Aaron Sitze thinks of the Rock River as a circulatory system.
His business, White Pelican Canoe, Kayak & Bike Rental in Oregon, is part of it.
“Unique, biologically-diverse, great fishing,” Sitze said. “It’s a special stretch. It represents what Oregon can become. A tourist destination. There isn’t a Walmart staring them in the face here. There’s mom and pop shops. The river pumps in travelers as a circulatory system. Everyone will be better off the more we work on it.”
Sitze estimates 90% of his customers come from out of the area, mostly from Chicago, Wisconsin and the Quad Cities. They want a “daycation” that doesn’t require a plane ride or long drive.
Last summer, during the height of During COVID-19, the river served as one of Oregon and Ogle County’s few safe, viable forms of recreation.
In fact, outdoor recreation in all forms boomed. Sitze was unable to find a lot of equipment because it was sold out.
“Outdoors was one of the few things you could do,” he said. “We definitely found those people that were thankful for something to get out and do. It felt good to give them that. The river is relaxing; an escape from all that stress.”
Blackhawk Waterways Convention and Visitors Bureau reported that in 2019, the year for which the most recent numbers are available, tourism near the Rock River generated $190.53 million in travel expenditures and $4.57 across Ogle, Lee, Carroll and Whiteside counties.
Ogle County saw $44.17 million in travel expenditures and $1.04 million in local tax revenues in 2019, while $14.12 million was paid in payroll wages to employees serving travelers, and 560 jobs were supported by tourism. About $6.4 million in state travel tax receipts were generated.
“We are very lucky,” said Diane Bausman, Blackhawk’s executive director. “You have everything people are looking for – a nice mix of small towns with a lot of charm and downtowns. So much to offer. I’d like to say the charming towns would still bring people in, but the river is a draw and adds so much extra.”
Bausman has been executive director since 2004. Tourism was more history-focused then. In the past five years, outdoor recreation has replaced it. Her website hits have gone up during COVID-19.
“Ninety-seven percent of our site traffic comes from the Chicagoland area,” Bausman said. “The traffic is good here. I think we’ll see more and more.
“The [state] office of tourism said our focus for the next 6 months will be close-to-home vacation and leisure travel. We have what they’re looking for.”
Oregon Mayor Ken Williams said the river’s tourism impact can be seen simply by looking at the number of restaurants in his town.
In a town of around 3,700, “we have 32 choices of places to eat,” Williams said, “Other cities I see and talk to, they’re happy to get a second or third restaurant. There’s a huge difference. It’s because we’re a destination. Would you have Lowden State Park or the Black Hawk statue without the river? Would there be Sinnissippi Tree Farm?”
The river allows Oregon to be an ecotourism area, he said.
There are plans to build a path along the riverfront, and the city recently entered into an intergovernmental agreement with the Oregon Fire Department to host events on land it owns on the riverfront.
Rich Weisner manages Maxson’s Restaurant and Riverboat in Oregon. He’s been there for 30 years and takes customers on scenic paddlewheel rides every summer.
He believes 100% of people come into the restaurant, in part, because of the scenery. The business hosts weddings and special events, too. About a third of Maxson’s customers are from the suburbs.
The Weisner family is originally from Chicago.
“Maxson’s would never be as busy as it is without the riverboat,” Weisner said. “I just know a lot of people come here for the state parks and the river itself in the summertime.
“Oregon is just so peaceful. I would never go back to Chicago, and neither would my family. The eagle population grows more and more every year. There’s a nest we pass. Every year there’s more chicks.”
Byron Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sarah Downs sees people lined up at boat launches every weekend during the summers. Some pizza places deliver right to the boat launch.
She often sees people treasure-hunting with metal detectors near the banks. Hairy Cow Brewing Company, which was the first in the county, has riverfront property. The view alone brings patrons, she said.
The tourism dollars and the stops at restaurants and gas stations aren’t even near the river’s biggest impact on Byron and the county, she said.
Exelon Generation built the Byron Nuclear Plant in the area because of the river, from which it draws water from for operation.
The Byron plant pays one of the highest property tax bills in the United States. In 2019, the plant’s main real estate tax bill was $34.9 million. Ogle County and programs associated with it received over $3.7 million. The Oregon Park District received more than $2.2 million.
Byron taxing bodies make up the majority of Exelon’s tax bill for the plant. The Byron School District received a little more than $19.1 million, the Byron Fire District $2.54 million, the Byron Forest Preserve nearly $2.35 million and the Byron Library District $862,695.
“That’s the largest impact, in my opinion,” Downs said. “What I see the most from the nuclear plant is not just donations and tax money, but it employs so many people. The quality and quantity of their people is where I see the impact. They utilize the economy. They buy homes. That’s where I’ve seen the impact.”
Otto Dick of the Ogle County Historical Society recalls when the Rock River’s industry was more than tourism and the nuclear plant. Before all of that, the river provided electricity and power to a piano factory, three or four lumber yards, a foundry, and a factory that built cultivator machines. There were three mills here in the area at one time because of water power.
The tourism shift started in the early to mid-1900s, he said. Railroads advertised the area for tourism in the Chicago papers. Trainloads of people were brought out during summers, weekends and holidays.
“There probably wouldn’t have been a city without the river,” Dick said. “And I doubt it would have been the county seat if there wasn’t.”
The Rock River is not without its dangers, though.
The crowds brought out by COVID-19 made for the most traffic in years, and the Oregon Fire Department’s water rescue numbers last year were more than double the year before. The Ogle County Sheriff’s Office bought a boat to do extra patrols.
On Nov. 20, 2019, Kent Dearborn Jr., 33, of Polo and James Swift, 64, of Forreston, died when their boat capsize while fishing near the Oregon dam. Swift’s body was recovered near Dixon in January. Dearborn’s has not been found.
The Illinois Department of Resources is the chief authority of the waterway. District 1 Capt. Laura Petreikis said the dam area in Oregon has the potential to be “very dangerous” if the right measures aren’t taken.
“They may look like the water is gently going over, but it can suck you in,” Petreikis said. “Don’t go anywhere near them. We’ve done successful rescues and have had a number of tragedies in low head dams like those over the years. The current underneath is very strong.”
Between Ogle, Lee, Whiteside and Carroll counties, there are only three IDNR conservation officers. There are also four in Winnebago County and two in DeKalb County.
They help each other and patrol as needed, and the IDNR also relies heavily on local agencies such as the Ogle County Sheriff’s Office and the Oregon Fire Department for river and conservation-related needs, Petreikis said.
“We’re jacks of all trades. Forestry, wildlife, fishing and boating,” she said. We’re highly trained and knowledgeable. We don’t have a slow time anymore. My officers are constantly busy.
“We need to have more officers. That’s budget-related. Rockford has the most complaints and Starved Rock has high traffic. Our more rural counties don’t, but they still need an officer.”
Every year, the IDNR sees boats break down and float toward the dam, and it doesn’t always make it to help them in time. Boaters need to have the right equipment, like anchors, and refrain from boating drunk, Petreikis said.
“The worst part about my job is when tragedy happens and someone goes missing on the river. We have to come in and search day after day and tell the family when we can’t find them. A lot of times they’re never located. That’s the worst. We want to bring closure.
“Every tragedy we’ve had has definitely been preventable.”
Oregon Fire Chief Michael Knoup led many searches for Swift and Dearborn after they went missing. The fire station is on the riverfront and has its own boat dock, and the department gets 10-15 water rescue calls a year.
“It poses unique challenges and opportunities,” Knoup said. “Water rescue from boat rescue to swift water. Water rises and there’s flooding. The need for more advanced training and equipment. Boats, it adds expense and time to train. That’s what it does for us.”
Despite the dangers, Knoup said he’s glad to have the river because it’s an attraction for the area.
It’s a living thing. It can change day-to-day and is a different hazard every time you’re on it, he said.
Early in the year in when the river is on Knoup’s mind the most. The spring brings high water and flooding, depending on the snow melt.
“It gets better as summer goes on and danger goes on,” Knoup said.
“It’s one of our strengths and one of our biggest concerns. Always changing and bringing things to town. It makes risks some fire departments don’t have.”
For him, flooding the river’s biggest impact, Ogle County Sheriff Brian VanVickle said.
His office is always cognizant of water levels. Roadways close to the river, like state Route 2, are a concern as well.
On the night of Dec. 26, Brandon Cuddy, 27, of Byron went missing. His car was found Jan. 6, damaged on a steep bank of the river in rural Byron and covered in snow. His body was found in the river in Sterling on March 13.
VanVickle’s office and Cuddy’s family conducted multiple searches of the river area, on foot and on the water.
As do Petreikis and Knoup, VanVickle considers the river an asset to the community, but along with that come challenges, and, inevitably, tragedy.
“The fire departments are prepared and work well with us,” VanVickle said.
“It provides unique opportunities and challenges specific to a river community. We’ve had tragedies, but the training all local agencies conduct has me comfortable with our response to the river.”