OTTAWA – Several state parks grace both sides of the Illinois River region between Utica and Ottawa, but they wouldn’t be what they are today if it hadn’t been for the role of the river.
Nearby state parks such as Starved Rock and Matthiessen were shaped by the river, and you couldn’t very well have destinations like the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center without the waterway, and there wouldn’t be much for Starved Rock Lock and Dam to do without a river.
If you want to learn more about the river’s role in the making of the scenery that surrounds it the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center has several artifacts and displays that tell the tale.
The center is on the north side of the river along Dee Bennett Road, and overlooks both the Starved Rock Lock and Dam, as well as Starved Rock itself. Both are operated by the Rock Island District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
One of eight dams along the Illinois River, Starved Rock Lock and Dam is the only one accessible to visitors, who can view the river through a pair of fences. Barges and boats that pass through can be seen by visitors from large windows inside the center on its ground level, or outside on two levels.
The Illinois River flows northeast to southwest for about 300 miles; it begins at the convergence of the Des Plaines, DuPage and Kankakee rivers near Channahon, and flows to the Mississippi River in Grafton, north of St. Louis. However, that hasn’t always been the case.
The river makes a near-90-degree bend near DePue and Hennepin, and that was where it ended thousands of years ago before it flowed into what would become the Mississippi River. Displays at the center show how the Mississippi once flowed through the Sauk Valley between Savanna and DePue, before it followed the current path of the Illinois and headed south.
Minerals and animal skins are among much of the natural history on display, as well as taxidermy birds, such as the American Kestrel, Tundra Swan and the Great Horned Owl.
Flags from various boats that worked and traveled along the river also are displayed.
The center’s largest artifact is a room itself, the pilot house of the marine vessel John M. Warner. The ship, built in 1943 and originally christened the Jean Marie, had one of the first pilot houses to hydraulically retract into the boat so that it could pass under low bridges. It sank in 1982.
The center also is a popular site for bald eagle watching during the winter. A set of tower viewer binoculars on the second floor along the outside ledge looks out to Plum Island, where eagles have consistently converged since 1997.
The ban on DDT increased the number of bald eagles in the 1980s and 1990s. The Island itself, owned by the Illinois Audubon Society, is closed to the public.
There are plenty of picnic areas surrounding the center; small grills are available near the parking lot.
The center operates on federal government money, and has been threatened by closure when revenue wasn’t available to operate it. Operations were reduced to weekends in October, but daily operations were restored a month later.
A gift shop contains numerous books with additional information on local history, geology and watersheds; cash, and credit and debit cards are accepted.
• Buffalo Rock State Park is 5 miles east along Dee Bennett Road. Once an island before its north side dried up, the entrance is at the bottom of a large rock formation, but a drive around takes traffic to the top.
Wide-open cliffs offer views of several small nearby islands along the river.
Along with the typical fauna, a pair of American Bison roam along a small, grassy field at the top of the bluff.
Once near extinction, Illinois’ bison population has risen in recent years, and they also can be seen at Nachusa Grasslands near Franklin Grove, and the Wildlife Prairie Park in Hanna City, near Peoria.
• Dee Bennett Road runs through Naplate and turns into Ottawa Avenue once it reaches Ottawa.
At the edge of town is the Ottawa Avenue Cemetery, where Boy Scouts of America founder William D. Boyce is buried.
Near the final resting spot of Boyce, who died in 1929, is a life-sized statue of him in uniform.
The Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, 950 N. 27th (Dee Bennett) Road, Ottawa, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. Tours and educational programs by park rangers can be arranged in advance.
Admission is free, and wheelchair access is available only for the ground level.
Go to shawurl.com/3bc3 or call 815-667-4054 for more information.