Draining of Kankakee basin destroyed an Indiana habitat

Long before scientists understood the benefits of wetlands, Hoosiers drained a wildlife Garden of Eden that stretched from western St. Joseph County to the Illinois line.

The Grand Kankakee Marsh was “one of the great freshwater wetland ecosystems of the world,” according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Nicknamed the Everglades of the North, it provided habitat to bass and walleye, passenger pigeons and woodpeckers, minks and muskrats, to name a few.

“It was a paradise,” said Randy Ray, executive director of The History Museum in South Bend. “It was over 500,000 acres of marsh and flowing water; it was home to an unbelievable variety of plants and animals.”

The sluggish Kankakee River created the marsh much like a leak in a wall dampens a basement carpet — gradually.

The river followed 250 miles of bends and oxbows covering a point-to-point distance of about 90 miles. With a downhill slope of 5 inches per mile, water constantly seeped into adjacent soil, producing a giant, sponge-like prairie.

Before white men arrived, Native Americans used the marsh for fishing and hunting grounds. In the 1830s, the federal government acquired the land from the Potawatomi through treaties that pushed the Indians west. In 1850, Congress passed the Swamp Land Act, giving the marsh to the state of Indiana so it could be made into arable land.

For several decades, the marsh provided commercial and recreational fishing and hunting opportunities. It was a sportsman’s paradise, attracting presidents, industrialists and even European nobility who’d heard stories of waterfowl so numerous they blackened the sky.

But farmers coveted the soil, which was a black, sandy loam, 3 to 6 feet deep, and ideal for crops if only the water could be removed. In 1882, the state’s chief engineer recommended draining the entire wetland.

Dredge boats got to work, straightening over 2,000 bends in the river and digging lateral ditches to carry runoff. By 1917, the entire river had been reduced to a series of straight dredged ditches extending 82 miles from South Bend to the Indiana-Illinois state line.

The new farmland was among the most productive in the world, but the impact on wildlife was immediate. Biologists estimate the draining of the Kankakee eliminated one-fifth of the migratory bird population in the United States.

In the years since, the conservation movement has proved the role wetlands play in filtering and removing pollutants from water, reducing erosion of stream banks and providing habitat for species that have become endangered. An award-winning public television documentary, “Everglades of the North: The Story of the Grand Kankakee Marsh,” has helped educate the public about the issue.

Efforts are ongoing to bring back some of the wetlands. In 1979, Lake County dedicated the Grand Kankakee Marsh County Park, restoring 920 acres of marshland.

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources operates several fish and wildlife properties entirely or partly within the Kankakee basin with wetlands set aside for protection.

The Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Medaryville looks much like the Grand Kankakee Marsh would have appeared prior to drainage. Its shallow marshes provide an ideal stopover for migratory birds. Each fall thousands of sandhill cranes visit the region on their route south and can be seen right before sunset from a viewing platform at Goose Pasture.

If you go

The Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area is at 5822 N. Fish and Wildlife Lane, Medaryville.