Cache River Watershed Before the Dawn of Ditching and Draining

Carolina parakeet

John James Audubon painting of the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis). In December 1810, Audubon wrote, "...thousands of parroquets, that came to roost...at night, were to me objects of interst and curiosity."

The Ohio River runs clear, thousands of Carolina parakeets are roosting in hollow trunks of large sycamore trees, wolves and panthers are plenty, bear, buffalo and beaver abound, and giant cane grows 30 to 40 feet high in brakes up to a mile wide.  Cypress-tupelo swamps and floodplain forests cover over 250,000 acres, while the remaining quarter million acres are a combination of rich hardwood forests and oak barrens. (John White, Cache River Area Assessment: Early Accounts of the Ecology of the Cache River Area, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, 1997)

This was the Cache River Basin at the very southern tip of Illinois as described by early explorers in the 1600s and 1700s. The incredible abundance of wild game and clean water began attracting settlers, which initiated a downward spiral on the unique wetlands ecosystem. In order to understand the how and why of these impacts it helps to understand a little more about the Cache and the lay of the land.

The Cache begins its 110-mile journey through the basin in northern Union County near the little town of Cobden. It meanders through the Lower Shawnee Hills in a southeasterly direction through Union County and starts heading more south than east through Johnson County until, near the little town of Belknap, it hits a wide valley carved by the ancient, former course of the Ohio River. At this point, the Cache makes an about-face and follows the old river course through the Cache valley to end its voyage at the present Ohio River between Mounds City and Cairo.

By the end of the 1800s, after settlers had worn out and abandoned the farmland in the uplands and logged all the accessible timber in the basin, they set their sites on the land and timber in lower, flatter Cache valley.

Enter the age of ditching and draining and devastating ecosystem damage. To be continued…..next week!

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