From Stone to Water

Quarrying in Will County has opened up new recreational opportunities

|  Story by Bruce Hodgdon  |

When excavation began on the I & M Canal in 1836, in the words of the website Stone Quarries and Beyond, laborers soon encountered “magnesium-rich limestone called dolomite.  . . . Within a few years a new industry was born, and dozens of quarries opened in Lemont, Lockport and Joliet, creating thousands of new jobs. This heavy, durable stone was easily and cheaply transported on the canal, and was used in many buildings throughout the corridor, including the Joliet Penitentiary and the Chicago Water Tower.”

Additionally, gravel quarries also altered the land. Many of these were located alongside Will County’s two main rivers, the Des Plaines and DuPage, where stone was ground down by a series of ice ages beginning 1.8 million years ago and deposited in these river valleys.

What remained when the quarrymen left were holes in the ground, some of them vast, that over time filled with rain and groundwater, forming lakes and ponds.

Over decades, the Forest Preserve District of Will County has acquired a number of properties that include these manmade lakes. The District has improved these to provide shoreline fishing and, in some cases, boating access. Both acquisition of the land and development of many of these quarry conversions were made possible by two voter referendums, in 1999 and 2005, that provided millions of dollars in funding.

Of these properties, one stands out as unique: Whalon Lake.

Along Royce Road in Naperville, Elmhurst-Chicago Stone began quarrying gravel, sand and limestone in the 1960s. By the 1990s, one of the quarries was exhausted, and the Forest Preserve acquired the property in January 1993 to develop it for recreational and flood control purposes. Five years later the District entered into an agreement with Elmhurst-Chicago Stone for the reclamation of the quarry and construction of a flood control reservoir, which would become Whalon Lake.

The hole was far too deep for a sustainable fishery, so the first order of business was to raise the floor of the quarry. For more than a year, dump trucks provided and operated by Elmhurst-Chicago Stone collected fill from construction sites in the area and transported it to the quarry.

A flashback to Whalon Lake before the former quarry site was filled with water.

Once the level of the lake bed had been sufficiently raised, artificial habitats were created on the lake bottom. Designed to provide structure for the fish, submerged tire reefs, tree trunks and gravel mounds are among the habitats that lie beneath the surface of Whalon Lake. It was then time to allow groundwater, rainwater and overflow from the adjacent DuPage River to begin the lengthy process of filling the hole. After seven years, Elmhurst-Chicago Stone completed the restoration in 2005.

The Forest Preserve then began lake development. Bait fish such as bluegill, redear sunfish, emerald shiners and lake chubsuckers were introduced to establish a prey base for the sport fish to be introduced later.

Vegetation was then added to the lake to provide food and shelter from predators for the bait fish. More than 3,000 native aquatic plants were installed around the lake, including plants such as water plantain, lake sedge, water willow and arrowhead. Rooted vegetation, emergent vegetation and floating vegetation were established to support the spawning of fish.

After the bait fish became established, the lake was stocked from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ fisheries. Smallmouth and largemouth bass, bluegill, redear sunfish, channel catfish and walleye all were introduced into Whalon Lake.

 

The completion of Whalon Lake was celebrated with a Grand Opening in 2008.

Today, Whalon Lake has a maximum depth of 100 feet and an average depth of 15 feet and spans 80 acres. Shoreline fishing is provided around much of the lake, and trailer parking and a boat launch are available for fishing boats, canoes and kayaks.

“Along with providing visitors with a variety of water and trail-based recreational activities, Whalon Lake will serve as an important flood protection facility benefitting private and public properties along the DuPage River,” said Ralph Schultz, chief operating officer of the Forest Preserve District.

One of the best known former quarries owned by the Forest Preserve is Lake Renwick Heron Rookery Nature Preserve, in Plainfield.

Lake Renwick Heron Rookery Nature Preserve is one of the largest rookeries (a place where birds nest and breed) in northern Illinois.

Sand and gravel quarrying in the early 20th century tapped into an underground spring that created a 150-acre lake. Birds began nesting on two islands in the lake in the 1940s, and today Lake Renwick is a sanctuary for thousands of nesting pairs of great blue herons, great egrets and double-crested cormorants. Public programs are provided free of charge from April through mid-August to observe and learn about this unique rookery whose existence is due to quarrying more than a century ago.

Lake Renwick Preserve – Turtle Lake Access, located on the northern edge of the 839-acre Lake Renwick Preserve, contains Turtle Lake and Budde Lake, remnants of the quarrying of a century ago. Each of these today offers shoreline fishing.

Rock Run Rookery Preserve

Rock Run Rookery Preserve, in Joliet, includes two lakes, of 84 and 13 acres, that were once a dolomite quarry. A channel connects to the nearby Des Plaines River, so an interchange of fish species is ongoing. Free shoreline fishing and boat access are available, with trailer parking and a boat launch for small fishing boats and a canoe and kayak launch.

Also in Joliet is Rock Run Preserve – Black Road Access. This preserve includes a small pond that was born from gravel and sand quarrying.

Lake Chaminwood Preserve

Lake Chaminwood Preserve, in Channahon, features a 35-acre lake, a 12-acre lake and a portion of the DuPage River with associated wetland habitat that was created from a sand and gravel quarry. Shoreline and boat fishing is available, and a launch is provided for canoes and kayaks.

 

“The Forest Preserve puts great value in the natural resource restoration and recreational opportunities our lakes provide,” said Schultz.

Quarrying in the 19th century facilitated the growth of towns like Joliet, Lemont and Lockport. What remained were water resources that were created by this reshaping of the land and are enjoyed today for the recreation and beauty they offer.

“Quarrying has been and will continue to be an important industry in Will County for years to come,” Schultz explained.

“Reclaiming some of these sites for public recreation or other public purposes has been a benefit to all.”

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Lead image: Lake Chaminwood Preserve

Photo credits: Chad Merda, Global Aerial