Channahon’s Confederates

Local history sleuth investigates story that soldiers were buried beneath I-55 bridge

February 7, 2010

Historical researcher Gina Wysocki is convinced Confederate prisoners of war were once in Channahon, thanks to an eyewitness who claims to have seen the bodies when the abutments were sunk to build the Interstate 55 bridge — Smith bridge — near the Des Plaines River.

Remnants of the ramp from that bridge are still visible from the northbound lane, Wysocki said.

"He recalls digging them up and touching the CSA (Confederate States of America) buttons that were still lining their deteriorated clothing," Wysocki, of Wilmington, said. "They were Confederates, so no one really cared about what they found, and they didn’t want to stop work on I-55."

Two theories

She has two theories on how the POWs ended up by the Channahon bridge, and both center on Charles Clayborn Smith, who owned 4,900 acres of land in Channahon and Wilmington townships.

Smith might have hired healthy POWs to help on his large dairy farm, which included constructing a 5-mile stone fence, Wysocki said. The POWs may have been housed at the former Joliet Correctional Center on Collins Street or even on his own property.

This was not a bad deal, because the prisoners could work outside beyond the prison walls and receive ample food. The men possibly died from wounds or diseases, such as typhoid, tuberculosis or influenza.

"If you died, they didn’t wheel you back," Wysocki said. "They buried you where you dropped."

Although it’s a good hypothesis, Wysocki is learning toward theory No. 2: Since the bodies were found in a single, mass grave, she believes they died at the same time.

Escape route

The July 30, 1862, edition of The Wilmington Advocate indicated that about 50 POWs had escaped from Camp Douglas and were seen near a small Will County town.

Because the bodies were discovered on Smith’s former property, Wysocki also suggests that the POWS may have traveled up the Des Plaines River, where Smith spotted them, then shot and killed them.

"All he had to do was let the paper know, ‘Hey, I killed five or six prisoners, so keep an eye for any more coming up the river,’ " Wysocki said.

She can’t wait to test her theories. All she needs now is permission from the Illinois Department of Transportation to explore near the I-55 area.

"I don’t have the authority to do a full archeological dig," Wysocki said. "But I can do metal detecting and shovel tests. We can probe and hope something comes up.

"Being a well-trafficked bridge, there will be a lot of rubbish that people throw out of their windows that we’ll have to discard. But if we can find even just one CSA button, that pretty much seals the deal for me."

Interest piqued

Wysocki, board director for the Will County Historical Society and Museum in Lockport, said Herald-News columnist John Whiteside’s pieces about local, unsolved mysteries sparked her interest in performing some historical sleuthing of her own. She hopes to someday solve the Molly Zelko riddle. But, for now, her other projects keep her plenty busy.

Since formally embarking on this hobby several years ago, Wysocki has solved a number of mysteries and reunited families with significant items from deceased loved ones.

For instance, Wysocki discovered a second potter’s field on Joliet’s East Side and reunited an Iowa family with the tombstone of their 20-month-old relative, Jenete. For more than a century various family members hunted for her burial spot.

Next, the possessions of a man who worked for the CIA in the 1920s were finally reunited with a niece in Indianapolis. The man was shot and killed in the line of duty on his third day on the job.

Then, Wysocki said she received a request from the Illinois State Preservation Agency on behalf of the committee for the revitalization and future purchase of the Joliet Correctional Center on Collins Street, to find the original, unmarked prison cemetery.

Background checks

Initial research into the Joliet Area Historical Museum’s prison archives yielded no results. So Wysocki said she turned to documents at the Will County Historical Museum in Lockport.

"Within three days, the cemetery was located and identified, with over 500 depressions or burials," Wysocki said.

In 2008, the iUniverse self-publishing company released Wysocki’s first book, "Digging up the Dirt: the History and Mysteries of the Will County Poor Farm and Potter’s Fields." And when Wysocki isn’t solving mysteries or giving independent fossil tours, she is hard at work on her second book.

Until recently, Wysocki’s daughter, 8, and son, 10, were frequent tagalongs on her unusual field trips. "We’d always do something fun with history on our little family adventures," Wysocki said. "But the kids started saying, ‘Mom, please no cemeteries this weekend.’ "

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