Geneva’s Mill Race Site: The Never-Ending Saga

Contention on the waterfront is nothing new in Geneva, but we are moving backward without governmental cooperation or leadership.

Geneva in 1872 superimposed on today’s Geneva. Note how the RR Bridge of 1854 was half dam and half-bridge, cutting the tail off Herrington’s Island and leaving the east side with the stench. The original U.S. Survey in 1841 (begun in 1839) showed the east side channel was the same width as the west side. Please see: Back to When the River Made Pearls, not Stenches – Rod’s Ramblings and Ruminations (genevanotes.com)

The old stone structure at the eastern foot of the State Street bridge that was the core of the Mill Race Inn restaurant had many uses going back to the 1840s.

The present-day rubble stone ruins of the Mill Race Inn have a legacy that includes carriage painting on its roof, which has left lead pollution of unknown quantity and persistence. The site is a brownfield: a former industrial or commercial site where future use is affected by real or perceived environmental contamination. Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/brownfield. Accessed 9 Jan. 2023.”

Unfortunately, “micro-brownfields” exist scattered throughout most municipalities. For example, small rubbish “pits” were prevalent in Geneva. Industrial areas often disposed of coal bottom ash and cinders on-site and used it for fill.

Geneva Republican June 21, 1929, p.1.

The MRI ruins have some historical significance, but the surrounding context now is far different than 180 years ago. Last spring, the City Council severed the ruins from the rest of the historic site once known as Thompson’s Woods, a place immortalized in the poem of that name by Forrest Crissey. This was a lethal wound. Without context, the structure’s future value became permanently impaired. The first blow to the ruin’s historical context was struck in 1854!

The 1854-1883-1920-1961-2022 Geneva railroad “bridge” was (and is), in reality, half-bridge and half-dam. Bridgehunter.com | UP – Fox River Bridge (Geneva) (1920) The eastern Fox River channel was dammed in 1854 by the east bank bridge buttress, which cut off the lower third of the original Herrington’s Island. The eastern channel of the river below the RR bridge to the south was thus turned into a backwater slough, which was landfilled for about 100 years as a dump (mostly with mercury-rich coal bottom ash and cinders). Well into the 1950s, the municipal waste stream was binary: rubbish and garbage, the former being dry waste not readily decomposable. Garbage dumping was not permitted in the City of Geneva dump-in-the-slough. Geneva was heated and lit with coal, making coal bottom ash and cinders a large percentage of its “rubbish.” Later the slough was used as a shooting range, adding lead to the mercury contamination. The eastern channel was diverted back into the Fox River above the east bank buttress, but it has silted in, which changed the course of the river by erosion of the west bank.

Rubbish was cheap fill, hence the above in the Geneva Republican Dec 13, 1904, p4.

An attempt in the early 1960s was made to “re-balance” the two channels around the remaining portion of Herrington’s Island by re-opening the old mill race (which had been filled mostly with coal bottom ash and cinders) using a large pipe and a ditch that ran from above the Geneva dam to just below the State Street Bridge and into the east channel. This worked to keep the east channel from becoming a stagnant water source of foul odor. But the State of Illinois ordered the ditch closed in 1964, and the odors returned – the river is much cleaner now than it was in the last century. Geneva Attorney (and folk hero to many) Roy Lasswell, (1924-1987), retained by the east side homeowners disgusted by the stench, blocked the bulldozer with his Volvo station wagon in 1964 to prevent the destruction of the balancing bypass of the dam. He was arrested.* See the Geneva Republican February 27, 1964, p1. https://box2.nmtvault.com/Geneva/jsp/RcWebImageViewer.jsp?doc_id=9351816b-0b6a-40e9-9d50-bf1f22f4eedf/gn000000/20221210/00000217

Often, coal ash wound up in the street. Geneva Republican November 3, 1893, p3.

Earlier and gradually, the width of State Street was increased, and the grade was altered by cutting into the east side hill and raising the grade leading up to the bridge. As a result, the rubblestone ruins site lost much visibility and historical context. Its vernacular industrial architecture was often altered since its original construction. And the building was often vacant for extended periods. Structural integrity was cut to shreds by added fenestrations. The 1872 Kane County Atlas map of Geneva depicts that modern Crissey Avenue was then named Batavia St., and Bennett Street/Route 25 did not exist. The ruins were on the northwest edge of Thompson’s Woods, with George Thompson’s apiary the most well-known enterprise, and his honey much sought after.

Geneva has become obsessed with preserving the ruins, while the 1.8-acre riverfront site itself is the prize that should be coveted. Geneva is ignoring the brownfield status of the entire site. What is urgently needed is an environmental survey like that done at Shodeen’s proposed 1 Washington Place in Batavia. (After five years of planning and two failed TIF Districts, Shodeen pulled out of that project precipitously a year ago.) The City of Batavia owned the property and spent more than $500K on environmental remediation, including lead and mercury.

The uses on or near the MRI brownfield site were, just like in Batavia, sources of both mercury and lead plus petrochemicals and asbestos. One must not forget that the massive Bennett Mill mysteriously burned to the ground in 1971 (3129) GHM Minute: Bennett Mill: Geneva, IL – YouTube. The structure was brick, but lead paint was used widely on the interior and exterior. A “lead ash halo” was created, and the post-fire ash and rubble were simply plowed into the foundation, and never excavated. Arson is a dark recurring thread in Geneva’s historical fabric. The Howell Foundry on the west bank moved to St. Charles after a fire believed to have been set by an arsonist. A former Geneva village president’s barn suffered the same fate.

Other brownfield uses included lead paint spraying, a cinderblock factory (cinders=coal bottom ash rich = mercury), an automotive dealership with a garage (asbestos and lead), an auto radiator repair shop (lead), two gasoline stations (lead and petrochemicals), and, of course, fill was used that was often coal fly ash (mercury). The Bennett Mill ran on coal/steam much longer than on hydropower.

Fly ash (airborne) and bottom ash (falls to the bottom of the boiler) are considered environmental hazards worldwide since they generally contain organic pollutants, and probable toxic metals like Se, As, B, V, Al, Pb, Hg, Cr, and radionuclides Uranium, Thorium.

Unfortunately, many of these uses were “grandfathered” out of modern environmental requirements such as Leaking Underground Storage Tank regulations (pre-1974 uses are exempt). Environmental lead has a dissipation half-life of about 600 years. Under Illinois’s TACO, leaking storage tank rules, problem sites are often “papered over” and not remediated. Both East and West State Street are riddled with old gas stations that have not been mitigated. No one knows how many underground tanks remain. Don’s Gas-For-Less at State and East Side Drive Aldi is an exception that cost the city several 100K$ in TIF funds. Airborne lead now is the major route for childhood ingestion in the U.S.

Ironically, Geneva went from coal (mercury) to leaded gas (lead) to diesel (sub-2.5-micron particles) along Route 38 (State). Route 38 is a State designated truck route! Geneva put a Dunkin’ at the top of the hill on a LUST (leaking tanks)/TACO (Tiered Approach to Corrective Objectives) site where residential uses are prohibited by IEPA, as recorded on the deed! But minimum wage kids can work 12-hour shifts on the site. Geneva’s aldermen approved a drive-thru at the top of the hill (the vote was 5-5, with Mayor Burns breaking the tie with his yes vote creating the “Burns Dunkin'”) that will stop the diesel trucks coming up the hill. A stopped 40,000-pound load needs a lot of diesel fuel to get back up to 30 mph, especially up a hill. This is after Geneva received $1 mil in Federal CMAQ (congestion mitigation/air quality) grants to improve diesel efficiency and air quality along East State Street!

Another consideration, albeit a bit tangential, is that the Geneva dam will likely be removed in the not-far-distant future. Please see Back to When the River Made Pearls, not Stenches – Rod’s Ramblings and Ruminations (genevanotes.com). The advantages and disadvantages of dam removal are discussed by the “Friends of the Fox” here: Frequently Asked Dam Questions | Friends of the Fox River. Removing the dams will make the Fox River friendlier to canoeists, kayakers, and fishermen. “Clamming” (and pearls) might even come back. The City of Geneva and the Geneva Park District should seriously consider how the increasing demand for access to the river will be met. If the river becomes a rafting, canoeing, kayaking “highway,” an enter/exit/rest-stop in the heart of downtown Geneva could also be an economic/tourist booster.

I do not oppose the redevelopment of the old MRI site. However, I am for doing it right. Lead, mercury, asbestos, petrochemicals, etc., pose a potential risk to current and future residents. Disturbing the site, a brownfield based on its prior uses could put contaminated dust in the air for current Geneva children to inhale. This is not covered by the current permitting process, which does not mandate heavy metal testing, For example. examine how Batavia handled a nearly identical scenario on its old industrial site on the east bank of the Fox. As the property owner, the City did a thorough independent environmental assessment beyond what was “covered” by the permitting process. Batavia found contaminants (including lead and mercury) and mitigated the site with IEPA guidance.

Notice that even though the developer (Shodeen) walked away at the very last moment, the Batavia site is now green and neat and kept that way. Unfortunately, Batavia lost a historic church but did not leave the foundation as a gaping, water-filled hole. Geneva’s similar site is a disgrace and an embarrassment to its citizens. See, for example, Kane County Chronicle, 2019/02/25: “Batavia aldermen ok lead cleanup plan: While aldermen have been sharply divided on the redevelopment project itself, they closed ranks to approve the cleanup plan, saying they essentially had no choice.”

The Geneva aldermen refuse to remove their blinders lest they catch a glimpse of the potentially serious problems they have repeatedly and irresponsibly chosen to ignore.

The Mill Race Inn River Room just prior to the start of the Great Recession in 2007. New owners took over the MRI in 2004. They never recovered from the flood of 2007, when they lost $35,000 worth of food and liquor. Their former restaurant, Horwath’s on Harlem Ave., also had some misfortunes, such as when a bomb went off inside on May 4, 1982, with only the owner inside. Photo gallery: A history of Elmwood Park — Chicago Tribune
The old Geneva dam in 1939 versus the 1961 dam as it appeared in 2014. The problems in the early 60’s with stench were caused by the loss of the mill race.

* Attorney Roy Selleck Lasswell, an east sider, lived at 860 N Bennett Street near Division in Geneva just south of the St. Charles line. He was a graduate of the Northwestern School of Law and served in the U.S. Navy as an LTJG in WW II. I had the privilege of knowing his wife, Carol, a court reporter. Roy’s father, Tull C. Lasswell, was also an attorney. In 1962-3 Mr. Lasswell was the Geneva City Attorney. He expressed pride in the Geneva Plan Commission. In the mid-70’s the Lasswell’s moved to Batavia.

Roy Lasswell’s home is near the east bank of the Fox River next to Riverside Park on the Fox River Trail.

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