trail – both of which loosely follow the river’s path, mostly along existing roads.

DNR hired Massie Massie and Associates of Springfield to create plans for the 85-mile portion of the Sangamon River between Decatur and Petersburg. The state agency hopes to get that section of the river declared a national water trail in time for the 50th anniversary of its designation as a state water trail. Kent Massie, who led the study, says the plan incorporates input from landowners, governments and local groups with a stake in the river’s future.

A clever Lincoln impersonator navigates his vessel down the Sangamon River during Abe’s River Race 2014 near Petersburg.

The plan divides the Lincoln Heritage Canoe Trail into five sections. Springfield is in the West Sangamon County section, which stretches from the east side of Riverton to the spot where the Sangamon River crosses from Sangamon County into Menard County, northwest of Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport.

In the report, Massie points out several concerns along this stretch of the river, including a lack of emergency access points, inadequate public trails, two potentially dangerous breached dams, trash dumping and more. One of the main concerns, however, is that much of the land through which the river runs is private, so the public can’t access the river in many areas. One such area is the site of the long-gone Sangamo Town, from which Lincoln launched his flatboat.

Massie’s plan calls for public purchase of land along the river or obtaining easements on the land so the public can access the river. He suggests removing the breached dam near Riverside Park, a project he says is already under way thanks to DNR’s efforts. Additionally, he points to several places where public access points could be added, like near the Interstate 55 rest areas north of Springfield. Such access points would come with restrooms, trails, picnic areas and more.

Near the river, Massie calls for a bike and pedestrian path from Camp Butler National Cemetery to Riverside Park, offering a link from the city to the river on existing roads. The path would cross the planned North Inter-Urban Trail between Williamsville and Springfield, then continue northwest to Athens. Under the plan, cars would be directed on a “river valley driving route” from Riverton to Athens, connecting the communities of Spaulding, Sherman and Andrew in the process.

The DNR report contains similar suggestions for other areas of the river. For example, the Bolivia Road Bridge, located about 14 miles east of Springfield, would be restored and designated as a historic structure. Built in 1901, the bridge is one of two remaining in Illinois built with the “Parker through truss” design. It has fallen into disrepair and may be replaced with a concrete bridge if no effort is made to preserve it. 

Bolivia Road Bridge, across the North Fork of the Sangamon River near Bolivia, is in need of restoration.

Besides making the river more accessible and useable, the river plan calls for curtailing fly dumping of old tires and other trash, preserving habitat and soil along the river and its tributaries, promoting river-based activities like athletic events and emphasizing the river’s historical significance with interpretive markers and public education.

Although DNR commissioned the study, the agency may not be the primary source of funding for projects that stem from it. Massie says funds may also come from local, state and federal grants, as well as private donations.

In the meantime, Massie says more historical research needs to be done to raise the Sangamon River’s profile, especially in connection to Abraham Lincoln.

“There is a lot of history related to the river and its use, but it’s not part of the Lincoln story much,” he said. “It has kind of just disappeared.”

Jim Reed, a board member of the Lincoln Heritage Water Trail Association, says the river offers a different kind of learning environment.

“On the river, you can explore the Lincoln story locally and up close, not by a walk through a museum or building,” he said. “There are multiple stories that can be told that aren’t told now. It can be compelling to a new audience.”

Reed has high hopes for the project, but he also recognizes that it will take significant involvement from the communities along the river.

“Because of the overlapping interests – kayaking, hiking, biking, history – the potential for the project reaches beyond any one particular group,” Reed said. “This is a battle on so many fronts. Even if you don’t care about canoeing, you can find your interests. I can guarantee we can find you something to do with the project.”

Reed first became interested in the Sangamon River more than a decade ago through his involvement in the Menard County Tourism Council. The council saw the river as a good way to capitalize on the building of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum at the time, but only a couple members had ever actually been on the river. They promptly organized a canoe trip, and Reed says he was hooked.

“I had such a good time,” he said. “It happens every time. You get in a canoe or kayak and you kind of lose your sense of place and your sense of time. You just kind of get lost, and that’s pretty cool.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at

The river Lincoln loved

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