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Starved Rock State Park: If Canyons Could Talk

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One century ago, nature lovers and historians lobbied the State of Illinois, asking it to purchase the Starved Rock area in LaSalle Co. The spectacular canyons and bluffs, carved by melted glaciers, have witnessed 10,000 years of human history, most of it lived by American Indians. The first Christian mission of the Midwest was established here, and the first state capitol. Starved Rock is the first recreational park preserved by and for the people of Illinois and their descendents – us.

One of the many canyons at Starved Rock State Park. (Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek photo)

On any given day of the year, a visitor could describe Starved Rock State Park as uniquely beautiful. Its ancient geology colludes with each season to paint outrageous scenes completely out of synch with Illinois’ flat farm fields and rich, black soil. Mysterious, fern-laced canyons beg to be explored; rocky buttes reward hikers with bird’s-eye views of the Illinois River; gnarled trees climb through white sand and pure rock, reaching for light.

One doesn’t have to be a geologist, historian, archaeologist, naturalist, botanist or poet to enjoy and appreciate this state park, but if interests run toward any of those subjects, all the better. Its rare combination of natural wonders and important human history was not lost on our ancestors, who worked hard to protect the area at a time when land preservation was still a new concept. In 1911, Illinois owned only one other park site – Fort Massac, at its southernmost tip.

At just 93 years old, the state was emerging from a challenging 19th century, marked by Civil War and rapid development. Popular writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau warned the public that frantic development had taken a toll on the once-pristine American landscape. The idea of preservation was on the public’s mind: The first national park, Yellowstone, had been signed into law in 1872, by President Ulysses S. Grant; environmentalist John Muir had established the Sierra Club in 1892; and a group of Illinois residents clamored for the state to purchase acreage surrounding the tall sandstone butte known as Starved Rock, along the Illinois River.

From Private to Public

This crown jewel among state parks is beautiful in every season. (Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek photo)


The most famous pre-European story of the region, or at least the one that survived oral history, was a 1769 event in which Potawatomie and Ottawa tribes trapped a band of Illiniwek on top of a large butte, to avenge the murder of their war chief, Pontiac. The Illiniwek died of thirst and hunger – and the butte was ever after known as Starved Rock.

Various tribes of American Indians lived in the area until the new federal government claimed the Old Northwest Territory and forced them to move.

“The U.S. government had sold 280 acres to a private land surveyor named Daniel Hitt in 1835,” explains Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek, marketing director for Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center. “Hitt was a land surveyor, and took a lot of interest in his property. He collected all sorts of artifacts that became very important to archaeologists. Many of them are displayed here in the Visitor Center.” Hitt later became a Civil War officer and, in 1890, sold the property to Chicago businessman Ferdinand Walther, for $21,000. Casstevens-Jasiek points to a floodplain near the Illinois River in the lower end of the park. “Walther tried to develop the property with a hotel and swimming area, but it didn’t work out well.” The hotel was later torn down.

In the early 1900s, historians and environmentalists argued that the property should be returned to public ownership. “After all, it was here that French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette [a Jesuit priest] were welcomed by Native Americans in their village of La Vantum [Kaskaskia],” explains Casstevens-Jasiek. “Two years later, in 1675, Marquette came back and established the Mission of the Immaculate Conception, the first Christian mission in Illinois.” Much later, in 1818, Kaskaskia became the state’s first capitol.

“There were so many significant events that took place here, just since the Europeans arrived – not to mention the centuries of Native American life that played out on the site,” she adds.

And so, using glass negatives, conservationists photographed the Starved Rock region to document for legislators its 18 canyons, numerous waterfalls and striking bluffs. Historical groups, including the Chicago Historical Society, joined the effort, and in 1911 the state paid Walther $146,000 for the 280 acres. Today, Starved Rock State Park is 2,816 acres large and enjoys consistently-high attendance. “The park welcomed more than 2 million people in 2009,” says Casstevens-Jasiek. “Visitors came from 50 states and 30 countries.”

In part because the park was so popular, 1930s state legislators directed three camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to build a log lodge for it, as well as cabins, shelters, bridges and many miles of trails. (see related story.) Today, it’s one of only eight Illinois state parks with an operating log lodge.

Fascinating Neighbors

The large Visitor Center opened in 2002, and houses exhibits, films, special activities and a bookstore, all focused on the natural and human history that makes Starved Rock so unique. The park neighbors two other state parks – Matthiessen in Oglesby and Buffalo Rock in Ottawa. Matthiessen, along the Vermillion River, has towering sandstone bluffs and miles of equestrian and hiking trails. “It also offers a unique opportunity for wheelchair-bound visitors to explore nature,” points out Casstevens-Jasiek. “There are ramps built into the hilly terrain.”

Starved Rock, left, and the Illinois River view it provides to those who climb it. Because the rock has worn down many inches, after centuries of human foot traffic, its surface is now protected with wood decking. Rails on the deck make it a safer climb for all ages. (Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek photo)

Buffalo Rock is home to the Effigy Tumuli, an earthen clay art exhibit and coal mining reclamation project. The art emulates sculptured ground effigies dating back more than 3,000 years. The park also is known for its sweeping vistas along the Illinois River.

As if the region wasn’t already rich with parks, Congress established a new kind of national park in 1984 – the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, a 450-square-mile natural area anchored by the canal, which runs from the city of LaSalle to Lake Michigan. Hand-dug in 1848, the canal made it possible for people and goods to travel by inland waterway between the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, a major factor in Chicago’s growth explosion.

Starved Rock State Park and the Heritage Corridor team up to offer various attractions, such as the Canal Boat & Trolley Tour, which includes a hot lunch buffet at the Starved Rock Lodge followed by a park trolley tour and a ride down the Illinois River on a mule-pulled canal boat. Historical interpreters, dressed in period costume, narrate the boat ride, which ends at the Lock 16 Visitor Center.

In addition to this nexus of interesting parks and waterways, the village of Utica offers shopping, dining and lodging options to guests. Its art-colony personality caters to diverse tastes, from wine connoisseurs and history buffs to gardeners, naturalists and bikers.

Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Lodge & Indoor Water Park, a $90 million family resort set on 60 wooded acres adjacent to Starved Rock, gives families one more reason to visit this region in any season. The 24,000-square-foot water park boasts “America’s first state-of-the-art motion and sound adventure waterslide,” four stories tall.

American Indians, French Explorers & Fort St. Louis

Historians believe that American Indians lived in what is now Starved Rock State Park since 8,000 BC. First were the Archaic Indians, followed over the centuries by Woodland, Hopewelian and Mississippi Indian cultures. During an expedition in 1680, five years after Marquette established his mission at Kaskaskia, French explorer Robert Cavelier de LaSalle passed through while searching for a North American passage to the Far East. He was interested in a plan to establish a French colonial empire in the heart of the Americas, and two years later built a strategic base at Starved Rock, with partner Henry de Tonty. “LaSalle had a vision of French agriculture, of French towns and industries, and of tribes of ‘enlightened Indians’ dwelling among the French,” states the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The fort was named Fort St. Louis after Louis XIV, then king of France. It was designed as a place to protect Frenchmen from roving bands of Iroquois, and as a storage base for their supplies. It was also a safe area and trading post for the Illinois tribe, whose members aided and traded with the French, and served as a line of communication for people living between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

By 1702, King Louis XIV ordered Fort St. Louis to be abandoned. Both French and Indian populations moved down to the lower Illinois River and into the Mississippi River Valley, eventually settling at the newer posts of Cahokia and Kaskaskia.

(Janine Pumilia photo)

Today, we know the most about the culture of the Illinois Indians, since early Europeans wrote about them in their diaries, describing them as “a people of medium build with long legs and tattoos covering their bodies.” The men hunted and the women farmed the land. Their prime agricultural area was Plum Island, in the Illinois River, easily seen from the top of Starved Rock.

French missionaries were active in the area until 1700. French trading rights were suspended in 1702, causing Fort Louis to be abandoned. The Kask Indians, part of the Illinois tribe, lost their military protection and source of trade goods from the French, so they decided to follow them south. They moved their village to the mouth of the Kask River and called it “Rounesac.” In 1832, after losing their land rights along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, the remnants of the Illinois nation moved to Kansas. Today, they live in Oklahoma, incorporated as the “Peoria Tribe of the Indians of Oklahoma,” since 1940.

Glacial Sculptors

The people inhabiting the Starved Rock area have changed in recent centuries, but the geology has not. The wondrous canyons we gaze at today were admired by many generations before us. The formations were caused by the melting of glaciers that advanced and retreated across the Midwest for millions of years. About 17,000 to 12,000 years ago, meltwater from the ice sheet that occupied what are now lakes Michigan and Ontario flooded Illinois and ran across Illinois en route to the Gulf of Mexico.

It was this water that sculpted bluffs and canyons from the sandstone earth of the Starved Rock vicinity. That’s why visitors notice an abundance of white sand in the canyons throughout the park, made from disintegrating sandstone.

Seldom do so many interesting points of history, geology and nature come together in one place. We’re fortunate, indeed, that our ancestors saw fit to return the Starved Rock area into public ownership and preservation for the benefit of Illinois residents and the generations to follow – those “hidden in the womb of time,” as President Theodore Roosevelt described us.

Now we need only to visit it, appreciate it and make sure it’s preserved for those who will follow. ❚

Editor’s note: The historical information in this article is provided by Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center, Utica, Ill.; Illinois Department of Natural Resources; and the Heritage Corridor Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The CCC: An Unconventional Idea That Worked


If you stumbled into a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp, by mistake, in the 1930s, the sight might be confusing. Sturdy young men dressed in itchy military uniforms left over from WWI would be milling about, checking a bulletin board to learn their duties for the day. Although the atmosphere would feel like a military post, there would be no weapons, no war training. Instead, scythes and shovels would be slung over the men’s backs.

The task of the CCC: To rebuild America’s parks. By the time the program ended on the eve of WWII, more than 1.3 billion trees had been planted across the nation; 3,475 towers had been erected; 4.1 man days had been spent fighting forest fires; 97,000 miles of truck roads had been built; and erosion was ultimately controlled on more than 29 million acres of land.

More importantly, 3 million young men had served voluntarily in the CCC, earning $30 per month, $25 of which was sent home to their families. They learned to do difficult but honest work, pulling themselves out of the clutches of near-starvation.

“We were all responsible for our own actions – we had to be clean and productive, and if we weren’t, we didn’t eat,” stated Andy Kemtz, a former president of the Illinois CCC alumni.

The CCC was established by Congress in April 1933, just 27 days after President Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn into office. It was a time of hopelessness, when more than 4 million young people were entering the labor market – but there was virtually no market for labor. In an attempt to pick up the pieces of a crumbling nation, unconventional ideas were formulated in the minds of new leaders, and Starved Rock State Park benefitted greatly from this idea.

There were three CCC companies stationed at Starved Rock State Park over a seven-year period. Comprised of young men 17 to 23 years old, many of them came from the local towns of Utica, Oglesby, LaSalle-Peru and Ottawa. They built the older portion of the lodge, cabins, kitchen, dining room and main lobby, including a massive two-way stone fireplace that remains the largest in the state. ❚

Starved Rock Lodge & Convention Center


Starved Rock Lodge (Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek photo)

Although Starved Rock State Park is a 90-minute drive from the stateline area, visitors often make a weekend of it, reserving one of 70 lodge guestrooms, 13 rustic cabins or eight deluxe cabins. Reminiscent of the log lodges at Yellowstone National Park, Starved Rock Lodge has a massive stone fireplace, great hall, large dining room, lounge, and a veranda overlooking the Illinois River Valley and the famed rock itself. Only seven other Illinois parks have such a lodge.

Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek

Once checked in, visitors receive a map with information about the park’s 18 canyons and 13 miles of hiking trails, some short and easy, others long and challenging. Sites like “Lover’s Leap” come with plenty of folklore, and some guests opt for a guided walking tour or trolley ride to discover it. Others start at the Visitor Center, learning about the natural and human history of the places they’re about to visit. Still others enjoy setting off, camera in hand, for a free-spirited exploration of the park’s wildflowers or frozen waterfalls, depending on the season. In warm weather, they may return to relax with a cool drink on the outdoor patio with its scenic views; in frosty weather, they may unwind near the enormous fireplace.

The lodge has been expanded and updated, most recently in 1989, and offers a large indoor swimming pool, whirlpool and sauna, along with gift shops and snack bars. The 200-seat main dining room is open seven days a week, for three meals a day. Lunch entrées like Deep Fried Turkey, Penne Pomodoro and Grilled Portobello Focaccia are priced under $10, and all kids’ lunches are $5. Dinner may begin with an appetizer like Lump Crab Cake ($10) or Mango Jalapeno Glazed Shrimp Skewers ($8.75). Along with steak, chicken, fish (like sautéed walleye for $21) and pasta dishes, there are lodge favorites like Classic Fried Chicken ($15) or Pot Roast of Beef ($16). Those who prefer more elegant fare can order Forest Mushroom Farfalle with Smoked Pheasant ($23) or Sea Scallops Alfredo ($24). The bar is fully-stocked and beer and the menu offers wine and food pairing suggestions.

Terry Cross

Although fine wines and modern conveniences like wireless Internet are available, the state-owned facility is not trying to be a four-star hotel.

“The water, the woods and the history in themselves make it a worthwhile destination, and we don’t need to make our programming fancy to be successful,” says Terry Cross, who has privately managed the lodge and related businesses in the park, under a concessionaire license with the State of Illinois, since 1989. “People just enjoy being here. We’re consistently packed at 80-percent capacity or more.” The unique public-private management allows for faster implementation of new ideas than was possible under state management alone. “We have the luxury of being more creative and flexible in the programs we provide,” says Cross. “We can say, ‘Let’s offer this bird-watching program, or this photography seminar, next month,’ without first going through layers of state approval.”

Thanks, in part, to aggressive marketing efforts by Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek, who is also a professional photographer and Web design whiz, the lodge has increased its conference and retreat business significantly; it hosted 128 weddings in 2010 alone. Once a marketing executive in Chicago, Casstevens-Jasiek was happy to relocate her family to the natural beauty of her hometown region near Starved Rock.

“One day, I was working in one of the cabins, with the door open, hanging some artwork, and the smell of sun-warmed pine needles filled the room,” she says. “The view outside every window was beautiful. There was a cool breeze, and I thought how happy it makes me just to work in a place like this.”

The Great Hall of the Starved Rock Lodge and Conference Center features a massive two-sided fireplace. (Kathy Casstevens photo)

Cross has been working to preserve a collection of more than 30 chainsaw sculptures throughout the park that have been disintegrating over time. He personally donated two bronze sculptures; one replaces a crumbling wooden Indian with a bronze Native American Crow Medicine Man; the other is a bronze eagle, “the symbol of American freedom and the most revered bird in Illinois and the United States,” says Cross.

It looks quite at home standing near the Visitor Center, a place where real eagles often glide above the river in winter months. The park offers many tours and packages, such as the wintertime “Discover the Eagles Tour” or the springtime “Wine & Shopping” and “Waterfall & Canyon” tours.

“I’m very proud of the primary feedback we receive, which is that our staff is friendly and efficient, making guests feel welcome,” says Cross. “We have a wonderful team here, and we’ve built up the brand, so to speak, and built up relationships around the state and beyond, reminding people of what a treasure they have in this place.” ❚

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