Front and Center: Grafton looks to waterways for future

June 24, 2011

Produced by Eight Forty-Eight

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(WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)
The Illinois River, seen here in Morris, has surged with high waters in recent weeks. Grafton, where the Illinois River meets th

Grafton, Illinois—a town approximately 300 miles outside of Chicago has a special name for the waterways that connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River: “Poop ditch.” That’s the censored version and it’s due to what Chicago sends down their way.

In Grafton, the Illinois River empties into the mighty Mississippi. The two major rivers have been huge players in changing the small town through the century. In the 19th century Grafton was a major commercial fishing and boatworks town with about ten thousand people. By now, the industry has dwindled and the population has dropped to under a thousand.

A major turning point in Grafton’s history was the major flood of 1993 which inundated homes and businesses, leaving the town in devastation.

Joe Baecht, a fourth generation Grafton resident recalls spending about twenty straight days on a johnboat, helping his neighbors rescue their possessions.

The flood also prompted the government to take over and demolish a stretch of homes in the flood plain, putting a dent in the city’s population. Floods and high water levels have plagued the town since 2008.

In fact last week, transportation routes were shut down for four days.

Life-long resident Tom Foster has worked on towboats for a long time. He blames the levees upstream. Foster said the constriction in the flow of the river has increased water levels downstream and Grafton does not have major levees. He thinks all the engineering of the river is a reason the area is vulnerable to flooding.       

But not all the post flooding aftermath has been negative. As Grafton rebounded, gentrification gave it a new character. Downtown is now very touristy offering a few wineries and upscale restaurants. Some of the locals said that on the whole, it was good for Grafton because everything from housing to fishing got better.

Catfish had been on the decline in the Mississippi.  Then the Missouri River’s abundant catfish population flooded into the Mississippi, restocking happy fishermen. But those fishermen will soon be unhappy to learn that these latest floods are stocking the waterways with a new, unwanted population: Asian carp. A geological survey biologist, Duane Chapman, told the local paper that the carp may have been dispersed into lakes and streams that hadn’t seen them before.