MORRIS – Margo McIntyre approached the I&M Canal State Trail she used to walk five times a week in Morris.
She pointed to the first pond one sees when entering Gebhard Woods State Park from Ottawa Street.
“It was full of white water lilies,” McIntyre said of the pond, which once accommodated extra water from the canal through stone waterfalls.
The Morris stretch of the canal was McIntyre’s favorite place to be in winter. As a photographer, she’s conducted countless photoshoots in Gebhard Woods and along the I&M Canal. She and her family loved walking the towpath.
Now, McIntyre and countless other walkers, joggers and bikers are greeted with barricades and fencing at various portions of the towpath and trail through Morris – a piece of popular outdoor life taken away by the tremendous, often terrible, power of Mother Nature.
“I cried when I saw it,” McIntyre said. “It was horrible.”
The pond that used to be filled with lilies, along with the three others at Gebhard Woods, is now filled with weeds and young trees that took root when the ponds dried up following the floods of April 2013. Its current state is a result of the broken Nettle Creek Aqueduct that busted under pressure from rising Nettle Creek water levels in 2013.
That storm dropped 4 inches of rain on Morris in about 24 hours, causing the Illinois River to rise to a record 24.91 feet, forced evacuations of apartments, homes and left Morris Hospital with $1 million in flood damage and patient evacuations. Flood level for the Illinois River in Morris is 16 feet, according to the National Weather Service.
The flood left parts of Grundy County under water for weeks. The IDNR office at Gebhard Woods had 15 inches of water in it that didn’t empty for four days, said Dan Bell, Illinois Department of Natural Resources site superintendent. The park itself had water in it for two weeks.
“We just moved back into the office two months ago,” Bell said.
Two years after the flood, garbage rests in the bone-dry collapsed aqueduct and murky Nettle Creek water below it. The creek is wider than usual, extending into purportedly grassy areas of Gebhard Woods, because of canal water draining into Nettle Creek from the east.
When exactly the aqueduct will be fixed is unknown. As it stands, the process of demolishing and rebuilding the aqueduct sits stagnant.
“You can’t have the I&M Canal without the Nettle Creek Aqueduct,” Bell said.
History of the
Nettle Creek Aqueduct
The aqueduct, between Gebhard Woods and downtown Morris, was rebuilt in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps when the previous structure collapsed, according to IDNR Archaeologist Hal Hassem. It carried canal waters over Nettle Creek since its original construction in 1845-1848, as stated in the “Grundy County Illinois Landmarks Volume 1,” published in 1981 by the Grundy County
The 2013 collapse is far from the first time the structure needed to be rebuilt or repaired. Hassem, citing a historical study on the aqueduct, said repairs were done in 1850, 1859, 1868, 1877 and 1889. In 1910, it was rebuilt when there was considerable flood damage.
The 2013 flood caused the water level of Nettle Creek to rise so high it flowed over the aqueduct, Bell said. Morris City Engineer Guy Christensen said heavy rains north of town in April 2013 backed up the east and west forks of Nettle Creek, forcing water into the already high Illinois River.
The pressure busted the eastern side of the embankment and the stone structure crumbled. The first portion to fall was the towpath bridge at the south end, where mules and horses once hauled goods.
“I saw it fall,” Bell said “You stand there and hear the pressure bust the seam, and little pieces of concrete all over.”
The canal is now dry from the aqueduct to the Waupecan Spillway 2.5 miles to the west, and lush with weeds and cattails as tall as humans. The closed portion of crushed-rock trail is a fraction of the width it once was, as weeds impose themselves and a few trees have fallen across it.
A contract is in place with Gale Construction of Joliet to demolish and remove the aqueduct, but the project awaits approval at the state level. Gale Construction Principal Laura Pager said the contract with IDNR is for $225,000, but is on hold until a state budget is signed.
“We are ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice,” Pager said. “We would order supplies and begin within two weeks, and finish the project within two months.”
Though parts of Grundy County have tallied anywhere from 6 to 16 inches of rain higher than average this year, according to the National Weather Service, Christensen said Morris avoided a severe flood similar to April 2013 because circumstances were different in 2015. The heaviest rains have been in town, he said, and the Illinois River’s flood level was at a normal height when the heaviest rain fell June 13.
The Illinois River crested June 17 at 19.68 feet, categorized as a moderate flood stage by the National Weather Service. On Friday morning, the river’s flood stage was 13.6 feet.
Pager confirmed with Nettle Creek in its current state, the work could not be done. Water levels will have to subside. If that happens, and state lawmakers agree on a budget, Bell is optimistic the aqueduct could be removed by September. Pager said her understanding from IDNR is demolition of the Nettle Creek Aqueduct is an appropriated project.
Rebuilding the Nettle Creek Aqueduct
The more difficult part of the project, Bell said, is rebuilding it. IDNR will have architects and engineers design modern plans for the aqueduct. At the very least, it will have a wider opening at the east. Bell said he’s hopeful they find a way to elevate the new aqueduct higher than the previous one.
With so many hands involved – including the IDNR, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of the Interior, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and more – Bell said projects such as this take time, and it’s important to be patient.
“I get calls every day asking, ‘When’s the aqueduct going to be fixed?’,” Bell said. “No one wants it replaced more than I do – but I want it replaced the right way.”
To preserve the historical aspect, each existing stone will be tracked, with the goal of repurposing as many as possible within the new structure. Hassem said after conferring with concrete experts, a mix close to the one used in the 1930s will be used.
“Just because the mix is from the 1930s doesn’t mean it’s weak,” Hassem said.
The structure will likely be larger in several aspects, Hassem said, but all parties are aiming to replicate the historic look. The I&M Canal is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and is designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
“We can’t just knock [the aqueduct] down and rebuild it,” Bell said. “There are preservation issues we have to adhere to.”
Best-case scenario, he said, is it will be two or three years before water flows in the 2.5 mile dry stretch like it once did.
Bell wants to explore the possibility of re-routing the water around the aqueduct site through a pipe system to get it flowing in the canal during construction, but understands it might not be allowed.
The destroyed aqueduct also is a safety issue, Bell said. Staff on the 62-mile portion of the canal Bell is responsible for can’t keep people from trespassing onto the aqueduct, which could collapse further at any time.
“It cuts our trail in half,” Bell said. “People have to go through city streets to continue west. It’s an inconvenience.”
People have called Springfield to complain about the barricades, but he said it’s there to protect from injury or worse.
Mayor Richard Kopczick, who grew up playing hockey in the frozen ponds during winters and fishing the canal the rest of the year, said the blockade has likely decreased foot traffic into downtown Morris from other municipalities.
“It was a clean, smooth, level path that attracts an awful lot of people,” Kopczick said. “If you’re used to being in a certain area in nature, a detour is inconvenient. Joggers had routes through there.”