VRAIL Stage 22

Whee, I get to run down a (virtual) hill! This stage descends into the Sangamon River valley (the river is where the trees are in the distance) and just across the river. That’s a total of, um, 50 feet downhill. Based on news accounts, there seems to be a day or two every spring when this road is closed for flooding.

I found some references to this area and the last several stages as belonging to the “Pecan Bottoms” area of central Illinois. We usually associate pecans with the southern U.S., but they’re native in Illinois and Indiana in river bottoms. In fact, the botanical name of the pecan is Carya illinoinensis! The growing season is fairly short, so they don’t get very large in this part of North American, which is why commercial pecan production takes place farther south.

VRAIL Stage 21

This was a short stage; it’s been hot and humid lately, and I’m really missing being able to run indoors at the campus rec center. But this stage heads towards a crossing of the Sangamon River, here heading northward and unchannelized.

Continuing south past this point, you’d end up in Petersburg, the county seat and a little bit farther south, Lincoln’s New Salem. I have very vague memories of going there as a kid with my grandparents, but it’s the kind of place that most Illinois schoolchildren ended up going to at one point or another. New Salem was founded in 1829 as a milltown on the Sangamon, but as a previous post noted, the Sangamon was really hard to navigate with its sand bars and frequent flooding.

Lincoln only lived here for a few years, and by 1840, the village was abandoned after Petersburg was chosen as the county seat. Time passed, and Lincoln became more and more important as a one-time resident of this short-lived town. In 1906, William Randolph Hearst (yes, that William Randolph Hearst) bought the land the former village sat on and gave it to a private association who later transferred it to the state of Illinois. The village was reconstructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, and today it’s a big tourist attraction in central Illinois and a State Historic Site.

Image from IronBrigader.com of the store where Lincoln worked.

VRAIL Stage 20

This stage brings me up to 98.85 miles; almost a hundred miles under my belt this summer!

Today’s four miles involve the most serious altitude increase so far: 100 feet over 4 miles. (I know, right?) The topographic map below shows another kind of evidence for the unnatural form of the Sangamon River in the northwest corner: the county border between Menard and Mason Counties follows the original course of the Sangamon before it was channelized.

The town of Oakford with population 300 is on the Illinois & Midland Railroad, which carried coal from the southern Illinois coal fields to the Illinois River to be shipped by barge to coal-fired power plants around Chicago. Based on the pics below, they prefer simple names for their commercial establishments in Oakford. Also, I love the tiny false front on the Oakwood post office.

VRAIL Stage 18

I’ve been running but not posting, so I have some catching up to do!

Stage 18 passed through Chandlerville and turned off the main road to take a more direct route east. I neglected to note in the last stage that I was passing north of a settlement called Jules, which is my aunt’s nickname for me, so shoutout to Jules. 🙂

I could not find much to say about Chandlerville, except that it has an annual Burgoo. To my mind, that’s a Kentucky thing, but I’ve seen it argued that this part of Illinois is in the Upland South, so it makes sense. Burgoo is an event as much as a food: a huge pot of stew made with a wide variety of meats and vegetables, intended to feed a crowd. Here’s one recipe from Gun & Garden magazine. No one quite knows where the name came from, though it’s a good guess that it’s the Americanization of an original French term. Anyway, Chandlerville recently decided to cancel this summer’s Burgoo for the same reason pretty much everything is canceled this summer.

Chandlerville does still have a post office, but when the Google StreetView car drove through in 2013, literally the only establishment that was open in the two-block downtown was the post office. Here’s hoping things have gotten better for them since then.

VRAIL Stages 16 and 17

Combining stages again, one of 5K and one of 10K, since the scenery doesn’t change much along the way! These stages are along the very edge of the Sangamon River Valley, pretty clearly delineated in the terrain. Given the width of the floodplain, do you see anything…unusual about the Sangamon River?

Stages 16 and 17 along the floodplain’s edge. Super flat.

In a previous post, I talked about all of the drainage that had to be done to get this part of the state ready for agriculture, via tiles beneath the surface that direct water into ditches and rivers. As we can see from the Sangamon, even the rivers themselves were sometimes heavily modified to maximize the agricultural land available–and to make the rivers navigable. No other than Abe Lincoln (he had to appear at some point, this is central Illinois!) had a history of difficulties getting up and down the Sangamon from the state capital of Springfield to the Illinois River and parts south. In fact, he advocated channelizing the river to make it easier for boats to use (though that didn’t happen until 1949), and he even invented an inflatable device to help ships get unstuck from sand bars, based on his experience traveling on the Sangamon. More details can be found here.

VRAIL Stage 13

On this stage, my path crossed the Illinois River, putting me into my fourth county and into the largest settlement so far, and the oldest one I’ll encounter on the path: Beardstown.

Beardstown is old for an Illinois city, founded in 1826 by, you guessed it, Mr. Beard. Apparently this was a good place for a ferry crossing, though it’s hard to tell today with all of the modifications to the riverscape that have happened. The Illinois State Museum claims that Beardstown was known as Porkopolis because of its major industry, and it still has a pork processing plant on the outskirts of town. There was also the Beardstown Fish Company, and in the late 1800s, mussel and pearl fishing developed to feed nearby button factories.

Looking at Beardstown on a satellite image, the scar of the former railroad land is really remarkable. The topographic map up above shows multiple lines, but now there’s only the one. But the land is still vacant (probably still owned by the railroad), about a block wide running through town. Most notably, you can see the half-circle shape of a roundhouse still present, just about in the center of this image. If you look at the railroad crossing on 4th Street, there’s clearly the old train station that was recently a restaurant/bar.

Freighthouse 704, which appears to have closed last fall.
Now that’s a post office!

VRAIL stage 12

This stage might have involved the greatest elevation change of any stage of my virtual run across Illinois: a plunge of 150 feet down into the Illinois River Valley. The Illinois River valley is really wide–because it used to be the valley of the Mississippi River, until glaciers blocked the path near what is today Rock Island. In later geologic time, the glacial lake that extended beyond present-day Lake Michigan burst through its moraines and flooded this area, carving out the channel that exists today.

From a flat plateau, down the hill, to a flaaaaaat floodplain.

The floodplain of the Illinois River Valley is super flat, and it does tend to flood quite frequently. (More on this in the next stage.) As you can see from the creek/drainage ditch running north-south in the eastern third of the map, it’s also quite low-lying and swampy. Just northeast of here are some state parks and other protected areas around land that was too wet to drain for agriculture.


VRAIL Stage 11

The terrain is starting to get more interesting as we head down into the Illinois River Valley. Today’s stage crossed the Le Moine River, marking the boundary between tiny Brown County (very tiny once you take out the prison population) and very small Schuyler County. Back in the day, it was all Schuyler County, but people living in the southern half found it too difficult to get across the Le Moine when the water was high, so they petitioned to form a separate county.

Illinois has way too many counties–102 in total–as part of more local government jurisdictions than any other state–over 7,000. There are over seventy counties in Illinois that are smaller in population than the smallest of Chicago’s wards. While many people would agree we should have fewer jurisdictions and possibly more efficient government in the process, no one wants their county to be the one that’s consolidated. /rant

Switching to the topographic map view on MapMyRun now that we’re in a part of the state with actual topography.

The little town of Ripley that the route passes by, now with about ninety residents, was once known as Jug Town between the 1850s and 1880s. There were eighteen different potteries in the area, using local clay to produce bricks, jugs, and the field tiles mentioned back in Timewell. The Le Moine River might have been a barrier to people trying to reach the county seat, but it was a highway for the potters of Ripley, who carried their goods on it down to the Illinois River, then the Mississippi and on to St. Louis. Eventually, producers who were closer to the river or on railroad tracks overtook Ripley, and there’s not much left.

The Google Car did take a spin through Ripley, at least.

VRAIL Stage 10

I didn’t get quite as far as I had intended this weekend, because summer has arrived and it’s both hot and humid. So today’s stage leaves Mt. Sterling and swings northeast, still on U.S. 24, headed for the Illinois River Valley.

The terrain is starting to change as the river gets closer, but the highway follows the flattest ground, so the view hasn’t changed all that much, except that now there are some trees in the distance:

VRAIL Stage 8

Today’s stage began on the edge of Mounds Station, also known as Timewell (there was already a Mounds, IL, when it came time to establish the post office). Timewell is even smaller than Clayton, but it does have a post office!

Note the black-and-white rectangle in the lower left-hand corner. If you zoom in on it, you see this:

Google Maps told me this was Timewell Drainage Systems, which means those black objects are drainage tiles and pipes. I mentioned a few posts ago that this is a swampy part of Illinois. Much of Illinois, in fact, is fairly poorly drained, a legacy of the glaciers that also flattened out the landscape so well. Poor drainage means that when it rains, water just sits in the fields, or that the land is wet enough that it’s difficult to plant anything. So farmers dig up the soil and put these tiles and pipes in the ground to channel water into ditches and streams, leaving the ground dry for planting. This has been done so extensively throughout Illinois that I know a geologist who is trying to reconstruct the actual post-glacial drainage patterns of the state, because the current drainage pattern is so heavily artificial. Timewell Drainage Systems is based on Brown County, but they also manufacture and sell tiles from Iowa to Alabama.

Bonus pic from StreetView: the Timewell Post Office. My dad was a mailman before retirement, and he likes to see different post offices in the places he visits. So I think I’ll throw those in when I can along the way.