The early French explorers and fur trappers who traveled through the central territories were amazed at the scenic beauty and abundance of game that was available in the newly discovered country for the white man. Indians for generations before had built their tiny villages along the Rock River's path. That it was so long closed to settlement was due solely to the fact that it was the home of the Indian and for close to a decade after Illinois was admitted to the Union in 1818. The red men paddled their canoes unmolested up and down the Rock River, in and out among the willow-covered islands that jutted out of the waters.
One Indian tradition says that as the river came along from Oregon southward, the scenery was so beautiful that the river hated to go on and leave it. However, knowing that it must go on, it turned around and almost doubled back, for one last look at the beauty. This great turn or bend is now called Grand Detour. Through hunting and trapping and bartering their furs to the occasional white trader who came their way or by carrying them to the old fur post which was located near Grand Detour, the Indians had little to do with those who were attempting to encroach upon their territory.
During the year of 1826, there came to the early settlers in the southern part of the State, and along the Sangamon River, rumors of the richness of the lead mines in the Northwest. Fabulous stories of great wealth suddenly acquired, stirred the hearts of the simple rustics who had heretofore been content to raise corn for ten cents a bushel, wheat for twenty-five and beef and pork for a dollar per hundred. Fort Clark (now Peoria) was then the most northern settlement in the State and from this point the adventurers launched into the wilderness, taking a course directly north to the Rock River. They crossed at a point where Dixon now stands, thus avoiding the Winnebago swamp, the great dread of early travelers to the mines.
In two or three years settlers established themselves along this road, at distances of from ten to twenty miles, for the accommodation of travelers, and except in the vicinity of the mines until after the Black Hawk War, were almost the only inhabitants north of the Illinois river. It was several years before the great tide of immigration from the East, which finally settled the country, began to be felt, and the war itself was the great agency for diffusing intelligence eastward of the unparalleled richness of the lands of Northern Illinois. As early as 1828, a French and Indian half-breed, named Ogee, built a cabin on the present site of Dixon and established a ferry.
In 1829, a post office was located here and an employee of Ogee, was made postmaster. In the spring of 1830, John Dixon, from whom the city takes its name, purchased Ogee's claim and interest in the ferry and on April 11th settled here with his family. The name of the post office was also changed to Dixon's Ferry shortly thereafter. Black Hawk, with all the chivalrous and turbulent spirits of the Sacs and Foxes, in violation of the ratification of the treaty of 1804, re-crossed the Mississippi, to "pass the summer" in the home of his forefathers and to reassert his claim to this beautiful region. He marched up the river and through the countries of the Potawatomies and Winnebagoes, to endeavor to make them his allies. Shortly before the outbreak of the Black Hawk War in 1832, Dixon's Ferry was a quiet, and at times, lonely outpost.
But it was the hostilities and confrontations with the white settlers from Black Hawk and his followers that would turn Dixon's Ferry into a major military encampment. While the name was never officially changed, Dixon's Ferry would come to be known as "Fort Dixon." It would be established as the central command post during the early stages of the Black Hawk War. Because of its location relative to Fort Dearborn (Chicago), Fort Armstrong (Rock Island), and Fort Clark (Peoria) it was to be the gathering place for the state militia and the regular army during the campaign. It would be here that some notable figures in our nation's history would serve during their formative careers.
Although it would be some years later, either during or after the Civil War, which brought about prominence to the following: Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, W. S. Harney, Albert Johnson, Robert Anderson, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln. Each of these men would garner a place in American history. Chief Black Hawk, as a conquered leader at the close of the war in 1832, said, "The Rock River was a beautiful country, I loved it and I fought for it. It is now yours. Keep it as we did." Men that settled in this area, like John Dixon, Leonard Andrus, Alexander Charters and Dr. Oliver Everett stated that they were charmed by the river's beauty before they even thought of its economic possibilities. As people settled the countryside the river allowed a means by which canoes and flat bottom boats could deliver supplies to towns along the waterway, an easier means than going overland by wagon. But rapidly these boats were being overshadowed by paddle-wheels with their steam engines and billowing smoke which traveled up and down the length of the river.
During a visit to the Rock River Valley in 1841, William Cullen Bryant, a well known poet, author and biographer wrote of his visit and impressions on what had become a newly settled territory of Northern Illinois. He wrote, "I have just recently returned from an excursion of the Rock River, one of the most beautiful of our western streams. It flows through the high prairies and unlike most streams of the West, through an alluvial country. The current is rapid and the pellucid waters glide over a bottom of sand and pebbles." What Mr. Bryant was unaware of was the early spring thaws and the overflow stages the river reached nearly every year, causing countless numbers of means and methods to be used to both conquer and cross the mighty Rock.
Early Indians in the area, first crossed the river near Dixon by means of rafts, canoes and later, a crude rope drawn ferry. As more and more settlers came, a more permanent ferry was then constructed and operated until the first bridge was built across the Rock River. In 1845 with Dixon's population at just 400 people, an act was passed in the State Legislature for the incorporation of the Dixon Dam and Bridge Company. The main purpose at the time was two-fold, for the erection of a toll bridge and a "good and sufficient dam across the Rock River." The original five-foot high dam was built with wood and stone materials which were available from the Dixon area. The dam was nearly 700 feet long and built strong enough to hold back the flow of the water, which ranged in depth from 6 to 8 feet. Around the same time of the dam construction, a sawmill was also erected on the north bank of the river. But the dam that was built, proved to be weak and its life was one of continual repair along with repeatedly being washed out in part by freshets or greatly damaged by ice.
Finally, by June of 1851, a dam had been built which withstood the power of the flood, much to the delight of the owners. For now commercial growth could be stimulated near the dam to harness the new water power. Mills for the making of flour and other purposes were soon erected and the raceway on the south side of the river became the center of much activity. At first, and for many years, power was drawn from the dam instead of the race, and likewise two or three mills were erected on the north side of the dam. Due to occasional breaches, the original dam was replaced in 1865, with a rock-filled timber-crib dam and built to a height of seven feet. The building of dams across the river for generating electricity brought an end to the big boats. Goods were now delivered to and from the area by the railroads and brought in by wagons. In 1904, a new dam was built just downstream and adjoining the old dam. The old dam had been breached in the center, but was left in place to add strength to the new dam which was constructed of rock-filled timber cribbing, with a 1/4 inch steel crest cap, and a three inch oak apron. A new headrace was also constructed which supplied water to several interested parties that now formed the Dixon Hydraulic Company.
At that time, the power developed at the dam was approximately 2,000 horsepower. Throughout the early history of Dixon and the settling of the Rock River Valley the waterway had played a significant role in the development of the area. It provided growth and prosperity along with an abundance of recreational facilities. Fish were taken from the river in great numbers and shipped to market. A once thriving claming enterprise gave the citizens of Dixon an almost unending supply of clams for 50 years, which soon disappeared. During the long cold winters which were commonplace to this locale, the Rock River would freeze to a depth of 8 to 14 inches, even at times to 16 inches thick. Crews of men using teams of horses would clear the ice field of snow and plane the surface to make the ice smooth. The ice would then be cut and the large chunks were hauled out of the river across East River Street to be stored in one of several icehouses located along the banks of the river. The ice was stacked in the structures with layers of sawdust and hay to help insulate against thawing until it was needed. The Dixon Pure Ice Company employed some 50 to 75 men in the winter of 1905, to fill the icehouses with 15 thousand tons and the company had contracts calling for several hundred, train car loads to be shipped during the winter. Ice harvesting, a monumental task each winter, quickly came to an end.
Generations gone by had utilized the scenic spots for picnics and recreation. The small steamer boats which carried tourists and visitors to the Assembly Park grounds and entertainment each summer and winter on Van Arnam's Island have disappeared. Along a huge sand stone cliff you can see names carved into the rock from perhaps young lovers who, many years ago, used the river in their courtship. Areas along the river banks, once saturated with oak, black walnut, willow, wild plum and thornapple trees along with varieties of wild fruit, such as berries and grapes that were in abundance, have given way to modern homes that dot the river banks. Lowell Park is situated along the banks of the river and for a long time, was regarded as the largest city owned park and recreational area in the state. The park was a beehive of activity with beaches for swimming, boating and other activities and often saw thousands of people utilizing the river each day.
Where once President Ronald Reagan had worked as a lifeguard in his youth and had saved many lives which were in peril. Today the beaches are but a memory of things in the past but boating is still enjoyed on the "Mighty Rock." But the river, as we know it today, still provides the community with many of the things our forefathers saw in this great area. Our city and area provides us with many parks which border the river and we can still enjoy the scenic changes of the seasons and enjoy fishing and boating. Few of us that reside in Dixon and Lee County have probably never had the opportunity to traverse along the Rock River by boat. But those that live along its shorelines meandering through the area can observe the charm and beauty of nature at its best on a daily basis.