By Norman V. Kelly
Rocky Glen is a hiker’s and nature lover’s dream come true. My brother took me there a couple of times when he came back from WWII in 1946, and I had him all to myself. It may have been the happiest time I ever had with my older brother, Dale. He was a fighter pilot in WWII and a Forward Observer L-9 pilot in the Korean War. I was astounded at what I saw and here it is 2016 and I am finally writing about this natural paradise located so very close to the City of Peoria, Illinois. All my life I was drawn back to the Kickapoo Creek area so when Bruce Brown and I talked about going there with a guide, I jumped at the chance.
Located along the western bank of the Kickapoo Creek at a point just west of Peoria, generations of Peorians walked those very same paths and trails. It took millions of years to form what we now see and geologists, botanist and other scientist came here to study this paradise of nature. Of course way back when those were very narrow trails and only the most fit and adventurous managed to see the inner most remote and obscure, secretive places. But David, our guide assured me that a 92-year-old man managed to complete the hike and so can you.
The scientist tell us that at one time the entire State of Illinois was under water and samples of the sand and gravel deposits proved that marine creatures once thrived there. Down the western slope massive glacial gravel deposits were left there at West Peoria and parts of Peoria as well. Their reports point out that the entire area as we know it is bedrock underlying the entire terrain formed and laid down in a past geological age when the coal beds were first formed an extremely long, long time ago. Over the years the terrain changed with huge quantities’ of water ripping up the soil, filling the crevices and shaping the landscape as only pounding water and glacial ice can manage. The history is written all along the Kickapoo Valley and reported by those learned men and women of the past two centuries.
Those glacial deposits blocked water exits and shaped the entire original stream and in the process dug out massive caves and shaped the rocky western wall of the entire valley with scenic cliffs and overhangs. Seeking lower levels the water raced on southward…always southward seeking out the crevices and carved the rock walls for centuries upon centuries. It is at the southward edge that the hiker will find the delight of his or her life and that precise spot is what is now called Rocky Glen! Now that is a version of the place that the writers of years ago described it to us. Now I personally call the Rocky Glen the area where locals call the ‘The Bowl.’ It is my favorite place and to me the goal of any hiker should be to spend some time in the mysterious ‘Bowl.’ Remember the Peoria Park District controls 125 acres including the 70 acres that they received from the City of Peoria. So there is enough space to walk around all day, but as I said my goal is to get to the “bowl’ and just sit there and take it all in. You will see carvings and graffiti on the huge sandstone rocks and a wonderful waterfall that makes the place a serene little paradise called Rocky Glen. Of course that title encompasses the entire acreage, but not for me. There are meadows, trees, mosses, flowers, tadpoles and yes, even frogs. I live in a place where a creek runs behind my property and over the years I have seen everything that lived in that little stream just disappear; not at Rocky Glenn, which makes it such a treat to visit.
Hearts beat faster, the eyes widen as the hikers pause to try and take in what is before their very eyes, There, in all its wonderment is a small natural world apart from what they were used to seeing during their initial journey. Once the hiker begins to move on the surprises just keep coming; one adventurist discovery after another. For the educated eye the flowers take on names and meaning, the mosses change before the hiker’s very eyes and the wildlife between the massive rocks take on lives of their own. It is almost dream like for those that just happened to stumble upon the magnificent Rocky Glen. Fortunately for us the guides are there with you to answer your questions and it is a real live, walking travelogue, believe me.
What is truly awesome about this area is the four seasons that come and go bringing new visions of beauty and natural surprises like a child turning pages in a colorful children’s book. As the seasons change the views take on a different form of beauty. Spring spawns the early plant life that brings the colors that show us the way to summer. They pop up between the massive rocks and up above the green mosses, clawing for the sun rays that will bring them to their full glory.
There are thousands of rocks all over the vale and they remind us of what is beneath the 200 to 500 feet of clay, rock and gravel. There is the bedrock that was left there millions of years ago. Summer brings the leaves and the upper canopy that forms a protective roof over the grounds below. Small trees and shrubs are everywhere with every species of bird imaginable. The small animals are abundant and the silence within this protected spot is a beautiful thing to ponder.
Fall begins to paint with a new, colorful brush as the trees burst forth with the fall colors that dreams are made of. The warm breezes begin to leave a slight cool nip in the air and by the end of October the hiker gets a greater view of just how tall the trees really are. The swirling wind sends the colorful leaves on a last flight of fantasy as they fall to the earth and await the snows that will surely come and cover them up. They had their moment of glorious color high above the forest floor and now they must pay what Mother Nature demands of them; to spread their final essence back into the earth. The wind picks up in November and howls through the trees promising a snow that will cover every nook and crevice, bringing peacefulness to the place that is unmatched anywhere in Peoria, including beautiful Detweiller Park. Winter silences everything except the wild Blue Jay and Crow as the cold slumber takes over as the dominant force. There is peace and stillness in Rocky Glen.
“There’s gold in them thar hills, boys.” I think most of us have heard that quote before and believe me it was used here in Peoria, Illinois like this; ‘There’s COAL in them there hills, boys.” They were pointing at what the coal miners of this area called the ‘Horseshoe Bottoms.’ So I guess they really meant hills, canyons and the bottoms, huh? Anyway that entire area there very near Rocky Glen was a coal miners dream and miners came from all over, predominately at one time from England, to seek the mining jobs that were popping up like mushrooms.
For you folks that like directions I am talking about an area below Saint Mary’s Cemetery off the West Peoria Bluff and as the land goes away from Kickapoo Creek it forms into what folks called a horseshoe. Now this could almost be considered ancient land and way back in 1870, my hero, because he was a local historian, Mr. C. Balance wrote this about that area I am talking about. “Coal is so abundant in this neighborhood that there is no danger of the supply falling in a thousand years.” I am just guessing but I bet there is a massive amount still there although miners from all over came here to get every black nugget of it they could possibly mine. That was a time now long past, but some of the mine shafts are still visible.
There, above Kickapoo creek in the hills and gullies explorers can find a hundred traces of mining activity long since silenced. There is a wonderful history of those mines and the rugged miners that lived along the creek and eked out a living breathing in the black dust of coal from sunup to sundown. You can find out for yourself in a book called Horseshoe Bottoms, written by a Pottstown miner named Tom Tippet. It surprised me to learn that the book was fiction, because he most certainly had the knowledge and wherewithal to write a vivid historical account of his life in the Horseshoe Bottoms. That book is available from The Friends of Rocky Glen, the caretakers of this new Peoria Park and I will give you their web site so you can get a copy for yourself.
Guess Who Now Owns Rocky Glen?
Maybe you got the memo and said the City of Peoria, Illinois. Well, you were right. There was a ton of negotiations with a lot of Illinois State Departments which I certainly am not going to get into. But suffice it to say that there was a lot of work on their part but they finally got the job done. They then turned the property over to the Peoria Park District. All of the Rocky Glen Guides can answer any question you have about anything connected with the park. My advice is to just walk along, listen to your guide and enjoy every tree, rock, flower and surprise that comes your way.
Jim Connaughton owned the 70 acres of Rocky Glen and actually had been trying to sell it for years. Of course the problem was getting access to the acreage due to its remoteness. He certainly realized what an incredible place he had and getting even the folks in Peoria, Illinois to realize that was a problem he finally overcame. The Peoria City Council, during a December meeting, voted 9-2 to purchase the land for the agreed upon amount of $230,000.00. That 70 acres and the 55 acres that the Park District owned adjacent make this a wonderful addition to our park system. Folks around here are in for some wonderful hiking activities as the years go by and all of the improvements that are planned come to fruition. the not-for-profit group called Friends of Rocky Glen are doing a wonderful job of protecting the property and conducting hikes through that most beautiful property. They have some great plans for all of us to enjoy our visits to Rocky Glen. I do not know the details but the Department of Natural Resources issued a grant and now Peoria is the proud owner of a piece of Peoria history that will serve us until the end of time.
You can and should become part of all the excitement out at Rocky Glenn by going to Friends of Rocky Glen they are easy to find. You can sign up for a guided tour and even become a volunteer: they will need a lot of energetic people to help out there in Rocky Glenn. They also will be working on making the place more accessible, building a parking lot and getting the place in shape to remain open from dawn to dusk to welcome visitors.
Editor’s Note: Norm is a true crime writer and a Peoria Historian. He writes monthly for ADVENTURE SPORTS OUTDOORS.