The History of Keokuk County, Iowa

Physical Geography

   The physical geography of Keokuk county is a topic which might be expanded into a book. Such a book from a competent author would afford a most interesting and profitable study for all students of natural history. In its physical features this county differs in many respects from any other section. Each and all of these features are found in other counties, but nowhere else are they similarly grouped and correlated, and in this respect they may properly be termed distinctive and characteristic. A productive soil, rich mines, numerous streams and extensive belts of timber furnish a diversity of natural resource sample for the employment of every phase of human industry. The large and productive prairies yield sure and abundant returns for the investment of agricultural skill and labor; the grazier [sic] is attracted by sections of graceful undulations, where all kinds of grass grow in luxuriant abundance, near streams which furnish an inexhaustible supply of living water; stone quarries supplying sufficient material for all kinds of building purposes are of easy access; for fuel and mechanical uses there is a supply of coal and timber for all time to come. The average elevation of the county is about 814 feet above the level of the sea, or about 375 feet above the low water mark in the Mississippi river at Keokuk. At a point in the northeastern part of the county, near the Washington county line, the elevation above the level of the sea is 750 feet. Beginning at this point and thence west to the highest point the rise is very marked, being as much as 130 feet; from this point to the public square in Sigourney the descent is quite marked, the difference in elevation being 91 feet. The public square in Sigourney is a little over 800 feet above the level of the sea. From Sigourney to the head-waters of Steady run, ill the south part of the county, the descent is gradual, the difference in elevation being about 75 feet. From these data it would appear that the general direction of the large streams should be eastward and the greater number of tributaries should be southward; upon investigation this will be found to be the case.

   The county is watered by the two branches of Skunk river, running in a general direction from west to east through the southern part of the county, and by South English river from west to east through the northern part of the county. These streams divide the county into six water-sheds, and their tributaries afford a most ample drainage to every part of the county. The banks of these streams abound with timber, rock, and in many places bituminous coal. The water-shed south of South Skunk is for the most part a rolling prairie, broken at intervals by small streams skirted with timber, presenting a landscape of surprising beauty, and a soil unsurpassed in fertility.

   The divide between the Skunk rivers, though not so inviting in appearance, possesses many advantages, not only in the richness of this alluvial soil, but in its abundant water power, its grazing lands, and its excellent timber and rock for building purposes.

   The water-shed north of North Skunk is much the largest of watersheds, and embraces about one-half the territory of the county. In its southern parts, bordering on tbe river, and for a few miles back, it is the most broken part of the county; but this apparent defect is more than compensated in the richness of its soil, its abundant timber, its superior quarries of sand and lime rock, and its exhaustless coal mines.

   English River—This stream enters the county near the northwest corner, flows a little south of east till it reaches a point about midway across the county; from there its course is north of east, and leaves the county near the northeast corner. It is shallow, and the channel narrow. It has a medium current and the bed is sandy without rock. The banks are low, and consist of alluvial deposit, with neither stone nor gravel. On the north side there are some small tracts of bottom land of more than ordinary fertility. These are especially desirable, as the stream seldom overflows its banks. There are no bridges of importance, and the stream can be safely forded at all seasons of the year.

   Skunk River—The name comes from the Indian word Checauqua, which means skunk, and should never have been translated. There is nothing romantic nor poetical about the name, but those who think lightly of this river on account of the name, should remember that the garden city of the West derives its origin from no better source. Chicago and Chicaqua are slightly different pronunciations of an Indian word, that means the same thing. This stream is formed by the junction of two streams, designated by the names North and South Skunk, the point of confluence being in the county, about four miles from the county line. The south fork is much the larger, with this exception the streams are very similar. Their general course is eastward, the south fork being nearly directly so, while the north fork makes a considerable bend toward the north, near the center of the county. The heads of these streams are sandy, and rock is found in some places. The current is in the main very sluggish, though in certain places the fall is sufficient to afford splendid water power, which has been utilized by the establishment of mills for the manufacture of flour and lumber. At some points the land slopes gradually away from the stream, thus permitting large portions of the bottom to be overflowed during rainy seasons, and making travel across the country difficult or impossible, where there are no good roads and bridges. At other places there are rocky bluffs, which preclude the possibility of an overflow at any season of the year. These streams are properly renowned for the fish which they contain, it being no unusual thing to catch fish weighing from fifteen to twenty pounds, while there are instances in which fish weighing as much as fifty pounds have been caught. North Skunk has numerous tributaries entering it from the north. Some of the principal ones alone will be mentioned. Clear creek, so called on account of the transparency of its waters; German creek, so named after the nationality of the early settlers of this territory; Bridge creek, which received its name from the fact that it was almost impossible to cross it at any point without the medium of a bridge; Smith creek, so named after the Smith family which early settled there; Cedar creek and Coal creek, so named from the physical structure of the soil, and natural scenery. Most of these streams are characterized by lively currents, sandy bottoms and some stone. The tributaries of South Skunk enter from the south. They are not as numerous and important as the others, the following four being all worthy of mention: Richland creek, so named from the first town of the county; Rock creek, which received its name from the abundance of rock along its banks; Steady run, which received its name from the gait which it travels; and Sugar creek, which was designated on account of the sugar maples originally found along its banks.

   Prairies—Over four-fifths of the surface of the county originally consisted of prairie lands, with the exception of an extensive level tract in the eastern part of the county, which would be improved by draining, also large tracts in the northwest and southeast portions of the county. The prairies are rolling and the natural drainage is abundantly sufficient to carry off the surplus water, even in the wettest seasons. There are no swamps or sloughs of any importance. These prairies are covered with a light, loamy soil of great richness, and a remarkable capacity of withstanding both drouth [sic] and an excessive amount of rain. At a depth of about four feet there is a substance of yellow clay. There are scarcely any boulders, and scarcely any stone except in the quarries, which do not interfere with cultivation.

   Timber—About fifteen per cent of the county was originally timber; much of this has been cut off for fuel, and in the manufacture of native lumber. The timber which has been destroyed in this manner has been more than replaced by the rearing of artificial groves. In the cultivation of trees it has been found that soft and hard maple, elm and cottonwood flourish with great luxuriance, and groves of remarkable beauty and imposing grandeur, are now found in various parts of the county.

   Stone—With the exceptions of the north part of the county there is an abundant supply of building stone. Some of the quarries contain limestone, and others sandstone. At an early date these quarries were renowned, and we find some of them located on a rough plat made by Bernhart Henn, of the United States Land Office, as early as 1852. Many permanent improvements of other counties have had their beginnings at some Keokuk county stone quarry.

   Mineral paint—Eight miles southwest of the comity seat is an extensive deposit of clay, which is likely to prove a very fine quality of mineral paint. The deposit covers an area of about thirty acres, 18 sixteen feet beneath the surface, and the layer is about one foot in thickness. The clay was found while prospecting for lead, and from certain indications it would seem that the mine or bank had been marked in early days, probably by the Indians, who here procured the material from which was prepared the paint so extensively used by the Aborigines. There are some six or seven distinct colors, and a building which was painted some years ago, with a mixture of these colors, reveals the colors in a remarkable state of preservation. There are also indications that lead exist in the same locality.

   Coal—In the report of the Geological Survey, published in 1870, we find the following statement: "Although Keokuk county lies quite within the limits of the coal field, as defined upon the geological map, it is not probable that it will ever take rank among the more important coal counties of Iowa. This statement should not be understood to imply that no important deposits of coal exists within its limits, because it is a well known fact, that some good mines are already opened there. The county, however, lies near the eastern border of the field, where the coal formation would naturally be expected to be thinner, besides which, the sub-carboniferous limestone is so exposed along the valley of Skunk river as to show that there cannot be in many places, any considerable development of coal measure strata between the limestone and the drift above. Of course no coal need be sought for beneath that limestone."

   This paragraph scarcely does the coal interest of the county justice; no detailed examination of the county had been made at the time, and recent investigation goes to show that while Keokuk county does not rank as the first of the coal producing counties, nevertheless, it is destined to develop a supply of this important mineral, which the quantity and quality of the material will far exceed the most sanguine expectations of the original prospectors. Extensive mines have already been opened, and are now being operated at three or four localities in various parts of the county, and these lack but the important item of suitable means of transportation, to make coal mining one of the leading industries of this section.

   Springs—A glance at any good county map, will readily convince anyone that the county is well watered. But aside from the net work of streams which traverse the county in every direction, there are innumerable springs which flow the year round, and an inexhaustible supply of water may be produced anywhere by digging or boring a distance of twenty or thirty feet.

   Sand—Sand for building purposes can readily be procured along any of the streams, and an excellent quality is found in some parts, which is now being utilized in the manufacture of an excellent quality of glass. We shall treat of this very important branch of industry further on.

   Geological formation—This county is situated partly in the sub-carboniferous grant, and partly in the middle and lower coal-measures. A line running from the northwestern part of the county diagonally across, cutting off nearly two-thirds of the county, would form a tolerably accurate boundary between the two; the southwestern part belongs to the latter. The middle and lower coal-measures, are not very distinct from each other. They both contain coal, the thickest being in the lower. They are described as being made up of beds of sandstone, shales and clay, with rarely a thin bed of limestone. The beds of coal lie between these beds of rock, just as if they were also beds of rock. There is usually a bed of shale immediately beneath the coal and clay, immediately under the shale. The sub-carboniferous group, in which a little more than one-third of the county lies is explained, after a manner, by reference to the definition of the term, sub-carboniferous, meaning below or under the coal. It consists of limestone of a greyish color, and is characterized by the presence of a peculiar class of fossils found therein.

Climate—The first two winters following the settlement of the western part of the county were remarkably mild, and favored the rapid development of the country. The winter of 1848-9 was a winter of deep snow. The climate of the county has always been regarded as uncommonly healthy, the prevalence of ague, that scourge of all new countries, being chiefly confined to the territory bordering on the larger streams. There have been seasons in which crops have suffered from an excessive amount of rain, and also times when they have been cut short by drouth [sic]; also seasons which have been attended by an unusual amount of sickness, but the people of this county have, doubtless, suffered as little from these calamities as in any other section of the State. There have been instances in which certain portions of the county have been peculiarly afflicted. Such will be mentioned under the appropriate head, at another place. Some of the older settlers think that there has been a marked change in the climate in the past quarter of a century, and this is probably the case, resulting from the marked change which has taken place in the physiognomy of the country.

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