The river we know today as the St. Joseph has a long history of sustaining the humans who interacted with her. She served as a significant transportation route for Native Americans and early French fur trappers, and, at the point where she bends south, it was a relatively short portage from her waters to the Kankakee River’s, bearing travelers to the Illinois River and on to the Mississippi.

Several tribes of Native Americans inhabited or stopped along the river’s south bend, taking nourishment from the rich resources along the banks and in her water. Certainly having borne many names for centuries before, native peoples within our historical context called this river “Sheggwe” a reference to a legend of a mysterious apparition rising from the river’s edge.

The earliest Europeans settled near the south bend of the St. Joseph in the late 1700’s to make their fortunes trapping the vast array of wildlife along the heavily wooded banks of the river. Among these early arrivals were Alexis Coquillard and Pierre Navarre. By 1844, Coquillard oversaw the construction of the dam and east and west races which powered the first mill industries in South Bend. These industries powered by the waters of the St Joe manufactured iron works, fabric, furniture and other products that helped South Bend to prosper.

Around 1900, James Oliver began construction of the largest, most modern hydro-electric plant in the country at that time. Sited on the West Race of the St Joe river, near where the Century Center now stands, Oliver’s electric plant powered the lights for the Oliver Opera House, the Oliver Hotel and Copshaholm on its way to power his chilled plow foundry on south Chapin Street. The St Joe river continued to generate electricity at the Oliver plant until the 1960’s, when it’s new owner, I&M de-commissioned it from service.

In 1980, South Bend revisited the potential of the St Joe to provide emission-free electricity. The city secured the rights to build a 1-1/2 megawatt power plant as well as a 50 kilowatt demonstration generator. Part of a plan to redevelop the city’s East side, the demonstration generator was set to be installed when South Bend re-excavated the East Race as a water recreation feature in 1984. Intended as an educational tourist attraction on hydro-electric power production, the demonstration generator was slated to power a ladder through the dam for migrating fish and to provide electricity for lights along the East race and the head-gates of the race.  The project’s designer, Lawson-Fisher Associates also included a wheelchair-accessible concourse between the power plant and fish ladder, which would bring visitors below the river’s surface. Windows along either wall of the concourse allow views of the turbines of the power plant on one side and on the other, steelhead trout, chinook and coho salmon migrating their way up the ladder. A similarly designed windowed fish ladder in Seattle has been wildly popular with the public since its recent completion.

Scientists worldwide overwhelmingly agree that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, are the greatest threat to sustainability with respect to planet temperatures, rising sea levels and global climate change. Reliance on coal-burning power plants, industrial farming and the steel industry places Indiana in the undesirable position of being one of the worst per capita emitters of greenhouse gases in the country. In South Bend, we have dismissed the resources that gave this city its earliest start and that allowed it to be a self-sufficient economy; namely the rich farmland and the river once known by the people before us as the “Sheggwe“. It is evident, environmentally and economically, that Indiana must move toward becoming a network of sustainable, ecological communities through energy conservation, more sustainable food production practices and increased use of renewable energy. An obvious starting point for South Bend within this network is the hydro-electric power potential of the river that runs through us. We’ve begun to embrace her capacity for recreation and enjoyment with the East Race waterway, riverwalks and smattering of restaurants taking advantage of her vistas. More basically, however, humans, like all life, are drawn to water for survival; I believe it is time we citizens of South Bend return to our beautiful river and respectfully embrace her gifts for our renewal and sustainability.