THE KANKAKEE TORRENT: A SUMMARY OF HOW THE GREAT FLOOD WAS DISCOVERED

By

Jim DeCinque

November 24, 2015
This webpage was created to satisfy requirements for course
ES 767 Quaternary Geology
Dr. J. Aber, Emporia State University

Image taken from the Illinois Geological Survey


Table of Contents

Abstract
Glacial Kankakee Torrent in Northeastern Illinois (1925)
Geology and Mineral Resources of the Marseilles,Ottawa,and Streator Quadrangles (1942)
Geology of the Kankakee River System in Kankakee County, Illinois (1981)
Guide to the Geology of Kankakee River State Park Area,Kankakee County, Illinois (1998)
The Kankakee Torrent and Other Large Meltwater Flooding Events During the Last Deglaciation, Illinois (2014)
Conclusions
References


Abstract:

Major catastrophic events punctuate the geological record. The Kankakee Valley in eastern Illinois, south of Chicago, in an area known for hanging tributaries and waterfalls formed by an immense flood of glacial meltwater; the magnitude of the event that shaped the landscape along the Kankakee and Illinois River Valleys is obvious. Evidence of the flood event can be traced to course changes in the Mississippi, Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. Some workers believe a large moraine breached by a tremendous flood of glacial meltwater and debris flowed down the Kankakee and Illinois Rivers. Other researchers suggest a cosmic impact crater formed a lake of great size in the Wisconsin glacial ice sheet and draining of this crater lake initiated the Kankakee Torrent.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries several geologist like C.U. Shepard, Frank Leverett and T.C. Chamberlin recognized coarse limestone blocks, large gravel and sand deposits along high level terraces within the Kankakee drainage basin. These geologists began to speculate about a great flood event which could have produced these unusual geologic deposits. In the 21st century, geologists continue to map the surficial deposits, radiometric date wood samples and build complex GIS models to best explain the history of the great flood now known as the Kankakee Torrent.


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Glacial Kankakee Torrent in Northeastern Illinois (1925):

Ekblaw and Athy give an historical account of the first geologists who recognized the coarse sand, gravel and boulder deposits, formed by a great flood event, located along the Kankakee drainage in Illinois. They include Shepard (1838) who stated there is evidence to support occasional overflow of Lake Michigan at ancient periods and Bradley (1870) who described the deposits forming from a Lake Kankakee. Chamberlin (1883) best characterized the deposits as an avenue of discharge of vast quantities of water shed from the adjacent slopes of the great glaciers and great accumulations of sand originated in this exceptional drainage.

Leverett (1899) who theorized the area was out wash from successive positions of the fronts of the receding Michigan, Saginaw and Erie ice lobes (Fig.1). During field mapping of the Kankakee and Herscher Quadrangles, Ekblaw and Athy identified evidence of torrent conditions in the Kankakee watershed. The field evidence includes fossil bars, abandoned high level channels, erosion effects (deep channels), changes in topography at torrent limits, alluvial deposits and rubble upper limits. The authors produced two maps within their paper including a figure showing the extent of the Kankakee torrent in Illinois and a second showing the relationship of the Kankakee Valley to the Michigan and Huron-Erie Ice lobes.

Ekblaw and Athy projected the torrent flowed from eight to twenty kilometers wide and cut the dolomitic bedrock to as much as 10 meters below the valleys pre-torrent base. They surmised the source of the water was from the Michigan, Saginaw and Erie ice lobes as suggested by Leverett and the age must be late Wisconsin since the torrent cut channels through Wisconsin aged moraines.

Figure 1 - Michigan ice lobe at the Valparaiso Moraine location during the Pleistocene Ice Age from Wikimedia Commons Kankakee River


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Geology and Mineral Resources of the Marseilles, Ottawa, and Streator Quadrangles (1942):

In 1942, Willman and Payne described in detail their concept of the history of the Kankakee torrent. Rapid flowing glacial melt waters flowing from the Valparaiso glacier from Indiana and Michigan overloaded the Kankakee, Dupage-Des Plains and Fox River Valleys. The Illinois River was unable to accept the tremendous volumes of flood waters and debris.

The former Marseilles moraine (Fig. 2) acted as an impediment to flow along the Kankakee drainage and formed Lake Wauponsee. Eventually, Lake Wauponsee breached the Marseilles moraine and flood waters filled a second Lake Ottawa behind the Farm Ridge moraine.

To the south, Lake Wauposee found an outlet through the Iroquois River gap and formed Lake Watseka. Lake Watseka discharged and moved west down the Vermilion River Valley forming a fourth Lake Pontiac.

As the Kankakee torrent eroded the pre-existing Farm Ridge moraine, the vast cutting action formed a scabland terrain through the moraine breach. Major torrent flows passed through the Kankakee Valley and carried large limestone boulders, coarse gravel, sand and silt deposits into the four lakes. As the torrent began to decline, and due to the aggrading of the former moraine dams, the four lakes began to recede as well.

Willman and Payne estimate the original Illinois River Valley was approximately a half mile wide before the Kankakee torrent and was cut significantly wider and deeper during the torrent events.

Figure 2 - Map of distribution of Wisconsin aged glacial deposits in Illinois. Note location of the four lakes taken from Wikimedia Commons Kankakee Torrent


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Geology of the Kankakee River System in Kankakee County, Illinois (1981):

In 1981, Gross and Berg describe the simultaneous development of a two-moraine system during Wordfordian time (14,000 Years B.P.). In the north, the Valparaiso moraine developed from the Michigan ice lobe and to the east, in Indiana, another moraine system developed from the Saginaw/Erie ice lobes. The formation of these two moraine structures funneled large melt water flows from the three melting ice lobes down the Kankakee Valley. Gross and Berg recognized and described the location of several ice-contact stratified deposits along the Kankakee drainage. In fact, their inclusion of a map depicting surface material deposits along the Kankakee valley identified locations of several glacial features and glacial surface materials (Fig. 3). Identifiable lacustrine sediments were deposited in the four lakes and their backwater areas were identified on the surface materials map.

Building on Willman and Payne's historical account, they described thick sand deposits found along the Kankakee valley that extend from 32 to 48 kilometers in width from Illinois into Indiana. Also, they recognized as flooding began to subside from the torrent, the thick sandy deposits were later shaped and redistributed by eolian activity and dune building.

Figure 3 - Map of Surface Materials along the Kankakee Basin from Gross et al., 1981


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Guide to the Geology of Kankakee River State Park Area, Kankakee County, Illinois (1998):

Frankie (1998) considers multiple advancement and retreats of the Michigan lobe over time and the development of the Rockdale, Wilton Center, Manhattan and Valparaiso moraines behind the Marseilles moraine (Fig. 4). Frankie estimates the advancement and retreat, plus development of the four lakes, probably occurred between 13,000 and 12,000 years B.P.; he states:

to understand the mechanics of the Kankakee Torrent, it is important to realize that the vast quantities of meltwater flowing from the conjunction of these three glacial lobes and being discharged through the Kankakee Valley caused a great number of recurring floods, which are collectively referred to as the Kankakee Torrent.

Frankie describes the actions along the torrent flow as carrying slabs three meters in diameter, "ripped" Silurian (dolomite) bedrock and deposition of substantial bars of sand and gravel. As the Valparaiso glacier retreated, the Wabash Valley diverted flow from the Saginaw/Erie lobe to the south, significantly decreasing the amount of meltwater flow through the Kankakee Valley, therefore bringing an end to the Kankakee Torrent.

Figure 4 - Kankakee Torrent in Morris-Kankakee Basin with Moraines Identified by Frankie, 1998


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The Kankakee Torrent and Other Large Meltwater Flooding Events During the Last Deglaciation, Illinois (2014):

In 2014, Curry and others used digital elevation models, radiocarbon ages, core analysis and isostatic rebound adjustments in a GIS based evaluation of the Kankakee Torrent. This study is the most extensive to date. Their research defines a time and progression analysis of the historical overflow routes of the torrent from glacial lobe meltwater to sea level change.

Melting from Lake Michigan, Saginaw and Huron-Erie lobes flowed through the Kankakee basin and into the drainage of the Illinois River basin. Nearly 22,000 years B.P. the Lake Michigan lobe crossed the former Wabash drainage valley eliminating an alternate course for meltwater flows from the three glacial lobes. Due to damming of the Kankakee valley by the Marseilles moraine (Fig. 5), Lakes Wauponsee, Watseka, Pontiac and Ottawa were formed.

Approximately 19,000 years B.P., the Marseilles moraine breached in at least three locations releasing the Kankakee Torrent down the Illinois River Valley. The authors estimated the impact to sea level could have been as much as 3mm.

Figure 5 - Colors depict different moraines developed during the last deglaciation taken from Wikimedia Commons Valparaiso Moraine


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Conclusions:

The geomorphic remnants of a flood event known to have occurred approximately 19,000 years B.P. in northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana has been mapped and identified as the Kankakee Torrent. The Kankakee Valley in eastern Illinois, south of Chicago, is an area known for hanging tributaries and waterfalls formed by an immense flood of glacial meltwater (Fig. 6); the magnitude of the event that shaped the landscape along the Kankakee and Illinois River Valleys is obvious. Evidence of the flood event can be traced to course changes in the Mississippi, Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. Many geologists have proposed various theories in an effort to explain the Kankakee Torrent and the geological glacial-fluvial landforms found along the Kankakee and Illinois River Valleys (Wiggers, 1997).

Other recent theories include cosmic impacts forming great crater lakes and flooding within the glacial lobes as channel tunnel lifting drained the crater lake (Davias, 2015). The geological literature contains many other field studies and publications not mentioned in this summary. The additional works add geological content and analysis to these summaries and many can be found in the reference sections of these five publications. The geological works summarized above tend to collectively outline the geological perspectives at the time of their publication. Each publication characterizes the depth of understanding by the geological community of glacial meltwater flood events in the context of their time. All collectively bring to life a series of catastrophic events in northeastern Illinois known as the Kankakee Torrent or the Great Flood .


Figure 6 - Canyon at Starved Rock State Park, Illinois taken from Wikimedia Commons Kankakee Torrent


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References:

Bradley, F. H. 1870. Geology of Illinois vol. IV, 227-236.

Chamberlin, T.C., 1883. Preliminary Paper on the Terminal Moraine of the Second Glacial Epoch. U.S. Geological Survey 3rd Annual Report, 330-331.

Davias, M., 2015. The Saginaw Impact Manifold. Kankakee Torrent. World Wide Web Homepage URL: http://www.cintos.org/SaginawManifold/Saginaw_Bay/Torrents/index.html. Accessed on November 14, 2015.

Curry, B., Hajic, E., Befus, K., Clark, J. Carrell, J., and Brown, S., 2014. The Kankakee Torrent and other large meltwater flooding events during the last deglaciation, Illinois, ... Quaternary Science Reviews. 90. 22-36.

Ekblaw, G. E., Athy, L.F., 1925. Glacial Kankakee Torrent in Northeastern Illinois. Geological Society of America Bulletin 36, 417-428.

Frankie, W.T. 1998. Guide to the Geology of Kankakee River State Park Area, Kankakee County, Illinois. Illinois Geological Survey, Field Trip 1997C, Field Trip 1998 B. 11-17.

Gross, D.L., Berg, R.C. 1981. Geology of the Kankakee River System in Kankakee County, Illinois. Illinois Geological Survey, Environmental Geology Notes 92. 1-26.

Isgs.illinois.edu. 2015. End Moraines: the End of the Glacial Ride. Wide Web Homepage URL: http://www.isgs.illinois.edu/outreach/geology-resources/end-moraines-end-glacial-ride. Accessed on November 13, 2015.

Leverett, F. 1899. The Illinois Glacial Lobe. U.S. Geological Survey, Monograph 38. p.338.

Shepard, C.U., 1838. Geology of Upper Illinois. American Journal of Science and Arts (Sillman's Journal). vol. 34. p.137.

Wiggers, R., 1997. Geology Underfoot in Illinois. Montana: Montana Press Publishing Company. 127-133.

Willman, H.B., Payne, J.N. 1942. Geology and Mineral Resources of the Marseilles, Ottawa, and Streator Quadrangles. Illinois Geological Survey Bulletin 66, 166-225.


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