Swamp Lands


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Prepared by Hon. James H. Shaw.

   The history of the county in connection with its swamp and over-flowed lands is a matter of a good deal of interest in any general resume of county affairs.

   In September, 1850, the Congress of the United States passed an act to enable the State of Arkansas, and other states having these lands, to drain and reclaim the same.  Lists and plats were to be made out from the government surveys, and transmitted to the respective governors of the states, in which the lands were situated; and upon the request of the governors patents were to issue to the states.  The act contained a proviso that the proceeds of the sale of these lands should be applied to reclaiming them by means of ditches and drains.  The courts, however, subsequently held that this proviso only amounted to a wish expressed on the part of Congress, and did not affect the validity of the grant.  They further held that the act itself, when the proper selections had been made under it, and plats and lists sent to the governors, and patents issued on their requests, passed an absolute fee simple title to the states, and left their legislatures to dispose of the lands, or the funds arising from their sale, exactly as they saw fit, untrammelled by any condition in the original grant.

   The legislature of this state, by an act passed in 1852, granted these lands to the respective counties in which they were located, for the purpose of reclaiming them by making ditches and drains, with certain options on the part of the purchasers to pay the purchase money in labor, to be expended in making these ditches and drains.  The balance of the lands, after so reclaiming them, were apportioned to the townships, for the benefit of schools and roads and bridges.  This part of the law was modified in 1854 to some extent.  Still the policy was a drainage of the lands; and all the machinery supposed to be necessary to carry it out to a successful termination was set in motion and kept up.

   The drainage policy, however, did not work to the satisfaction of the people; and various a amendatory acts were passed, mostly local and their nature, and applicable to particular counties.  At length, in 1859, the proceeds arising from the sale of these lands were made subject to the disposition of the various county courts, in such manner as the county authorities saw fit to indicate.  In this way the proceeds of the sales passed into the county treasuries, and became a part of the general funds.  The original policy in regard to these lands became entirely changed; and attempts to question the power of the legislature to make this change have repeatedly been made, and always failed.  Judicial decisions have at length settled and laid the controversy at rest. 

   The number of acres the swamplands, patented by the United States to the State of Illinois, under the act of 1850, and granted by the state to the County of Carroll by the act of the legislature of 1852, was, in round numbers, 9,110 acres. 

   For a number of years after the active 1852, the policy of this county was to sell her swamplands, and turn the proceeds into the school fund.  This was the disposition made of the money of rising from the sales, during the administration of Reuben H..  Gray and James DeWolfe as school commissioners.  Most of the lands were sold in the years 1854, 1855, and 1856.  The school fund derived ten or twelve thousand dollars in this way.  Since that the proceeds of the sales have been applied in attempts to drain the lands, and make them more valuable, and in paying expenses incident thereto.  It is a fact, we believe, that the general fund of the county has never been increased from this source. 

   The swamp lands were situated mostly in the towns of Savanna, York, Washington and Mount Carroll, with a few pieces scattered through some of the other towns. 

   In the years of 1867 and 1868, this county, in connection with Whiteside County, joined in a drainage scheme, to reclaim lands lying around Willow Island Lake, and south of that body of water into the other county.  It was at this time the county ditch was dug.  The enterprise was a success, and some of the best farming lands in the county were thus reclaimed.  The large farm of George S. Melendy, Esq., is partly made up of these reclaimed lands, and the vast corn crops he now annually raises on some of these low meadows testify to their amazing fertility. 

   The money realized from the sale of these reclaimed and drained swamplands paid all the attendant expenses of the big ditch, and left a large surplus.  The ditch cost a little over three thousand dollars.

   Encouraged by the success of this venture, the board of supervisors of the county began to agitate the question of draining the Doty or Sunfish Lake, situated partially in the towns of York and Mount Carroll. This led to quite a controversy in the board.  Outsiders also took a lively part in it.  It was shown that this lake was one of the most beautiful bodies of water in northern Illinois, full of the very best food fishes, and afforded the very best resort for all kinds of wild fowl -- rendering it, in short, a perfect sportsmen's paradise.  One party contended that the lake was of more value to the citizens of the county then the land after it was drained.  It was even surmise that the county, after such drainage, might not obtain a title to the lands; but this essential point seems not to have been considered with proper care. 

   The result of the controversy was that the drainage scheme was carried.  In 1871, the contract was let, and ditch to Plum River was finished, or nearly finished, that Fall.  The water was let out of the lake, at all events, late in the Fall.  Some finishing work was done the next Spring. 

   This drain cost, in round numbers, six thousand, six hundred dollars.  About four thousand dollars of this cost was realized from the sale of the Willow Island drained lands.  The balance was realized out of the sale of some lands around the Doty Lake which had been swamplands before that body of water was drained.  No money was taken from the county treasury in these enterprises, except a small amount for salaries of supervisors and some other incidental expenses. 

   The drainage of the Doty Lake has not proved a great success.  The fall in the ditch is very slight, and a stream called Deer Creek is constantly bearing sand and flood materials into the drain.  It is already partially filled, and the water, which at first was greatly reduced in the late, is again accumulating, and in wet seasons covers most of its old bed.  Unless provisions are made to keep the ditch open, it will gradually close up, and the fish again accumulate. 

   An interesting litigation sprang up soon after the opening of this ditch.  As soon as the county commenced selling the reclaimed lands around this body of water, the adjoining landowners, acting under legal advice, began to claim the new-made lands.  They were advised that the lands made by the recession of the waters did not belong to the county, but to the adjoining proprietors.  Several suits were instituted against the board of supervisors to test this interesting question.  Two of these cases where at length brought to trial, at the January term, A.D. 1876, of the Carroll County Circuit Court.  The cases were argued with learning and ability, and many authorities were cited.

   The proof showed that the lake had been meandered when the lands were originally surveyed.  Consequently no lists or plats had been returned to the Governor by the Secretary of the Interior, and no patent issued to the state for them.  The auditor had certified no lists to the county clerk.  No title as swamp lands had, therefore, passed to the state, nor from the state to the county.  The principle of accretion was held to apply to these receding waters, at least to the extent of permitting adjoining landowners to fill out their governmental subdivisions.  This, when done, took all the land made by the partial drainage of the lake.   

   Judge Heaton's decision was rendered, after careful examination, and was considered so sound and well backed by the authorities, that the attorney for the county did not advise an appeal to the Supreme Court; and the controversy seems now to be settled.