Starved Rock State Park

Starved Rock State Park is a state park in  Illinois, characterized by 18 canyons within its 2,630 acres. Located near Ottawa, IL  along the south bank of the Illinois River, Starved Rock hosts over two million visitors annually, the most for any Illinois state park

Historical Inhabitants

Prior to  European contact, starved rock state park area was home to Native Americans, particularly the Kaskaskia who lived in the Grand Village of the Illinois across the river. Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette were the first Europeans recorded as exploring the starved rock camping region.

Later after the French had moved on, according to a local legend, a group of Native Americans  called the Illiniwek or Illini) pursued by the Ottawa and Potawatomi fled to the butte in the late 18th century. In the legend, around 1769 the Ottawa and Potawatomi surrounded the butte until all of the Illiniwek had starved, and the butte became known as “Starved Rock”. The area of  The Rock was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

Historic Geological Formation

A catastrophic flood from a melting glacier known as the Kankakee Torrent, which took place somewhere between 14- 17,000 years ago, before humans occupied the starved rock state park camping area, helped create the park’s signature geology and features, which are very unusual for the central plains.

Starved rock state park is on the south bank of the Illinois River, a major tributary of the Mississippi River, between the Fox and Vermilion Rivers. The Vermilion created large sandbars at the junction of the Illinois, preventing practical navigation farther upriver. Rapids were found at the base of the butte before the construction of the Starved Rock Lock and Dam.

Starved Rock  is known for its outcrops of St. Peter Sandstone. The sandstone, typically buried, is exposed in this area due to an anticline, a convex fold in underlying strata. This creates canyons and cliffs when streams cut across the anticline. The sandstone is pure and poorly cemented, making it workable with a pick or shovel.

Local Legend

There are various local legends about how Starved Rock camping state park got its name. The most popular is a tale of revenge for the assassination of Ottawa leader Pontiac, who was killed in Cahokia on April 20, 1769, by an Illinois Confederation warrior. According to the legend, the Ottawa, along with their allies the Potawatomi, avenged Pontiac’s death by attacking a band of Illiniwek along the Illinois River. The Illiniwek climbed to the butte to seek refuge, but their pursuers besieged the rock until the tribe starved to death, thereby giving the place the name “Starved Rock”. The legend sometimes maintains, falsely, that this resulted in the complete extermination of the Illiniwek. Apart from oral history, there is no historical evidence that the siege happened. An early written report of the legend was related by Henry Schoolcraft in 1825.

Historical Ownership

Daniel Hitt purchased the land that is today occupied by Starved Rock State Park from the United States Government in 1835 for $85 as compensation for his tenure in the U.S. Army. He sold the land in 1890 to Ferdinand Walther for $15,000. Recognizing the potential for developing the land as a resort, Walther constructed the Starved Rock Hotel and a natural pool near the base of Starved Rock camping, as well as a concession stand and dance hall. The French and Native American heritage of the region also drew visitors to the site. Walthers set up a variety of walkable trails and harbored small boats near the hotel that made trips along the Illinois River. Visitors could also visit Deer Park (modern-day Matthiessen State Park) a few miles to the south.

With the growth of competitive sites, Walther struggled to keep the complex economically stable. In 1911, he sold the land to the Illinois State Parks Commission for $146,000.  The Commission was initially headquartered at Starved Rock State Park after the land was acquired. The state initially acquired 898 acres and opened Starved Rock State Park as a public facility in 1912

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation in the 1930s called for the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to provide jobs for young men. The focus of this group was to preserve natural areas in the rural United States. CCC Camp 614 was deployed to Starved Rock State Park camping.  Unlike most CCC groups in the nation, Camp 614 included African Americans.  The group, composed of roughly 200 men,  constructed trails, shelters, and benches throughout the park. In 1933, the group was joined by Camp 1609 from Fort Sheridan. Camp 1609 constructed the Starved Rock state park Lodge, several surrounding log cabins, and a large parking lot. The starved rock state park lodge was particularly noted for its elegant fireplaces, constructed from limestone imported from Joliet. Men from camps 614 and 1609 lay more than 25 miles of trails.

When Illinois Route 71 was opened in 1942, it allowed easy automotive access from Chicago. Starved Rock state park was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960. That same year, three women from the Chicago suburbs were brutally murdered in the park. Chester Weger was convicted of the murders and became Illinois longest-serving inmate.

Man made damage

The starved rock camping butte has eroded 18 to 48 inches (46 to 122 cm) due to foot traffic since the park was developed.  To curb this, the Illinois Young Adult Conservation Corps installed a platform and staircase on the landmark in 1981. The CCC-era Starved Rock Lodge and Cabins were added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 8, 1985. The Illinois Bureau of Tourism listed Starved Rock State Park as one of the “Seven Wonders of Illinois” in 2007.  starved rock state park averages around 3 million visitors annually from all over the world.

Childhood Experience

As a kid growing visiting Starved Rock, there were three sets of trail systems in the park.  The bluff trails as notably named feature the trails that run along the tops of the canyons. These trails offer wonderful 360 degree vistas of the area and unique views down into the sandstone canyons.  The river trails, run along the rivers edge but also go into the base of each of the canyons.  They feature towering views of the canyon walls above and offer a glimpse of the unique plant life that grow in these humid areas.  The trails that are missing today are the “Ridgeline trails”.  These trails ran along the interior of the canyons up along the wall.  They offered a mix of views both above and below of all the natural wonders of Starved Rock State Park.  These trails were removed for safety reasons due to the potential for falls from these precarious trails.

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