Springing forth: Geologist uses water to study history
When the soldiers carrying wounded U.S. Army Ranger William Hughes stopped to camp, they chose a spot near a large sulfur spring on the south side of Lick Creek.
Hughes had been badly injured pursing American Indians near Galena, and he died on the return trip to southern Illinois, on Sept. 7, 1813.
He was buried on a picturesque hill overlooking the creek valley and the spring not far from Loami. He was the first European settler buried in Sangamon County, according to “The Cemeteries of Loami and Maxwell Townships,” published by the Sangamon County Genealogical Society.
Hughes’ story is just one of many that played out around natural sources of water during the time Illinois was being settled. Springs were reliable sources of water, and people and animals both sought them out. Many people believed spring water had special health benefits and even curative powers. Hotels and spas sprang up around springs.
At Sulfur Spring Cemetery, Philip Reed, a retired geologist with an interest in sleuthing out natural springs, is trying to learn more. He uses a gallon milk jug to catch the outflow of the spring and times how long it takes to fill up.
It takes about a minute for a half-gallon of water to collect. The spring has been protected by a concrete ring built around it and a metal grate installed to keep large animals out.
Reed pulls out a stick that was clogging the discharge pipe and measures the water temperature at 49 degrees.
The water flowing the 25 yards to the creek is stained reddish-orange, probably due to minerals such as iron and sulfur.
Reed has compiled some of the stories and a multitude of reported locations in “Spring Place Names and Historic Data on Springs, Licks and Selected Water Wells in Illinois.”
During his career, Reed worked for the Illinois State Geological Survey as a hydro-geologist and geophysicist.
With water piped directly to homes, schools and businesses today, few recognize the importance once placed on springs — places where ground water reaches the surface.
Many Illinois places owe their names to local water sources. Among them are Rock Springs near Decatur in Macon County, Bluff Springs in Cass County, Siloam Springs in Brown County and even Springfield in Sangamon County.
Reed writes that Springfield was drained by no fewer than five “never failing spring branches.” Those spring-fed creeks joined together to form the Kelley Branch and eventually the Town Branch. Town Branch is a tributary of Spring Creek.
Many natural springs no longer flow. Agricultural field tiles, grading and the filling in of old wells all have combined to change the hydrology of Illinois, making many old springs impossible to find.
Town Branch, for example, now flows as part of the city’s sewer system encased in brick and concrete beneath the governor’s mansion. An iron spring — which was actually a flowing well — in Washington Park was sealed when its waters became polluted.
Before then, its waters were touted as a cure for everything from warts to the blues.
Another spring, not far from the cemetery, is difficult to detect. An old windmill that once towered over a well drilled to take advantage of water close to the surface lies on the ground, its metal framework reminiscent of some animal’s skeleton left to bleach in the sun.
It’s hard to tell if wet ground is the result of water trying to reach the surface or simply waterlogged earth due to rainy weather.
Reed says he wants to preserve the stories surrounding natural springs and let the public know of their importance. It is another avenue for understanding the settlement of Illinois and how people survived and thrived, he says.
“I wanted to reveal the historical significance of springs and the search for springs in the exploration and colonization of the United States,” Reed says.
Exploration of the western United States, including the location of natural sources of water, was just an extension of President Thomas Jefferson’s vision.
Legions of prospectors, surveyors and explorers were directed to find out as much as they could about the young nation’s holdings. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, for example, carried out part of Jefferson’s idea 200 years ago.
“Jefferson’s scientific ability and knowledge gave him the foresight to send those people out there on these expeditions,” Reed says.
Reed says he hopes the collected information on 2,500 springs and 25 wells listed will be a useful point of reference for those interested in archeology, genealogy, history and scientific study.
Half Moon Lick in Gallatin County once was a large salt marsh. Animal skeletons have been found there in a “remarkable excavation,” Reed says. “That site is like the La Brea tar pits, in my opinion.”
Salt production occurred at the Great Salt Spring in Gallatin County, where up to 500 bushels of salt were cooked out of the spring water every 24 hours in the mid-1800s.
Also, with 2009 being the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Reed says there is a renewed interest in Illinois’ pioneer past and the landscape people encountered.
“When Lincoln was a boy, springs were very important,” he says. “It was a source of water you didn’t have to dig for, and it was usually potable.”
The book is available at Prairie Archives in downtown Springfield and at the Illinois State Museum Gift Shop.
Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528 email@example.com.