(Radio piece-Revised)

Author’s note:  Following more extensive research, I learned the river we know as the St Joseph was referred to as “Sheggwe” by the Potawatomi and as “Sagwasibi” by the Miami Indians.  “Sheggwe” is the name that refers to the legend of the mysterious apparition  and means, literally, “happened spontaneously”.   “Sagwasibi” (spelled Sagwa-Se-Pe in another source, “People and Places of Mill Race Isle” from the Eco-Urban Collaborative), means “coming out river”, a reference to its function as a connector to Lake Michigan and the Kankakee.

 I’ll leave it to my reader’s comments to decide which name/reference they like best for the river.  In the meantime, I’ve chosen “Sheggwe” since I think the idea of a re-appearing apparition seems appropriate when referring to returning to the river’s resources for renewal.  I apologize for any previous misrepresentations.

 

As we awaken to the harm burning fossil fuels causes to our health and the health of our planet, we look for solutions. Reducing energy consumption is an important first step. Embracing alternative, renewable and non-polluting energy sources is another if we hope to achieve sustainability for all of us here on earth. In Michiana, we can take a step towards sustainability by tapping the clean energy of our river.

The river we know today as the St. Joseph has a long history of sustaining humans who interacted with her. She served as a 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 her banks and in her water. Native peoples from this area called the river Sheggwe, a reference to the legend of a man who would mysteriously appear on the river’s banks.

 The earliest Europeans settled here in the late 1700’s to make their fortunes in the fur trade, trapping the vast array of wildlife along the heavily wooded banks of the river. Among these early arrivals were Alexis Coquillard and Pierre Navarre. In 1844, Coquillard oversaw the construction of a dam and east and west races along the river. The races directed the river’s water to power mill industries manufacturing iron tools, fabric, furniture and other products. The area’s resources of the river and fertile farmland helped South Bend to prosper.

Around 1900,  James Oliver  financed the construction of the most modern hydro-electric plant of that time.   Sited on the West Race of the river, near where the Century Center now stands, Mr. Oliver’s electric plant powered the lights for the Oliver Opera House, the Oliver Hotel and his home at the corner of Washington and Chapin Streets. This house, known as Copshaholm,was the first residence in South Bend lighted with electricity. Past Copshaholm, the electric lines continued south to power Oliver’s chilled plow foundry on South Chapin Street. The river continued to generate electricity at the Oliver plant until the 1960’s, when its new owner, Indiana and Michigan Electric Company de-commissioned it from service.

In 1980, South Bend revisited the potential of the river to provide emission-free electricity. The city secured the rights to build a 1-1/2 megawatt hydro-electric power generator. Part of a plan to redevelop the river’s East side, the generator was to be installed when South Bend re-excavated the East Race as a water recreation feature. In addition to producing electricity, the generator was intended as an educational tourist attraction. The facility’s design includes a wheelchair-accessible concourse, which would bring visitors below the river’s surface. Windows along either wall of the concourse allow views of the generator’s turbines on one side and steelhead trout, chinook and coho salmon migrating their way up the ladder on the other. A similarly designed windowed fish ladder in Seattle is one of that city’s most popular tourist attractions.

South Bend still possesses the rights and design plans to build a hydroelectric generator on this river that runs through us. Once known as the “Sheggwe”, she gave our city its earliest start and allowed this area, along with our rich farmland, to become a self-sufficient, sustainable economy. We’ve begun to embrace the river’s capacity for recreation and enjoyment with the East Race waterway, boat launches, canoeing and kayaking facilities, riverwalks and smattering of restaurants taking advantage of her vistas. More basically, however, humans, like all life, are drawn to water for survival; it is time we in Michiana return to our beautiful river and respectfully embrace her gifts for our renewal and sustainability.

 

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