Illinois’ first capital is an island that’s home to just 18 people. Recent flooding has made it even more isolated.

Chicago Tribune

July 03– Jul. 3–On Kaskaskia Island, from the levee holding back the rushing waters of the Mississippi River to the north, to the submerged Old Channel Road bridge to the southwest, water covers fields normally bursting with soybeans and corn.

At the Church of the Immaculate Conception, a frog leaps from the algae-topped pool lapping at the front steps. A field of wheat bakes in the sun, the soaked, muddy soil incapable of supporting the farm equipment needed to harvest it. And to reach his house, Derek Klein, one of about three dozen residents of the island in Illinois, about 75 miles southeast of St. Louis, carefully navigates his Chevrolet pickup through several feet of floodwater, past an impromptu port of small fishing boats moored to the mud-caked land at the dry end of the road.

“It’s so wet, you can’t drive out there with a combine, you’d sink,” Klein says, pointing to the wasted wheat along the levee. “And it’s nice lookin’ wheat too.”

This isolated island, where history runs deep, is an oddity even during dry weather. The home of the first capital of Illinois from 1818 until 1820, Kaskaskia has been severed from the rest of the state for more than 135 years, when the Mississippi River took the path of least resistance and cut a new route to the east, leaving the town stranded alone on the west side of the river.

The once powerful epicenter of Illinois government has been even more isolated from the rest of the country since April, when floodwaters swamped the lone link to the island. For months, as the waters of the Mississippi swelled and persistent rainstorms pounded the area, Kaskaskia has been inaccessible except by boat or, when the waters slowly receded this summer, giant pickup trucks with suspensions tall enough to traverse several feet of water on the low bridge over the old river channel that connects the island to Missouri.

Water has covered La Grande Rue, the main road into and out of town, for weeks. The town at the center of the island, home to the old church and the shrine that is home to the “Liberty Bell of the West,” is essentially surrounded by water.

The most recent flood has forced the relocation of Kaskaskia’s annual Fourth of July celebration, held each year at the bell site to celebrate the village’s liberation from British rule on July 4, 1778. With the village virtually unreachable, the ceremony will be held on the bluffs across the Mississippi at the Fort Kaskaskia state historic site.

Chester Wingerter, who has worked as the site superintendent for the state historic sites in and near Kaskaskia for 14 years, said this will be the third time the Fourth of July ceremony slated for the island has had to be moved to higher ground because of flooding.

Residents have been forced to choose between an elaborate and inconvenient system of transportation on and off the island or temporary living options with friends and family in Chester, Ill., 16 miles away and across the main channel of the river, or St. Mary, Mo., the small town along U.S. 61 near the entrance to the Old Channel bridge. Those who have remained in their homes must plan ahead for groceries or medicine, since there is no store on the island, only a collection of homes, sheds, barns, workshops, garages and the historic buildings of the village.

“They really do get stranded. It’s a hearty group that lives over there, ” said Mike Hoelscher, emergency management coordinator for Randolph County.

There has been no evacuation order for the island, and local, state and federal governments have not provided residents with any emergency management transportation options. Hoelscher said residents who have remained on the island and in the village have done so armed with information about potential risks and the inconveniences of the floodwaters.

“That’s where they live, and they’re going to hang in there for as long as they can,” Hoelscher said. “They love their island. It’s hard to put into words what I think they feel about where they live.”

‘This is my home’

Residents of Kaskaskia say the flooding has been frustrating and inconvenient, but few have considered abandoning their land. They scoff at suggestions that more frequent flooding signals the impending demise or eventual abandonment of the village or the island.

“That’s kind of a big-city question,” said Emily Lyons, Kaskaskia’s unofficial historian and organizer of the Fourth of July celebration whose house on the island was destroyed in the ’93 flood. “Those who live in big cities or towns have lost touch with how farming is still big business. The river comes up, but it also goes down. But this has been such a bad year.”

Even while they have had to temporarily relocate or rely on boats for access, Kaskaskia residents are not ready to pull the plug. The attraction of place — the history, the houses and farms passed down among generations, the memories and the uniqueness of the location — it’s all too strong to leave behind, residents said.

“I love it here,” Klein said, as he maneuvered his truck around a sunken tree branch. “This is my home. So many good years, good memories. Where I grew up.”

At the south end of the island, where corn and soybeans usually grow when it is dry, Klein points to the expanse of water where he and his friends have taken a boat out to water ski. Another house is completely surrounded by water, its owners decamped to the mainland until the water subsides.

Klein, 40, whose family has owned land on the island for four generations, said the recent spate of floods “tells me that you’re stupid to put much money on that floodplain.”

Still, Klein couldn’t resist building a new workshop for his construction work.

When the rains subside, the rich floodplain soil will potentially yield plentiful, and lucrative, corn, soybean and wheat. But with no amenities on the island, the schools of his youth long since shuttered, Klein knows the life isn’t for everyone. There are only two families left on the island with children, he said, and the future of the village and the island may eventually be up to them.

Driving his pickup past tractors and cars moved to higher ground atop the levee, slowing for a mother and three pup raccoons to cross into the underbrush, Klein said he hopes people will continue to live on the island in the future. “That’s all I can really say on that. I really don’t know.”

Higher river, more often

On June 10, the river crested to the second-highest level in history at the official gauge in Chester, at 46.52 feet, according to the National Weather Service, behind only the 49.74-foot mark on Aug. 7, 1993. Kaskaskia was nearly destroyed when the levee broke during the record flooding of 1993, but in recent years, the river has reached the third (45.99 feet in 2016) and fourth (44.66 feet in 2017) highest flood levels in history. At about 36 feet, the Old Channel Road is underwater, cutting off the island from the mainland, and anything above 27 feet is considered flood stage. As of Tuesday, the river still was at a height of 39.31 feet.

While the river experiences flood and drought patterns, many are beginning to wonder if this is the new reality.

“These weather patterns, even if Donald Trump doesn’t agree, they’re changing so much,” said Ben Picou, a former Kaskaskia Island resident and former sheriff of Randolph County who has two brothers who still live on the island. “We’re getting more and more rain. And it’s not near as cold.”

Klein agrees. He blames more frequent rains and the development of roads, cities and towns upriver for the recent spate of near-record flood levels. “For me, I don’t know why the river would ever quit doing this.”

The state of Illinois experienced above average rainfall throughout June, according to the Illinois State Climatologist Office, with some areas in the southern half of the state receiving 200 to 300 percent of normal. Soil moisture content in many areas remains in the 90th to 99th percentile across Illinois, meaning there is an elevated risk of continued flooding throughout July, the office reported.

Randolph County is among 36 counties covered under a state disaster proclamation. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office reported that more than 5 million sandbags and 38,000 tons of rock have been distributed to combat flooding throughout the state.

Out at one of the island levee pumps, Klein points to the green markings where his dad recorded the river height in 1993. The level this year was only a few rungs of the ladder below the mark.

This year has not been as dire. But Klein, one of the island’s levee commissioners, has been keeping a watchful eye on the condition of the earthen and sand berms that are holding back the Mississippi beyond, using sandbags where needed and hoping for dry weather ahead.

“I sure hope this isn’t the path we’re on,” Klein said about record rains.

On the island, the ground is saturated. And because most of the island’s 14,000 acres are

surrounded by levees to protect it from the powerful flow of the Mississippi, the water has nowhere to go.

“The water can’t go anywhere because the river’s so high,” Wingerter, the historic site superintendent, said. “It’s not necessarily the river, it’s the rain water.”

Former boomtown hangs on

The brick building that houses the “Liberty Bell of the West” has not been affected by this year’s floods, and the historic church next door, which still hosts Mass on Sundays when the roads into and out of town are not underwater, also has not been damaged.

The same cannot be said for the former buildings of the old town, which formerly hugged the river to the northeast of the current village. Flooding in the late 1800s nearly wiped the town off the map, and the townspeople moved the surviving buildings — and the damaged but original bell — to higher ground.

The river, which previously made a wide turn to the west, cut its path eastward, joining the Kaskaskia River north of Chester, leaving the village in Illinois stranded on the other side.

Today, assuming visitors can make it to the village with the help of locals, and the bell can be viewed by pressing a button on the front door of the Kaskaskia Bell state memorial site, which slowly opens two whitewashed doors. The bell and a colorful mural of old Kaskaskia are visible through the iron gate.

The history of the land and the village can be difficult to fathom when gazing at a collection of scattered houses amid a grove of trees, surrounded by wide expanses of flooded farmland. But 300 years ago, Kaskaskia developed into an essential trading post and eventually the hub of the middle Mississippi River valley.

By 1741, the bell was headed up the river from France, a gift from King Louis XV to the Catholic church in Illinois. Later, the bell was rung by villagers in Kaskaskia to celebrate their July 4, 1778, liberation from the British by American Col. George Rogers Clark.

During its run as capital, Kaskaskia had a peak population of about 7,000 before the seat of government was moved north to Vandalia in 1820.

Prior to a flood in 1973 that inundated the island, there was one bar and two grocery stores, serving a population of about 200, according to old levee district documents. By 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the population of the town at 18, making it the second smallest in Illinois.

Still, Picou, the former sheriff, does not see the end coming any time soon.

“There’s no reason for them to move as long as the levee holds up,” he said.

Wingerter said he is not one to speculate, but the historic nature of the site is significant.

“There’s a lot of history over there,” Wingerter said. “I don’t like to look into the future that far.”

From atop the bluff overlook at the Fort Kaskaskia state historic site where the Fourth of July celebration will be held, with its sweeping view of the Mississippi bending to the east around Kaskaskia Island to the south, Kaskaskia can be glimpsed through a grove of trees.

In the waning hours of a recent afternoon, charcoal cumulus clouds dotted the sky to the north. The horizon darkened. KMOX radio in St. Louis warned motorists in city traffic to beware of heavy downpours on the highways.

Much of that water would make its way into the Mississippi, and downstream. Toward Kaskaskia.

poconnell@chicagotribune.com

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.