Inclusion in historical endangered list could help rejuvenate Camp Algonquin

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ALGONQUIN – An Illinois preservation group's decision Tuesday to make Camp Algonquin one of the most endangered historical places in the state could eventually help lead a revival of the century-old Fox River destination.

Many of the camp's 47 buildings, including dorms and recreational facilities that date to the early 1900s, have fallen into disrepair in the years since the camp closed in 2011. The camp's owner, the McHenry County Conservation District, has slated many buildings for demolition.

Landmarks Illinois noted the camp's declining state in its annual list, released Tuesday, of the most endangered historical places. The preservation group has released the list for the last 19 years to try and call attention to historical properties in dire conditions.

By making the list, the camp could be eligible for new grant opportunities or could open up avenues for private donations, McHenry County Conservation District Executive Director Elizabeth Kessler said.

"It's pretty exciting," she said. "It definitely communicates and draws attention to the fact that the facilities are deteriorating. ... It draws attention that we need community support."

A bill sponsored by state Sens. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, and Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, also would raise the conservation district's maximum tax rate to cover the maintenance of historical buildings.

Representatives from Landmark could also survey the campsite and help determine the costs of certain improvements, said Kurt Begalka, the administrator for the McHenry County Historical Society.

Dating back to the 1880s, people throughout the Chicago area would travel to the 116-acre Camp Algonquin for a recreational escape. By 1907, the original 20 acres of the camp became a destination for city dwellers seeking a break from urban life.

Located near Route 31 and Cary Road in unincorporated McHenry County, the camp sits on hilly, wooded land that once belonged to the Gillian family, regarded as the first white settlers in the county. It also has had a variety of notable owners. The Chicago Tribune helped establish the original 20 acres and built dorms in the early 1900s that still exist today, Begalka said.

The Chicago Relief and Aid Society later would help expand the camp's services and recreational programs. By the 2000s, it became a popular retreat destination for area school groups, businesses, organizations and churches.

The former YMCA of McHenry County managed the property from 2004 until 2011, when the group filed for bankruptcy partly because of two lawsuits from drowning deaths at the camp in 2008.

The financial trouble forced the former YMCA to close Camp Algonquin and break its lease agreement with the conservation district.

District officials have since been doing basic maintenance on the camp, while figuring out ways to reopen the camp.

Officials last year revealed a master plan that would transform the camp and the nearby Fox Bluff Conservation Area with modern recreational amenities. It also included plans to demolish all but one of the historical properties that populate the camp.

But public outreach – including from the county's historical society – led to a change of heart for some of the district's trustees, and staff has been directed to look into saving three more buildings, including a Tribune dorm, a cabin and a late 1800s dairy barn.

"There is a lot of history surrounding the camp and with time, it's just being ravaged," Begalka said. "There's nothing quite like this in the county ... It's a jewel that nobody knows about."