A Tributary Runs Through It: Engineering’s Boneyard Creek

"Where the Boneyard Flows," 1905, Record Series  0/1/804.

“Where the Boneyard Flows,” 1905, Record Series 0/1/804.

Just north of Engineering Hall is a 3.9 mile-long creek which has, for better or worse, figured in the lives of students, faculty, and staff at the University of Illinois. Though a familiar site on the Engineering campus, current students may pass by Boneyard Creek giving it little thought. Around the turn of the 20th century, however, freshmen may have looked upon this small tributary of the Salt Fork Vermilion River with a degree of trepidation. A 1905 song parodies some of the anxieties the creek affected on new students at the university:

A freshman stood on the Boneyard bank, There were no “thinks” in his old tank. He looked so green in his freshman lid; A frog took him for a katydid. The frog jumped up, and gobbled him down, And jumped in the mud so brown. As I passed by, I heard him say; “I could eat nine more for lunch today.”

Where the Boneyard Flows, And the slip’ry-ip’ry elm tree grows, Bring the peagreen frosh, we’ll soak his clothes; (unk, unk!!) Where the Boneyard Flows.[1]

University of Illinois students  climb out of the Boneyard Creek after losing a game of tug-of-war, circa 1953, Record Series 39/2/20.

University of Illinois students climb out of the Boneyard Creek after losing a game of tug-of-war, circa 1953, Record Series 39/2/20.

Since its “wild waves tell stories grim of poor little frosh who couldn’t swim,” unsurprisingly, the last verse of “Where the Boneyard Flows” urges freshmen to take swimming lessons soon after matriculation. Whether a feature in class rivalries or a favorite swimming spot in the 1870s, the song depicts a creek at the center of life at the University of Illinois.[2] After arriving at the University of Illinois in 1916, Marcus S. Goldman recalled of the Boneyard Creek, “I heard of it very soon after my arrival in Champaign, for there was talk of a more or less traditional tug-of-war between freshman and sophomores, one class being on each side of the creek, the object: to drag the opposing one into the water.”[3] Class rivalries aside, one could not write about the Boneyard without acknowledging its location on the Engineering campus:

I wish that I was an engineer. They roam both far and near. But when there is no instructor nigh. Out to the peach orchard they all hie. They point their levels all the same way. I wonder what they survey; When asked for figures they reply; I’ve got all the figures in my eye. Where the Boneyard Flows…

In addition to being a feature on campus and a site of tension between freshmen and sophomores, the flooding and pollution of the Boneyard Creek inspired other interpretations. A poem in the April 25, 1892 Illini (now the Daily Illini), paid homage to the creek’s natural surroundings and aesthetic appeal:

O beauteous Boneyard, crystal stream, May thy silvery ripples gleams; May thy waters ever flow, while the ages come and go

And the perfumes that we breathe, As we stroll the willows ‘neath–May the blooms that yield the scent, Never grow less redolent

The Boneyard’s declining water quality and frequent inundation of university lands within its watershed has led to different interpretations. Professor of English Daniel Curley penned in his poem “In Praise of Boneyard Creek,”

No fish can live in the Boneyard. Kingfishers seems to understand this but not the robins and cardinals rummaging in the undergrowth along the bank.[4]

Rustic Bridge over the Boneyard Creek circa 1914, Record Series 39/2/20.

Rustic Bridge over the Boneyard Creek circa 1914, Record Series 39/2/20.

 

Since the late-19th century, Boneyard Creek periodically flooded the low-lying, poorly drained fields in proximity to the Engineering campus and Campustown, causing a great deal of damage, as did the 1979 flood; the total monetary damages to the Champaign-Urbana community amounted to $1,500,000. A 1993 flood proved particularly disruptive, halting the construction of the Grainger Library, flooding basements, and forcing the university to shut down after a sewage lifting station flooded.[5] The Boneyard Creek has also been the subject of class projects and studies at the University of Illinois. Even early in its history, the university conducted a study on its propensity to flood in 1918, and during the late-1960s, students from General Engineering courses 104,  242,  393, worked on creek rehabilitation projects.[6] The Prairie Research Institute currently maintains the Boneyard Creek Collection, which chronicles state and county efforts to mitigate the creek’s perennial flood and water quality issues.

Amidst its floods and water quality issues, the creek’s name has also been a subject of debate. Originally referred to as the Silver Creek, some sources note that it was nicknamed the “Boneyard Creek” even before the founding of the university in 1867. According to one source, “Boneyard” originated in 1865, when the city of Urbana authorities “decided to drain the swamp lands in their midst” and “unearthed an assortment of bones” from the Silver Creek, while another attributed the origin of the creek’s name to a blizzard in 1836, when a number of animals sought shelter near the creek and perished.[7] In the early 1900s, President Andrew Draper attempted to rename it the “Silver Creek” several times, and though eventually successful, the student body continued to call it by its beloved “Boneyard.”[8]

The Boneyard Creek continues to surface and resurface in campus life. More recently, for instance, the creek was the namesake of the 2013 University of Illinois team in the National Concrete Canoe Competition, the Boneyard Yacht Club. From aerial maps, photographs, and poetry, to reports and minutes of administrators, the University Archives documents the Boneyard Creek and its place in the history of the University of Illinois.

 

 

Aerial view of the Engineering campus, ca. 1930, RS 39/2/22.

Aerial view of the Engineering campus. The Boneyard Creek can be seen running through the snow-covered campus, circa 1930, Record Series 39/2/22.

 

[1] For a brief history of the freshman tradition of wearing green beanies (“spots”) at the University of Illinois, see: http://library.osu.edu/projects/beanies/illinois/index.html; Herald Bratt Fites and Van Ness Clark, “Where the Boneyard Flows,” Illini Music Publishing Co., 1915, Illini Songs and Music, 1903-58, Record Series 0/1/804, University of Illinois Archives.

[2] Winton U. Solberg, The University of Illinois, 1867-1894: An Intellectual and Cultural History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968), 169.

[3] “Half a Century Look at Boneyard,” News-Gazette, October 12, 1975, University Archives Reference File, Record Series 35/3/65, University of Illinois Archives.

[4] “In Praise of Boneyard Creek,” undated, Daniel Curley Papers, 1932-91, Record Series 15/7/37, box 60, University of Illinois Archives.

[5] “Final Price of Flood Damage Still Unknown as Cleanup Continues,” Inside Illinois, August 19, 1993, Record Series 39/1/830, box 8, University of Illinois Archives.

[6] K. DeWitt Pulcipher Papers, Record Series 41/20/37-1; “The Boneyard: Stream or Sewer,” The Technograph, October 1969, 35, University Archives Reference File, Record Series 35/3/65, University of Illinois Archives.

[7] “Juliet was Right: How the Silver Creek became Boneyard Told in a Thrilling Tale of Lowly Buffalo,” The Daily Illini, April 22, 1921, p.1; “The Boneyard Just isn’t the Boneyard; Early Settlers Called It Silvercreek,” The Daily Illini, July 28, 1948, p. 1.

[8] Tony Fuller, “Memories of Boneyard Fade,” The Daily Illini, October 12, 1962, p. 4; Brian Braun, “Before 1900, UI Life was Different,” The Daily Illini, August 1, 1967, p. 43.

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