Big Ditch

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Big Ditch Soundex Code B200

The drainage of Ridgeville forms an important and interesting chapter in its history. There is plenty of evidence showing that all the territory now included in the communities of Evanston, Niles, Jefferson, Lake View and the southeastern portion of New Trier, were at some time covered by the waters of Lake Michigan.

There are, in this territory, three distinct ridges made by the lake which mark several distinct recessions of its waters.

The west one, sometimes called "Dutch Ridge," commences at Winnetka, at the south end of the clay bluff stretching along the west shore, and runs thence southwesterly, spreading and flattening out in fan-shape towards the North Branch of the Chicago River and terminating at that stream near Niles Center.

East of this, from a mile in width at the north end, to two or three miles at the south end, is Evanston's "West Ridge," which commences where Ridge Avenue strikes the lake and runs almost directly south to Rosehill, where it turns sharply to the west, forming a "J" and flattening out considerably at Bowmanville, and also terminating at the north branch near that place, leaving between these two ridges a valley partly wooded and partly prairie.

The east one of the three ridges commences at the lake shore in the Northwestern University campus and runs southerly through Evanston, and bending slightly to the eastward through Lake View, ends at Lincoln Park.

Natural Conditions— These several ridges, to a certain extent, cut off the drainage of the land between them, and this land was subject to occasional overflow, and was to some extent swampy during the entire year. Portions of it were impassable during most of the year. At quite an early day a small ditch was constructed midway between the east and west ridges, emptying into the lake through a ravine between the College campus and the site of the first Garrett Biblical Institute Building erected in 1854, but afterward destroyed by fire. This ditch was called the Mulford Ditch, from the fact that Major Edward H. Mulford was principally instrumental in its construction; Edward Murphy was associated with him in the making of it.

At the time of the location of Evanston this ditch had pretty much gone to decay and the land between the two ridges was so swampy it was difficult to pass from one ridge to the other except in one or two places- Something in the way of drainage was accomplished by the throwing up of the streets when Evanston was laid out in 1853.

First Drainage Commission—By an Act approved February 15, 1855, "The Drainage Commission" was created for the purpose of draining the wet lands in Townships 41 and 42, in Range 13 and 14, and Sections 1, 2, 11 and 12, in Township 40 of Range 13.

This Commission was given power "to lay out, locate, construct, complete and alter ditches, embankments, culverts, bridges and roads, and maintain and keep the same in repair." The Commissioners named in the act were Harvey B. Hurd, George M. Huntoon, James B. Colvin, John L. Beveridge, and John H. Foster. As Dr. Foster resided in Chicago and did not wish to engage in the undertaking, A.G. Wilder was put in his place. Mr. Hurd was Secretary of the Commission, and to a considerable extent managed its operations.

At that time the only road on the prairie west of Evanston was one running north and south along the east edge of the Big Woods, leading from what was known as "Emerson's barn" to Chicago by way of Bowmanville. This road was passable only during a portion of the year—late in the summer and when the ground was frozen up.

Construction of Ditches Begun—The first ditch constructed by the Commission was along the west side of this road; the excavation being thrown up in such a manner as to make a fairly passable road from Emerson's barn neighborhood to Bowmanville.

The next work of the Commission was the construction of what is known as the Big Ditch, about half way between the Big Woods and the West Ridge. It was shaped so that the north end of it from the north side of Center Street, on the town line between Evanston and New Trier emptied into the lake, and from the south side of Center Street the water was carried south, emptying into the North Branch of the Chicago River at a point about three-fourths of a mile north west of Bowmanville.

Later several ditches were laid out and constructed across the prairie; these were laid out and constructed as to create roads. One of them is the Rogers Road, commencing just west of what was then the home of Philip McGregor Rogers, after whom Rogers Park was named, running thence west to Niles Center. Another is the Mulford Road; another extended on Church Street west to the Big Woods, and another was the Emerson Road, now Emerson Street.

These roads have all become prominent thoroughfares; the last three have been extended west to Dutch Ridge, and Church Street has been extended to the Glenn View Golf Club grounds. The Commission enlarged the Mulford Ditch so that it furnished pretty fair drainage for the territory lying between the east and west ridges the Village of Evanston until the sewerage system was put in. Later a ditch was constructed across the east ridge from a point just west of Tillman Mann's house, at the distance of about three blocks south of Rogers Park depot to the lake.

A.G. Wilder having died, Michael Gormley of Glencoe was put on the Commission in his place, and the Commission undertook to drain the Skokie River, lying west of Winnetka, Glencoe and Highland Park. It first constructed a ditch emptying into the east fork of the North Branch, but it was found that in flood times the water set back in the North Branch and up this ditch, flooding the Skokie. Another outlet was therefore made through the Dutch Ridge, at a point about half way between Winnetka and the Gross Point settlement, carrying the water into the lake through what is now Kenilworth. The Skokie being about forty feet above the lake level, ample fall was found, and this last ditch redeemed a large amount of valuable lands at the south end of the Skokie, now covered by some of the best farms in that neighborhood.

The subsequent efforts of the Commission to enlarge the Skokie ditch and extend it further north, were opposed by some of the land-owners who were assessed for the expense of their improvement, and two cases were carried to the Supreme Court to test the constitutionality of the law. In the case of Hessler vs. The Drainage Commissioners (reported in 53 Ill. Reports, page 105), the court held the law to be unconstitutional. This decision was rendered in January, 1870, and put an end to the operations of "The Drainage Commissioners." This was one of several decisions of like import, for there were several other commissions in different parts of the State, acting under similar laws, where assessments for benefits had been held unconstitutional, but so much interest had been created in favor of drainage that a clause was put into the Illinois Constitution of 1870, designed to permit the General Assembly to pass laws for that purpose. This clause was amended by vote of the people in November, 1878, adopting an amendment of the Constitution, which is now the authority for the drainage laws found in the statutes generally known as the Drainage Acts.

Extension of the System—The north portion of the big ditch was later, under one of these acts, very considerably enlarged and extended south so as to draw the water lakeward from Church Street, but all those parts of the Big Ditch and Mulford Ditch within the corporate limits of Evanston have been supplanted by sewers constructed by the City of Evanston. The Rogers Park Ditch has been supplanted by a main sewer on Pratt Avenue, which carried all the drainage of Rogers Park west of the East Ridge into the lake. All the roads which were constructed by the Commission are not only maintained, but have been extended and improved and are now principal highways. The law under which they were constructed having been declared void, the owner of the land upon which they were laid out might have fenced them up, but they were of such evident utility and propriety that none has shown any disposition to do so, and having now been in use over twenty years, they have become legal highways.

Local Opposition—The opposition of the owners of the lands proposed to be benefited was not confined to the validity of the law. When the first ditch was being laid out along the west side of the Big Woods Road, the Big Woods people came out with pitch-forks and clubs to drive off the engineer and his assistants, but fortunately the engineer was a good-natured man, but very firm, and did not allow himself to be driven off.

Later, when the Rogers Road ditch was projected, a very vigorous protest was made, the people insisting that they did not need any more drainage; that they would rather have their land as it was without further drainage, and a prevailing opinion is that, if the official in charge had not put on his pleasantest manner with them, he would have received rough treatment on at least one of his many visits to the neighborhood in the collection of assessments.

The Rogers Parkers finally learned the value of drainage. It occurred in this way: the ditch diggers, for the purpose of protecting their work from being flooded, threw up their excavation in such a way as to create a dam on each side of the ditch. This was done in the midst of haying time, when a large quantity of hay was down, and considerable of it was in haycocks, and when the ditch was about two-thirds across the prairie, there came a heavy rain which flooded the prairie. To save their hay, the people rallied in force, drove off the ditch diggers, cut the dams and let the water off, and thus saved much of their hay which would otherwise have been all spoiled. The ring-leaders were arrested, brought to court, which located was in Evanston, and fined. Though they were not happy in the payment of their fines, they were much more reconciled to the payment of their assessments, acknowledging that after all the drainage was a pretty good thing.

Sources: Bateman, Newton, LL.D., and Selby, Paul, A.M., Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Evanston, Vol. II, Munsell Publishing Company, Chicago, 1906, CHAPTER XIX. EARLY DRAINAGE, pp. 169-172.