My hometown Vandalia was founded atop a bluff along the Kaskaskia River. The first state capital, also named Kaskaskia, was old and inconveniently located so provisions were made in 1818, the year of statehood, to establish a seat of government in a newly settled area. Thus the state government could gain revenue from the sale of town lots. Four state commissioners rode to the designated area during the spring of 1819 and selected the site for Vandalia. One of the town surveyors gave it that name, for legendary reasons that have been passed down through generations. Vandalia remained state capital for only twenty years but it has remained, slowly growing and secure, atop the river’s high bluff. People–non-Illinois people—sometimes say to me, “You’re from Vandalia! Isn’t that where the prison is?” Or, “Isn’t that where they grow Vidalia onions?” Fewer people will say, “Didn’t that used to be the state capital?” Still fewer will say, “Isn’t that where that little river is?”
The river-not so little—makes a hundred-degree turn beneath the Conrail trestle and flows south beneath the U.S. 40-51 bridge. Further down river stood the old ICRR bridge, and the abandoned roadbed of the Illinois Central forms a “natural” trail for a distance down through the river bottoms. The river bottom itself—the Kaskaskia floodplain—formed (in the words of my friend Keith Sculle) “a chronically forbidding quagmire” for travelers until an embankment for the National Old Trails Highway (now U.S. 40) was completed in 1923. A drainage ditch near the old Clark homestead west of Bluff City aids in flood control.
The Kaskaskia is a narrow, small river but due to its serpentine path the Kaskaskia is the second-longest river wholly within Illinois’ borders. Two manmade lakes, Lake Shelbyville upstream and the Carlyle Lake in lower Fayette County, were created in the years when I was very small; I vaguely remember the fanfare which greeted the completion of those lakes. According to legend, the early French settlers of Illinois preferred shortening Indian words, so when someone asked “Ou allez-vous, voisin,” “Where are you going, neighbor,” a typical reply might be “Je vais aux Ka,” “I’m going to the Ka.” “Aux Ka” became “Okaw,” the river’s nickname. Another legend places an 1810s French trading spot along the river at Vandalia’s site with the ambiguous designation “Eau carre,” “water square,” given to the river. “Eau carre” became anglicized as “Okaw.”
The river is part of us natives’ identity. “Okaw” is a word we heard very early, along with Lincoln and Jesus. Its waters flow reliably through our lives; during the 1920s my dad and his father hunted rabbits and gathered pecans along the Okaw’s banks. The Kaskaskia fascinated me even as a child. It was the threshold of the greater world, pretty, yet a little frightening, a swirling, midwestern Moldau. Throughout Fayette County streams like the Hurricane Creek, Sand Creek, Hickory Creek, and others wind through the timber and hills, flowing finally to the Okaw. I liked to imagine Vandalia’s stalwart pioneers setting camp along the river and its several wooded tributaries. My father said he had a relative who was buried along the river—she had died from eating wild berries, of all things—but he did not know where she was buried. The mystery of that tragedy thrilled me.
Thrills abounded at the Okaw. For a childhood buddy and me, there were enough make-believe thrills gained from the river’s woods to keep us happy. We’d engage in elaborate tales as we hiked the edge of the trees near the bridge; once we scared ourselves witless when we discovered, at the high bank of the river, cats’ graves marked with stick crosses. Later we went home, listened to The Doors in his sunny, attic bedroom. Other times, it was enough for us to watch the traffic pass and see trains loudly cross the light bottomlands. The fields were flooded with sunlight.
I fancied taking a boat trip down the Okaw’s 300-mile path, and still do sometimes. But as a child, I never came close enough to the river to learn its deepest secrets, for its currents are swift and carry logs and branches on the way. The river carried death. When the present bridge was constructed in the early Sixties, replacing an old steel truss bridge built in the 1920s, a small boy came out to look at the water and fell through a space in the uncompleted railing. I didn’t know him, but I think of him and shutter when I cross the bridge. He would be my age now or slightly older. Some fishermen have lost their lives in the river and I can think of one suicide when a man laid his wallet and keys upon the Kaskaskia’s bank and leapt. One of Vandalia’s infrequent homicide cases happened in the Seventies when two men were killed and their bodies dumped into the Okaw.
So I was strictly forbidden to approach the river. You didn’t have to tell me twice. I watched the waters from high, safe distances. In spite of that, I loved the river and do still.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the promise of my life lay beyond the narrow, forceful river. But now, the river is the last landmark for the return trip, like a promise that the trip has gone well and the destination is very near. The Okaw didn’t hold me back, and it welcomes me when I come home. I’m happy each time to greet it.
(This essay originally appeared in Springhouse magazine and then in my book Journeys Home: Thoughts and Places, self-published in 1995 and 2000. Thanks to Michelle for transcribing!)