Few considered that Randolph County could someday be home to the first national park in Illinois. Even though the Prairie du Rocher French Colonial Historic District was the beginning of French settlement in fledgling America and once served as the young country’s western boundary. Lewis & Clark gathered expeditioners here. Revolutionary War icon, General Lafayette, visited Kaskaskia. Pierre Laclede, who founded St. Louis, built a home near the Mississippi River. Then an idea born of necessity revealed the possibility.
If it keeps on rainin’ … levee’s goin’ to break.
There are nearly 100,000 miles of levees in the United States. Most of them, including Randolph County’s, are deteriorating due to human development and natural degradation. It’s one of America’s best-kept infrastructure embarrassments, and usually only discussed after a Katrina-level event. But people who live inside the levees think about it every day.
What to do?
“You never know what can happen when you assemble a group of highly motivated people,” says Christopher Martin, coordinator of economic development and president of the Community Foundation of Randolph County. The group Martin is referring to is the Prairie du Rocher/Modoc/Edgar Lakes/ Levee System Steering Committee of the Community Foundation of Prairie du Rocher. How did this group with the long name get together?
Most Americans do not realize that Mississippi River levees south of its confluence with the Ohio River are maintained by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. North of the confluence, levees are managed by local levee districts. Levee maintenance and repair is expensive and while the federal government has millions to spend to mediate levees, local levee commissioners don’t. In 2016, Martin’s employer, the Randolph County Progress Committee, received a request to assist with Randolph County’s aging levees. Martin, and Dr. Marc Kiehna, Chairman of the Randolph County Board of Commissioners, helped organized local levee district meetings, and later, with levee commissioners from other counties in Illinois and Missouri.
“There had been lots of meetings, but not much resolved,” says Martin. “I was attending a local meeting in Prairie du Rocher and after a while I said in a frustrated tone, we are having the same meeting we always have. We talk about the problem, but little is being accomplished. Someone fired back, well, what do you think we should do? I replied that we needed a plan because no one—not FEMA, state government, the Corps of Engineers, the federal government, nobody will listen to us—until we have a plan. The steering committee of volunteers was organized, and that was the beginning.”
Martin had worked with Ed Weilbacher, general manager of the Kaskaskia Regional Port District, on a waterline project at KRPD Dock #2 and on two Hurricane Ike flood grants, and he asked Weilbacher to join the steering committee. Weilbacher fortuitously agreed. Other members included Ray Cole, then president of the Village of Prairie du Rocher, Steve Gonzalez, chairman of the levee district, Amy Barbeau of the Prairie du Rocher Chamber of Commerce, Jennifer Duensing, Les Amis du Fort de Chartres, Craig Hern and Tania Barbeau of Harrisonville Telephone Company and attorney, Paul Ray.
That was 2018, and over the next two years, the group met to draft a strategic plan that became The Levee District Strategic Plan, Our Vision for the Next 300 Years. The plan was presented to the people of Prairie du Rocher on a snowy night in winter of 2019/2020. It met with resounding approval.
Then came Covid.
Many ideas are in the strategic plan, including one suggested by Ed Weilbacher to make Prairie du Rocher and the French Colonial Historic District a national park. Perhaps levees would be a higher priority if they were protecting a national park. To set that in motion, a separate document was needed to make the case for a national park in Randolph County. Martin and Weilbacher set out to assemble Prairie du Rocher and the French Colonial Historic District, its National Significance in the Development of the United States. But how to accomplish that during Covid sequestration?
Weilbacher and Martin were on the phone and emailing every day. Thankfully, Martin’s wife is Stephanie Martin of Purple Martin Media, graphic artist, web designer, and writer. Their home office employs multiple computers, Iphones, printers and a photographic studio. Martin wrote the document text and took responsibility for proofreading and fact checking. Stephanie Martin took photo images, styled, and then assembled the case report, which makes a compelling argument for a national park.
“Over the summer, we kept thinking of new components to add to our case, including images, historic maps and text,” said Weilbacher. “Stephanie and Chris ventured out and shot images of what we needed. Then we would have to reformat and start over. Every stage had to be thoroughly proofed and if we changed something, we had to proofread it all over again. After all, this was our case for a national park and would be seen by the Department of the Interior, the National Park Service, both Houses of Congress, and perhaps the President of the United States. It had to be as close to perfect as we could make it. Stephanie was so patient with us. She created an impressive document and would later build a website for the French Colonial Historic District.”
It took most of the Summer of 2020 to finish the case report. After the document was printed in August, the State of Illinois agreed to add portions of the Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site to land requested for the national park. While not included in the original case report, the site was considered in the Reconnaissance Survey conducted by the National Park Service.
On Labor Day, 2020, Congressman Mike Bost was returning to Washington D.C. and offered to hand-carry copies of the document with him. “Many thanks to Congressman Bost for his unwavering support from the beginning,” added Stephanie Martin. “He introduced legislation for the park to the United States House of Representatives on July 14, 2022.”
Christopher Martin had met southern Illinois native, Jim Kirkpatrick of Senator Tammy Duckworth’s office at a meeting just prior to the onset of Covid. Kirkpatrick took an instant interest in the park project and alerted Senator Duckworth’s Washington office to the park plan. “Jim and I have become great friends and he worked tirelessly with us to establish national park legislation. We cannot thank Jim enough. Without Jim, we would not be where we are,” Martin remarked of his friend.
Then, in December of 2020, Senator Duckworth requested a Zoom conference with Weilbacher, Martin and Dr. Marc Kiehna of the Randolph County Commissioners. The Senator expressed immense enthusiasm for the park as did Senator Dick Durbin who also teleconferenced with the group. There was hope.
Wednesday, July 13, 2022.
Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin introduced S4525 to the United States Senate S4525 is: A Bill to Establish Prairie du Rocher French Colonial National Historical Park. Congressman Mike Bost introduced similar legislation on Thursday, July 14 in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“This year, the city of Prairie du Rocher in Illinois—one of the oldest cities in our entire nation—celebrated its 300th anniversary,” Senator Duckworth said. “To mark this milestone anniversary, I was proud to author and introduce this legislation that would establish the Prairie du Rocher French Colonial National Historical Park.”
“Illinois has a rich and storied history that I hope that residents and visitors alike will get to appreciate. This year, we celebrate the city of Prairie du Rocher on its 300th anniversary,” Senator Durbin said. “With this legislation, I hope to see the Prairie du Rocher French area receive well-earned recognition as the French Colonial Historic District to both preserve our history and educate visitors.”
“Southern Illinois is blessed to have a rich history that began long before the founding of our nation,” said Congressman Mike Bost. “Founded in 1722 as a French settlement, Prairie du Rocher once represented the western boundary of the United States. Today, its many sites still stand as some of the best examples of French Colonial architecture and culture in the United States. As we celebrate 300 years of Prairie du Rocher, it is vitally important that we preserve this piece of our history for years to come.”
Once the legislation is passed by the House and Senate and signed by President Biden, Randolph County will be home to the first national park in Illinois. There is still much work to do.
“We aren’t there yet,” caution Martin and Weilbacher. “Although the introduction of legislation is a giant step, there is still much work to do. We have said for two years, if we fail to get this process to legislation, it will not be because we didn’t do the work. Together with many other people locally, we’ve done the work, and we believe that Senators Duckworth and Durbin, along with Congressman Bost will continue the task to take us over the finish line. Many thanks to them and Jim Kirkpatrick, the Randolph County Commissioners, to Mark Wilson, Village President of Prairie du Rocher, the Steering Committee, Emily Lyons of the Randolph County Museum, the Community Foundation of Randolph County, and the Randolph County Progress Committee for their loyal support. Fingers crossed; we hope to have the Prairie du Rocher French Colonial National Historical Park by the coming summer.”