Ellison Orr Praises Yellow River
|West Union, a county seat town boasting
a court house that is a thing of beauty, and a most
successful fair, lies just where the wide prairie of
pioneer days, the boulder strewn ground moraine of the
old Iowa glacier, fades out and the far older
"driftless areas" begins.
Very old is the topography of this area around which the glaciers for thousands of years flowed -- an island in a sea of ice.
If one travels from here northward over "The Road of a Thousand Curves," across this ancient land, he will in due time come to another town nestling at the foot of the bluffs that hem in the canyon valley of a great river coming from far out of the north and going far into the south across almost twenty degrees of latitude -- Lansing on the Mississippi.
Though at first the road keeps to the higher and more level ground, the general surface that is the peneplain lying to the north of the Niagara escarpment, soon ravines and valleys, deepenng towards the north, with many branching tributary laterals dissecting the plain, show on either side.
Then places are reached from which magnificent views may be had of the wide valley of the Turkey river, flecked with a mosaic of pasture, field and grove, across which at times drift the shadows of passing clouds -- peaceful, restful and beautiful.
Down into and across its valley the winding road runs past the old mill that helped to feed the armies of the Civil war; through the village of Clermont with its statue of a great statesman whose boyhood days were spent on the "Henderson Prairie" a few miles to the north over which we will travel; past the home of one of Iowa's honored governors, to Postville that grew up around "The Half-way House" on the "Old Military Trail" from Prairie du Chien to Fort Atkinson.
North of Postville within a couple of miles we enter what was once a heavily timbered area. To the west of the road on the "Van Velzer Hill," at the foot of which lies Durno's park, there still remains a bit of primitive forest having some measure of its primeval wildness and beauty.
Then we are in the valley of the Yellow River -- Le Jau Riveriere of the early voyagers and fur traders that passed its mouth in their travels on the greater river into which it empties. This is more rugged and picturesque than the valley of the Turkey. Along our road on either side its bluffs are often crowned by castelated ledges and escarpments of Galena-Trenton limestone rich in the fossil remains of life that has long perished from the earth. Fine springs of pure cold water, as at "The Rise" and "The Old Stone House," abound.
Beginning in shallow sloughs and valleys, just north of Ossian, many little prairie rivulets unite to form the Main and North Forks of our river just before it crosses the line between Winneshiek and Allamakee counties.
Hereabouts in an early day was a fine body of timber about four miles across, in the midst of which in pioneer days stood the hamlet of Moneek on the North Fork, from which this area of real forest took its name of "Moneek Woods."
Eastward from here, sometimes widening, along the south side of the river this strip of timber extended to the Mississippi.
When the C.M. & St. P. Ry. was built west from McGregor through Monona, Postville and Calmar to Conover, it, for years, used wood-burning locomotives. This tract of woodlad, none of which was more than six miles away, furnished thousands and thousands of cords to keep up steam in the dimiutive engines that hauled the wheat to market when the Mississippi valley raised it for the world.
One year about the middle 50's the passenger pigeon, that is now only a memory, nested in these woods.
Numbers beyond our comprehension that year raised their young in these "roost" covering perhaps not far from forty miles square. Some trees contained from twenty-five to fifty nests. From here they foraged for food for three hundred miles over Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. To go this distance for breakfast or dinner was nothing to a bird that could fly ninety miles an hour.
This "big timber" like the pigeons is now mostly a memory. Here and there, as on the "Van Velzer Hill", are remnants, but for the most part where it was is now cultivated land.
North of the river, except near the Mississippi, was mostly "burr oak openings" and patchy small tracts of real timber -- no continuous big woods.
With only sixty-four of its entire drainage area of two hundred and fifty square miles lying outside the county, it is essentially A RIVER OF ALLAMAKEEE. Six of the eighteen townships, one-third the area of the county, lie almost wholly within this area which reaches its greatest width of fourteen miles south from Waukon to just across the Allamakee -Clayton county line.
In Post township its immediate valleys and those of its tributaries show abundant outcrops of shelly limestone scattered over and crowning the surrounding bluffs. Farther to the east, in Franklin, the next township, the valley is cut down through St. Peter sandstone and the hills become rounded with gentler slopes. Then the bold picturesque cliffs of the Oncota limestone begin to appear at "Sixteen."
From here on down to its mouth the bluffs get higher and higher and more and more rugged, reaching three hundred feet skyward at the promontory that terminates the north bluff line of the valley where it debouches into that of the bigger river.
It is a rapid stream, dropping down from an elevation of 1010 feet above sea level where it crosses the Allamakee-Winneshiek county line, to 610 feet at its mouth, a fall of 400 feet in a direct line of twenty-two miles.
In this short distance, during the long span of the years that it has been at work, it has eroded its valley down through all the different geological formations from the middle Maquoketa to the Jordan sandstone.
The flood plain is narrow, not often exceeding one-fourth of a mile in width, and here and there across this, the stream meanders, with now a quiet reach, then "riffles," then a real rapids. Sometimes in shade where the rare wood birds in summer sing to it, then out in the open meadows it goes, or with bordering cornfields, on to the end in "The Father of Waters."
Along the valleys of the Turkey and the Oneota are abundant terraces, outwash from the melting glaciers of old in which they once headed, but because the Yellow river did not reach the ice felds it has no terraces, except one on the north side at its mouth formed by backwash from the Mississippi during its post-glacial flood.
In the Yellow river there are fish -- mostly the kind you may catch with a wiggly worm and a willow pole. Sometimes in the lower reaches one may get a bass, a pickerel or a catfish, or even several -- always "big ones" if you get them at all, and sometimes a fine trout.
Although the speckled trout were very abundant in all the streams to the north in the early days, the Yellow river was in the beginning not a natural trout stream. The ones now now there are rainbow and have been planted.
All along the main stream and in the valleys of its tributaries are places of interest because of their connection with pioneer history, like "The Old Stone House" built by Reuben Smith in 1856-57 and now owned by the county by which it was restored, and with a bit of the surrounding land, set aside for a park for the people; the sites of the various mills of pioneer days as at Myron, Smithfield, Volney, Sixteen and Ion, built to grind the farmer's grist when he literally raised the wheat and made his own bread, that have, with the failure of this crop, gone one by one 'till but the Forest Mills alone remain.
There are some natural phenomena not common or usual, as just below where highway No. 51 enters its valley the river, through a bar of shingly rock and gravel disappears into a crevice (one of the same system of which the "Ice Cave" is a part), coming out a couple of miles below "The Rise" and "The Old Stone House Spring."
Then "The Ice Cave" beside this same highway, four and one-half miles north of Postville. A wide crevice in the rock down into which you go by some steps to find its floor covered with a thick coat of ice until mid-summer. On this smooth coad floor you may walk, zig-zagging by right angled tturns, back for a hundred feet or more into the hill.
And on the bluff side just below the "Old Stone House" is found growing the balsam fir in one of the two places where it is native to Iowa. Too it has been given the name of "The Balsam Fir Bluff." Here also grow several semi-alpine plants and shrubs.
The entire upper valley is especially gifted with abundant springs of clear cold water, the finest in the world, set like gems in spots of natural beauty.
For an idling nature lover, with time to spend, a day or two, when the roads are good, may be very agreeably spent along this little river.
The fossiliferous Galena-Trenton ledges, the "Sink of the River," the "Ice Cave," the "Old Stone House" and the "Rise of the River" near there, and the "Balam Fir Bluff" are all bunched along and may be easily reached from highway No. 51 between three and four miles north of Postville.
A side trip of three miles from highway No. 13 to "Sixteen" is worth the while. There are the high vertical ledges of Oneota limestone, massive and seemingly everlasting; the "Indian Cave," and the blue-green water of the river swirling and hurrying around the rocks that have fallen from the cliffs above. The first spring flowers grow there about the cave and on the hillsides everywhere, making it an altogether delightful place.
Another trip from No. 13 is two miles down into the valley to Ion, the site of a vanished mill, then down along the river to the site of the historic "Old Mission".
About half way between this place and the river's mouth, about two miles farther down, but inaccessible by road, is the site of the government dam that was built under the supervision of Jefferson Davis, and at which was sawed the lumber used in building "Old Fort Crawford" at Prairie du Chien.
Look up these places. It will be worth your while.
- source: Postville Herald; September 25, 1930
- transcribed by: Sharyl Ferrall
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