In The Limelight
Exploring the Rock River
Interview & Story by Teresa Nguyen
"The Rock River is my happy place."
~ Jan Perrin
Jan Perrin paddling the Rock River
The Rock River
The roughly 300-mile flowing Rock River starts as a small stream at the Horicon Marsh area in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin. It flows southwest through southern Wisconsin, through northwestern Illinois and ending 325 miles later where it flows into the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois.
The Rock River drops about 500 feet from start to end. Along the way are small hydropower developments and, because the river is subject to spring floods in its lower areas, it requires levee protection.
Major cities along the Rock River include Watertown, Janesville, and Beloit, Wisconsin; and in Illinois, Rockford, Dixon, Sterling, and Rock Island. These communities’ economies, ecology, and urban development all are linked to the Rock River basin areas.
Map of the Rock River basin in Wisconsin and Illinois
The Rock Aqua Jays Water Ski Team of Janesville, WI
Recreation along the Rock
Humans have always been drawn to water as it is vital to our survival as a species. We have used our rivers as a food source, for personal needs, business needs, travel, enjoyment and for recreation.
Fishing is a favorite sport all along the Rock River. Did you know that there are more than 80 species of fish in our river basin? The river is home to channel catfish, walleye, northern pike, largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegill, catfish, bullheads and more!
Boating is another highly popular pastime. In Rock County, the most famous event involving boating is the Rock Aqua Jays water ski show. Several national championships have taken place right in our community along the Rock River! Read an in depth story on the Rock Aqua Jays at http://www.rchs.us/focus-in-tim-cullen/
A new rowing event in 2019 called Dragons on the Rock, presented by Kandu Industries, involved racing teams in dragon boats paddling to the rhythm of one drummer. Teams competed in heats throughout the day to determine the top 3 champions. What a fun gathering, which also benefited Kandu, supporting people with disabilities or disadvantages, giving them opportunity to pursue greater independence.
Many local residents find sweet enjoyment kayaking along the river. However, one Janesville woman truly takes canoeing and kayaking to a fascinating new level. Her amazing story paints a different picture than a river of developing communities, factories and parks along the Rock River.
Her story is one of a relationship with the water, with nature, with her paddles on our meandering river, which she calls her ‘happy place’.
Jan Perrin with an icy helmet - winter adventure on Swift River in NH
Retired Occupational Therapist
The Early Years and Racing
The hobby all started when my grandparents lived on a lake in Michigan and I became a water baby. Later on, I started whitewater kayaking. That was back in the ‘70s. In those years, we used motorcycle helmets. I had a homemade life jacket, wet suit, paddling shirt & gloves. I even made my boat!
I started a whitewater school that still exists in the Adirondack Mountains in New York.
Eventually, I burned out working 24/7 with whitewater and transitioned to flatwater racing. In the Capitol District region of New York, this is a vital sport. In those years, Wisconsin was a hotbed of the sport as well.
I primarily raced canoe (1-person, 2-person, 6-person outrigger and 20-person dragon boat), but I also put in time racing kayak. Until this past year, I was on the river 5-6 days per week.
If not on the river, I’m training on a canoe ergometer which is like a rowing erg, but uses a paddle shaft to replicate the motion.
I’ve finally stopped racing after 30 years. My favorite boat will always be the racing canoes! They are so sleek and glide effortlessly on the water.
Getting to Know the Rock
I moved to Janesville because of the Rock River. At the time, I was actively racing canoes and needed a house on a stretch of the water that didn’t become dry or weed over during the summer. Lakes were not as good for training and I wanted a sweet river.
The place we found was halfway between Rt. 14 and Indianford, Wisconsin. It fit the bill! I wanted my paddling to be as accessible to me as the road is for runners.
There is something special about being able to just walk out the door, grab a boat and put it in the water. No need to drive anywhere. It also allows me to play the whims of the weather.
A view of mushrooms and Jan's husband, Jim Merrifield, in his solo canoe
For a skilled paddler, paddling in high water and going upstream is just a blast! The currents are my friend!
I regularly go from my house north to Indianford or south as far as Memorial bridge. That gives me a lot of mileage to cover.
My real favorite is to paddle up to the outlet of the Yahara and paddle upstream. Turnaround is frequently at Murwin Park, the Caledonia St. bridge or Rt. 59 bridge.
Paddling with the current back home is far less fun.
The Rock River - photo by David Abb
Birds and Mushrooms
Along with the joys of being on the water, I’ve come to know the local avian populations, as well. I’ve watched the sandhill cranes as they incubate their eggs.
I live next door to an eagle nest. That has given me the opportunity to be a citizen scientist for the Bald Eagle Nest Watch Program sponsored by the Audubon Society.
Bald Eagles along the Rock River near Jan's back yard
Sandhill Crane nest and egg
Along with the birds, I’ve been able to forage mushrooms. Lark restaurant has been a recipient of Chicken of the Woods, which I have supplied. Chef Olivia has done magical things with these mushrooms!
However, I play it safe. I know my Chicken of the Woods but unless I have my mycologically savvy friend along, I don’t dare try anything else!
Chicken of the Woods mushrooms harvested by Jan Perrin along the Rock River banks
My sport takes me to many other locations. I’m often over in Ixonia or Johnson Creek, at least once a week, so I can paddle with my Milwaukee based friends.
I’ve enjoyed paddling around the country in various locations. In my misspent youth, I kayaked whitewater throughout the northeast and West Virginia. I’ve gotten back to whitewater kayaking recently and paddled in both Tennessee and North Carolina.
Typically, I go down to the spring fed rivers in Florida for early season training. I love seeing the manatees! I’ve also been canoe camping throughout the northeast, Maine and Arkansas. I’ve traveled up into Canada in northern Ontario. I’ve also kayak camped in Alaska.
This March, will be kayaking in Tierra Del Fuego in Chile, along with backpacking in Patagonia and cycling in the lake and volcano district of Chile.
This year, we were simply out west cycling and backpacking so much that I didn’t get in my normal river time.
But, as far as home is concerned, the Rock River is my happy place.
The Rock River of Wisconsin
We might wonder about other communities along this important water way through our town. What has happened along these banks? Who used to roam the groves and woods along her shores? What moments in history have occurred here, and how has this river shaped our culture and our lives today?
Moments in History down the Rock
So how exactly did we come to call this beautiful body of water the Rock River? Some speculate it comes from the rocky character of the soil through which it flows. The river was known as the Sinnissippi to Sauk and Fox Indian tribes of this area. The name means "rocky waters" or as early French explorers called it, Riviere de la Roche, "river of the rock".
Another view of the Rock River - photo by David Abb
Let's take an imaginary, educational trip down this beautiful river, as if we were Jan Perrin in her kayak. And rather than traveling in chronological time, we’ll travel downstream, starting in the north, in the marshes of Fond du Lac County, and ending with a focus on our own Rock County community.
The Horicon Marsh, located at the northernmost end of the Rock River basin, is an internationally recognized wetland and bird sanctuary. When Europeans first arrived in the area, they named the marsh "The Great Marsh of the Winnebago". The first permanent settlement was the town of Horicon. In 1846, a dam was built to power the town's first sawmill. The dam held the water in the marsh, causing the water level to rise by nine feet!
Horicon Marsh - photo by Jack Bartholmai
In 1869, the dam was torn down by order of the State Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of landowners whose land had been flooded and the area became a marsh once more. After pressure from conservationists, the State of Wisconsin passed the Horicon Marsh Wildlife Refuge Bill in 1927, for the acquisition and preservation of the land by the government.
Did you know that from 1836 to 1848 there was once a plan to construction of a canal connecting Lake Michigan with the Rock River? The canal would have gone by way of the Waukesha lakes, with the intent of establishing a waterway to the Mississippi river.
Congress made a land grant for the purpose. Surveys and estimates were made by the Rock River Canal company figuring the entire cost of constructing the canal, including locks, at about $725,000. The project was then abandoned in 1848, due to the high cost.
One wonders how that canal might have changed our communities along the Rock River.
In 1832, General Henry Atkinson and over 4000 frontier soldiers followed Chief Black Hawk up the Rock River in an attempt to end the Black Hawk War. It was an unsuccessful mission. Atkinson returned and built Fort Koshkonong, which became Fort Atkinson.
Chief Black Hawk and the Native American Sauk and Fox tribes have a rich history along the flowing and giving Rock River.
Historic Indian Mounds Park is located on Koshkonong Mounds Road, just south of Fort Atkinson. This five-acre park is a fascinating attraction where visitors can view eleven Indian effigy mounds.
Chief Black Hawk sketch by Teresa Nguyen
Also in this area, did you know that a famous poet lived along the banks of the Rock River? Poet, Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) Modern American poet, lived most of her life on the shores of the Rock River.
She frequently wrote about the Blackhawk Island and is admired for her poetic talents depicting life along the river. The following is one of her descriptive, poems about springtime on the Rock River:
My Life by Water
By Lorine Niedecker
My life by water -
Hear spring's first frog or board out on the cold ground giving
Muskrats gnawing doors to wild green arts and letters
Rabbits raided my lettuce
One boat, two - pointed toward my shore thru birdstart, wingdrip, weed-drift of the soft and serious - Water
In 1854, Wisconsin's first commercial tobacco was raised on land near the Rock River by Orrin and Ralph Pomeroy. Wisconsin tobacco was used as a binder in making cigars. From the 1860s, from the post-Civil-War era through the turn of the century, tobacco was the fastest growing enterprise in Wisconsin!
There is a marker located not far from the Rock River at a highway pull-off on northbound Lord Street / U.S. 51 in Edgerton, Wisconsin depicting this first tobacco farming area.
Indian Ford was an important crossing on the Rock River. Early white settlers told stories of Winnebago and Pottawatomi people crossing the river on the rocks at the shallows. The early ford was just above the present highway bridge. Even today the river is shallow below the dam and can be crossed on the sand.
Beautiful Riverside Park spans 87 acres of old wood trees with a view of the wide river, natural banks and three scenic overlooks on its rocky bluff. This beautiful, natural area was an important Native American camp site located on the west bank of a bend in the river, just north of Janesville’s downtown.
Interestingly, a water plant belonging to the lily family grew here. Its bulb was called the water potato and the native tribes would gather them and roast them in their fires. Some of these plants still grow here. Many Native American stone hammers, stone balls, axes, celts, and flint instruments were discovered in this area.
Hikers on a trail at Riverside Park - photo by Teresa Nguyen
Riverside Park - photo by David Abb
Purchased in 1922, Riverside Park became a destination of natural beauty and recreation. Today, the park is a favorite area for Janesville residents.
A bit farther downstream, is the lovely Traxler Park. In 1928, the Lions Club purchased the area known as Goose Island and donated it to the City to be used as a public park. They put up a skating shack on the lagoon, and the City of Janesville took care to keep the ice clean during the skating season. The city also leveled the area, preserving the ice skating, as well as providing a swimming beach.
Janesville’s first City Manager, Henry Traxler, was an advocate for parks, stating the goal to provide “a breathing place, playgrounds and parks for the beautification and recreation of Janesville citizens.”
Traxler saw the Goose Island area as some sort of park space, either recreational center or park.
In the 1950’s, the city had been given the “bathhouse, which was previously used by the Rock River Boat Association. The city refurbished the building, and the Rock Aqua Jays took over maintenance of the building after the Rock River Boat Association dissolved.
Traxler Park - photo by Teresa Nguyen
In 1955, the city built the Warming House/Ice Rink Shelter, the concrete revetment around the lagoon and around 200 crabapple trees were planted on the north side of the park. On February 6, 1956, the name of the park was changed to Traxler Park, to honor Henry Traxler for his part in creation of the park.
A bit farther to the south along the river is the City Ice Company, which was established in 1858 and originally belonged to the Atwood family. The family was very involved in the community. They owned additional ice houses around Janesville, including an ice house built in 1911 at Goose Island, now Traxler Park.
Early on, block ice was harvested out of the Rock River and delivered by horse drawn wagons. It was very dangerous work where both horses and men could end up in the icy Rock River! The last ice harvest was in 1929.
The company was sold to the Schultz family in 1954. Earl Schultz worked at the business as a boy and continued with the company. After his service in the army and attending college, Earl became a partner.
City Ice Company - photo provided by Earl Schultz
His partnership in his father’s business began in 1973. He took on full ownership in 1989. Later, his nephews, Ed and Jim, worked at the business, which remained in operation until 2013. Earl still maintains the buildings down on North Main St.
The Rock River provided the area's first transportation link, as Janesville's earliest residents traveled its course, looking for places to form settlements. But the river never became an important inland waterway, because new communities along the river erected low bridges and dams that inhibited river traffic.
During the industrial revolution, several factories popped up along the Rock River in downtown Janesville, growing our economy and increasing our city’s population.
In 1874, the Janesville Cotton Mill went into production, but it had only limited success. Then, another cotton manufacturing company was established in 1878 by Mr. Chester at the comer of Franklin and Wall streets. After a few years, Mr. Bailey constructed a new factory building on North River.
Manufacturing in the old Rock River Cotton Company complex continued into the 1980s and the buildings were razed in the 1990s.
The earliest lumber mill was in operation by 1845. Owned by Charles Stevens, it was located near the dam. It operated as a lumber mill for 11 years, manufacturing hardwood products cut from Rock County timber. In 1856, M. Norton and 0. B. Ford converted the lumber mill into a flour mill.
Janesville's old Cotton Mill
Janesville Electric Company quickly expanded and modernized electric service in the city. They purchased the buildings and waterpower rights of several businesses along the upper part of the river and constructed a small hydroelectric plant at the dam, near the old cotton factory.
Around 1915 they built another hydroelectric plant, the Central plant, near the west end of the upper dam. The company also utilized steam power. In 1924, the Wisconsin Power and Light Company acquired the Janesville Electric Company.
Janesville’s Pork Packing Plant, located at 119-123 N. Main St., was built around 1851 and remodeled around 1868. It was the first business block constructed by Mr. Myers, one of the city's more important pioneers. The packing plant operated until the 1880s.
In 2016, the old Pork Plant building was renovated and opened up as The Bodacious Shops of Block 42, including upper and lower decks overlooking the Rock River, with outdoor seating and a fire pit.
The Bodacious Shops of Block 42 are comprised of the popular Bodacious Brew coffee shop, Bodacious Olive gourmet kitchen specialty store, and the So Chopped salad Bistro.
Looking north toward Bodacious Shops of Block 42 on right - Photo by Marsha Mood Photography
The newest and most dramatic, recent developments along the banks in central downtown Janesville include a new Milwaukee Street bridge and the Arise and AriseNow projects of a new Town Square and a pedestrian bridge. New work will begin soon on a public gathering space and a walkway on the east bank. To read more about these downtown projects:
The Samson Tractor Division of General Motors constructed its new plant in Janesville in 1919 near the Court Street Bridge. The original brick building now houses the Enginaire, Inc. company. 1923 saw the conversion of the Samson Tractor Company to a General Motors Plant, which was then located farther south at the bend in the river, making Chevrolet vehicles. GM would become a primary employer in the community for generations. A new Legacy Center is being created by Blackhawk Community Credit Union to honor the legacy of GM in Janesville, Wisconsin.
All of these downtown Janesville industries thrived and grew for decades, breathing life into our local economy. They each depended on the river and all it had to offer. The people needed the industries and the industries needed the people along the Rock River valley for their success.
The Bubbler at Town Square
Town Square in downtown Janesville, WI - Photo by Marsha Mood Photography
After the bend in the river is where tributary Spring Brook flows into the Rock River. Spring Brook is a small stream that flows through Palmer Park and Blackhawk Golf Course, near the Rotary Botanical gardens, running parallel to the Ice Age Trail.
A scoop of pelicans along the Rock River - photo by David Abb
Rainbow at Rotary Botanical Gardens - photo by Marsha Mood Photography
In spring of 2019, large groups, or scoops, of pelicans began gathering on the shores of the Rock River just south of downtown Janesville where the river widens as it turns westward. There isn't clear evidence why they gathered there in 2019, but the removal of Monterey Dam may have been a factor, as the water became more shallow, perhaps allowing them better access to their favorite fish, carp and suckers. Before 1870, Pelicans were common in this part of the Rock River and on Lake Koshkonong, but their populations declined. Their numbers are now on the rise and, since 1994, they have been seen nesting around Green Bay, Wisconsin, as well.
The first recorded permanent residence in Rock County was a log cabin built by John Inman of Pennsylvania and William Holmes of Milwaukee. The cabin was located on the south bank of the Rock River opposite the “Big Rock”. This is near the railroad tracks on Delavan Drive.
The area stretching south of the river and along the west bank toward downtown was called Rock Ford for quite a number of years. This area later became known as the Fourth Ward of Janesville.
Today, the community gathers each fall in Monterey Park at the stadium for the area’s high school football games. Bikers utilize the Ice Age Trail and anglers enjoy fishing here in the Rock River.
High School Football game at Monterey Stadium - photo by Mary Richards
Peace Park inside Rockport Park in Janesville, WI
Just to the west of Holmes’ log cabin location is Lustig Park with its towering oak trees. The park sits atop the hills overlooking the Rock River, just where the river takes a turn toward the south, after meandering westward along Monterey Park. This beautiful recreational area is the only park in our area with an 18-hole disc golf course.
Rockport Park lies just a little farther downstream, on the river’s west bank. Within the park is Peace Park,which was constructed by 2,500 community volunteers and with $175,000 in donations. It features a two-story Native American tepee with reproduced paintings inside the structure by Janesville's own Gary Gandy. The park has a Peace Pole and plaza. The peace pole is the world's tallest at 52 feet. It was dedicated on May 28, 2005 with the inscription “May Peace Prevail on the Earth” in several languages.
Farther to the south, near the edge of town, pioneer Josiah Willard bought nearly 1000 acres of land along the banks of Rock River, building a home among large oak trees. His daughter, Frances, named it "Forest Home". The whole family loved this beautiful wooded land along the river. Before the school was built, the Willard children had had lessons taught by Mrs. Willard in their own home.
Mr. Willard later gave some land on which a school was built. This was the first real school the Willard children, Mary, Frances and Oliver, attended. The school was built in 1853 on the Willard land, near the river on the south side of Janesville. It was moved from its original location to the Rock County fairgrounds in 1972. In 2016, through the support and efforts of local businessman, Bob Kimball, the schoolhouse was moved to the Rock County Historical Society campus.
Frances Willard grew up and attended college at North Western Female College, held various teaching positions throughout the country and was appointed president of the newly founded Evanston College for Ladies in 1871. When the Evanston College for Ladies became the Woman's College of Northwestern University in 1873, Willard was named the first Dean of Women.
Frances Willard 1839-1898
She later became the national president of Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1879, and remained president until her death in 1898. In 1883 she also fought against the international drug trade. Her remarkable work and influence continued in the next decades with her efforts and dedication toward women’s suffrage.
Flowing farther south, with a winding turn of the river to the east, we find Happy Hollow Park, a favorite fishing spot and boating area. This beautiful, quiet 206-acre park includes a boat landing and access to the Rock River, hiking trails and picnic areas.
Heading south along the river, we find another historical landmark. In 1859, Abraham Lincoln made a stop through Janesville, staying with William Tallman at his Janesville mansion overlooking the Rock River Valley. While following the Prairie Road between Beloit and Janesville, Lincoln pointed out to his companions the route taken by the army in pursuit of Black Hawk's band. This marker is located at a highway pull-off on southbound North Riverside Drive / U.S. Highway 51, south of its intersection with West Happy Hollow Road.
The Rock River as it flows through Rock County, WI
Rock River Prairie State Natural Area, on the west side of the river, is located along the rolling terrace above the Rock River and contains large populations of prairie forbs and grasses including several rare and threatened plants. The prairie harbors over 50 native prairie species!
Gorgeous Big Hill Park of Beloit hosts numerous events throughout the year. It is Beloit's most scenic area, located on the western bluffs of the Rock River. The 190-acre park boasts nature and hiking trails, an environmental education center, two sheltered picnic areas, playground equipment, cross-country ski trails, softball, sand volleyball and a scenic overlook with spectacular views!
Horse-drawn buggy rides at Big Hill Park in Beloit - photo by Teresa Nguyen
We enter the city area of Beloit.
Roy Chapman Andrews was born along the Rock River in Beloit in 1884. He is one of the most celebrated explorers of the 20th century! A permanent Historical Marker was dedicated to Andrews just south of the Turtle Island Playground in the Riverside Park. Andrews was an avid adventurer and narrowly escaped death numerous times in his explorations. He served as the inspiration for the Hollywood character “Indiana Jones.”
Between here and the southern border of Wisconsin, Turtle Creek, a tributary flowing in from the east, rapidly joins the Rock River.
Roy Chapman Andrews of Beloit
River Bend Area is our last stop on the Rock River at the Illinois Border where people gather to watch the geese and the eagles, which flock to this location on their migration path. The area is a favorite for a variety of wildlife and people who love connecting with nature.
Here we end our trip downstream at the southernmost end of Rock County. From here, the Rock River continues to meander through northwest Illinois on its journey through some of the richest soil of America’s farmlands, down into the mighty Mississippi.
The Rock River has been a source of recreation, enjoyment and employment for the settlers for over a century and a half, helping to build our Rock County Communities into what they are today.
It has also been an occasional cause of devastation, such as in the year 2008 when we saw a record rainfall. Local businesses watched the Rock River rise and rise more until we had what is now known as the Flood of 2008!
The disaster took its toll on downtown businesses, even carp were swimming on Main Street! The Janesville area community came together to help each other out and we pulled through that challenging summer and fall season along the Rock River.
In spite of that 100-year disaster, more often than not the river has been life-giving and vital to the economy and to the growth of our community.
Watching the carp swim along Main Street in Janesville in the flood of 2008
The river is a place of beauty, of connecting us to our natural world, a place of wonder and aw as the local wildlife gather, feed and nest along her shores. Like the wildlife, people continue to enjoy her frolicking current at events along the river and through unique and amazing recreational adventures.
May we find renewed appreciation for our awesome Rock River and work to protect her shores and water. Ideally, our future generations will enjoy cleaner waters, her flowing beauty and take pride in all the Rock River has to offer!