Battle for the Sangamon


Spring, 1970: the year many credit with the birth of the modern environmental movement. On April 22 of that year our nation celebrated the first Earth Day.  Earth Day is a worldwide celebration, held on or near the Vernal Equinox, to increase awareness and appreciation of the Earth’s natural environment.

And in 1970, here on the Sangamon River somewhere between Decatur and Allerton Park, the “Battle for the Sangamon” had been joined.

The Army Corps of Engineers had a tremendous advantage in being scientific back in those days, mostly due to the name “Engineers” which sounded pretty darned scientific to most folks. So when the Corps presented “scientific” information, many people were inclined to believe them.

However, by Earth Day 1970, reality had begun to show otherwise.

Carlyle Reservoir was constructed on the Kaskaskia River in 1958 in Clinton County to “control flooding and provide recreation” according to the Corps. But in the end that meant that instead of being flooded under 6 feet of water until floodwaters quickly receded, now farmers’ land remained under 6 inches of water for three months, making it impossible to farm. And by 1970, Carlyle Reservoir had caused extensive losses resulting in area farmers’ damage claims against the Corps.

In addition, the reservoir’s banks in the recreational areas around Carlyle had started to erode so badly that signs were posted reading “WARNING DANGER: Caving Bank.” And to control further erosion the Corps filled in the banks with large rocks, changing the signs again to read , “WARNING DANGER: Keep Away from Stone.” Sounds inviting, right?!

The science of the Corps was nothing versus the reality of nature. And ordinary people, deeply committed to saving the planet and their own back yards, began to fight back.

So now it’s the spring of 1970 at the dedication of the latest dam and reservoir on the Kaskaskia River, Lake Shelbyville, Bruce Hannon of the Committee on Allerton Park (COAP) had procured a press pass to the Shelbyvile Dam dedication, so there he was in the front row.

But unbeknownst to the various dignitaries in attendance, including Senators, Illinois Governor Richard Ogilvie, and the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, Hannon had planned a surprise. At 2pm, just as the ceremony was to begin, they heard the sound of a small Piper Cub approaching. It was towing a banner with 8 foot high bright red letters that read “Dam the Corps.”  The Piper flew low and slow right past the podium as TV cameras rolled and other cameras flashed. And there was Hannon, smiling silently in the front row.

The honored dignitaries, who had arrived in their own personal airplanes, scrambled their pilots to chase the little Piper away. But the Piper, struggling hard with its very loud engines, was much too slow for them, and all they could do was buzz in and fly past, creating a sort of slow motion aerial dogfight for the dedication guests. It was the lead story that night on the WCIA TV news. 

Lake Shelbyville was of course dedicated anyway. But its design was based on a prediction of severe flooding once in 87 years.  Within four years after construction, severe flooding had occurred five times. With heavy losses, local farmers, initially assured by the ‘scientific’ Corps of Engineers of protection from flooding by these projects, began wishing they had never heard of Shelbyville or Carlyle.

Later in 1970, John Marlin took an interest in the proposed Oakley Dam. He was a senior at the U of I and was an experienced journalist from (as he is fond of saying rather quickly) “Washington, T.C.” (that’s Tazewell County).  Marlin figured this sounded interesting so he’d lend his talents and, in his spare time, he’d have this ill conceived dam licked by the end of his senior year.

Marlin’s approach was to gather the science that would counter the science of the Corps. He enlisted numerous researchers from the U of I and beyond, and by the end of that year he had published “Battle for the Sangamon,” the definitive work on this effort (and incidentally, the source of much of my material here).  But Oakley dam wasn’t going down easy, and John’s work was just beginning. He was to become instrumental in leading opposition to Oakley, which lasted several more years, as well as of the environmental movement in Illinois and in the country.

In the end, as regular readers know (hi, Mom!), there is no Oakley Dam. Oakley exists only as an unseen monument to the extraordinary commitment of ordinary people such as John and Bruce and thousands of others like them. And now the torch passes to you.

The point of Earth Day is to protect our Earth for the Earth’s sake and not exploit it needlessly for projects that reveal only that messing with Mother Nature is, in many cases, ill advised. 

This Sunday, April 22, remember that first Earth Day in 1970 and what it stood for.  And this year, be sure to celebrate “Earth Day, Every Day” at Mabry Gardens at Lake of the Woods from 1 to 5. We’ll see you there!

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, April 18, 2012, by Scott P. Hays

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