It Started with Geology
The Illinois River Valley as it looks now is the result of continual and often dramatic natural changes to the landscape.
Some of the processes that shaped this river and its valley are literally as old as the hills. The sandstone and limestone bluffs we see today are the result of an ancient sea that overspread this region millions of years ago. The Mississippi River once flowed through this valley, before glaciers shifted its course to the west. South of Hennepin, the Illinois River still follows the Mississippi's ancient channel.
A more recent glacial event sculpted the upper reaches of the Illinois River. Seventeen thousand years ago, glacial melt waters burst through a rock-earth dam holding back a massive lake, unleashing the Kankakee Torrent, which carved the river valley all the way to Hennepin.
A Rich Ecology Formed... and Drew Inhabitants
As the glaciers retreated, lichens and plants reinhabited the barren landscape, many of which sprouted from seeds left behind in the glacial deposits.
In the 12,000 years since then, rich topsoils accumulated, and complex and varied communities of plants and animals - from lush bottomland hardwood forests and riparian floodplains to tallgrass prairies and woodland spring seeps - established and flourished.
With its natural abundance, navigable water, and fertile soils along the floodplain, the area attracted human inhabitants over time. Many Native American peoples lived here, hunting, gathering, growing crops, and traveling the Illinois River in dugout canoes.
As settlers came to the region in the 1600s, communities sprang up, built from the land's abundance. The Illinois River yielded astonishing catches of fish and mussels, sustaining what were once the nation's second largest inland fishery. Hunters sought out the river's multitudes of waterfowl. Settlers grew crops in the fertile soil and grazed livestock on prairie grasses. Immigrants came to the valley to extract the land's abundant minerals, predominantly coal, but also sandstone, limestone and clay, which were used for construction, brick-making, and pottery.
Commerce and Recreation Today
People depend upon the region's natural bounty for their livelihood, for recreation, and for beauty.
As they have for more than 12 thousand years, people continue to earn a living from the natural wealth of the Illinois River Valley. Enormous fields of corn and soybeans blanket the landscape. Family farms grow grapes, trees, native plants, herbs and ornamental plants. In summer and autumn, roadside stands offer fresh produce to travelers.
Many seek out the region's outstanding recreational opportunities, from biking and hiking on rail trails to camping and picnicking at the valley's many state sites. Along the Scenic Byway, one can immerse themselves in the outdoors - watching wildlife, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, and boating - or discover the region's cultural history at area museums, historic sites, and visitor centers. The valley's natural areas also offer important opportunities for relaxation, solitude, and quiet contemplation. Recreation and tourism have emerged as important contributors to the regional economy.