By PEGGY BOYER and RAY LONG
Preserving history, pre-history when public, private interests collide
For years, diver and salvager Harry Zych searched the depths of Lake Michigan until he found two 19th-century steamers. He considers the discoveries of the two prominent shipwrecks, the Lady Elgin and the Seabird, among the most important finds of this century, certainly one of the greatest accomplishments of any man's life.
Indeed, the September 1860 sinking of the Lady Elgin still ranks as one of the worst disasters in Great Lakes history, with the loss of nearly 300 Milwaukee-bound passengers fresh from a presidential rally for Stephen A. Douglas in Chicago. The Seabird took down about 100 passengers near Chicago eight years later. "This is real maritime history," Zych says. "We'd like to see it preserved. We're doing what we think is right toward that effort."
Zych filed a claim against the boats in federal district court under ancient case law which grants ownership to anyone who finds and salvages articles from the sea. If he loses in that bid, he wants the state to pay him something for his time and effort in locating the boats. But state officials, who have staked their own claims, contend they owe Zych nothing — even though he is the only one who can tell them where the steamers lie on Illinois' 1 million acres of lakebed. The state's case rests on the 1987 federal Abandoned Shipwrecks Act. Recognizing the historical value of shipwrecks, the federal government ceded ownership of ships which lie on public lands to the states. The Illinois case will be the first major test of that law. "I haven't done anything unreasonable, and I really have only asked for what's fair," pleads Zych, who says the state is treating him like the robber of a pharaoh's tomb. "I don't know what my reward is or what it will be. But my reward is certainly not the criticism of my government." Thomas Emerson, chief archaeologist for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, has no sympathy. "Tough," Emerson says. "He's done us no favors."
This case is but one example of the state's attempt to take a tougher stance toward preserving Illinois' historic sites and artifacts. But this conflict and others like it raise questions. Is our history part of the public domain? If so, should private individuals profit from the discovery of historical artifacts? And what happens when historic preservation conflicts with personal property rights? "We'd be pretty primitive in our thinking," says Historic Preservation Director Michael J. Devine, "if we didn't take responsibility for the heritage, not only of the citizens of this state, but of the citizens of the nation and the world. After all, we in Illinois would be upset if the Europeans decided not to maintain the Parthenon. These treasures belong to all of us."
Illinois has put dollars behind preservation rhetoric by moving to buy an archaeologically rich site on the Illinois River near Starved Rock State Park. The state has filed condemnation proceedings to stop private real estate development atop what known as the Zimmerman site, whose grounds contain evidence of Indian settlements existing as far back as 800 A.D. "Beneath the banks of the Illinois River," Gov. James Thompson says, "the archaeological record of that history remains buried. It is a history that belongs to all Illinoisans — and all Ameri-
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cans— and it must not be disturbed by the random destruction of a bulldozer."
The effort to save the Zimmerman site on the Illinois River's west bank attracted national and international support, particularly from Canadians who value their ties to the explorations of Marquette and Joliet, leaders of the first significant European expedition on the Illinois River. The Zimmerman site consists of 134 acres and a grand house, known as the Sulphur Springs Hotel. Built in the 1840s, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For more than a year, the state has negotiated with The Landings Inc., the private development company that has an interest in the Zimmerman site. The Landings rejected a $900,000 offer in August, wanting more than $2 million. They also wanted to renovate the hotel into a private bed and breakfast enterprise. A LaSalle County jury will now decide the price.
" The Zimmerman [site] has been a turnaround in terms of the way the state approaches historic preservation," says Emerson of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. "It was the first chance for this agency to actually start acting as an advocate for historic preservation."
A state law that took effect January 1 further bolsters the agency's role as the official protector of Illinois' history. The law requires projects that involve state funds or licensing to be reviewed by the agency to minimize the impact on places of historic, architectural or archaeological significance. Before the law look effect, only federally funded or licensed projects were required to submit to an environmental review.
The law stiffens potential punishment for vandals, thieves and others who loot publicly owned archaeological and paleontological research on state land. The penalty for destroying or vandalizing archaeological or paleontological sites on public lands has been increased to a Class A misdemeanor with potential punishment including a jail term and a fine of up to $5,000. If a human burial is disturbed, the penalty increases to a Class 4 felony, which carries potential punishment of three years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Civil penalties, such as forfeiture of equipment used to dig up fossils or relics, could also be sought. A second law, effective last August, establishes penalties for disturbing unregistered graves, including Indian burial grounds on private property.
The laws will not protect everything. Collection and dispersal of much of our state's heritage is common and, in many cases, legal. Last fall, for example, about 1,000 Indian artifacts, some from the world-famous Koster Site in Greene County, were sold at auction in Springfield by Harlin Helton. For decades, Helton had collected these ancient relics — many from the neighboring Koster farm. He eventually helped convince archaeologists to look into the Koster site's historical significance. "But once he removed that material from the site and didn't record it, it was garbage," Emerson says. "It contributes literally nothing to our understanding of the past.'' Adds Michael Jackson, chief architect at the state preservation agency, "If there is not the information that links that material to the past, it's just so many pieces without a context."
Most of Illinois' preservation efforts got underway in the early 1970s. The impetus behind the program was passage of the National Preservation Act of 1966, the federal law which established the means for recognizing and protecting historic resources. Federal shifts in funding have affected the state's plans and spending capabilities over the years, but in the past two decades Illinois officials have launched a systematic drive to document historic structures, mostly 19th century houses, and to uncover traces of Illinois' earliest occupants.
Indeed, the Illinois preservation agency sees its mission as encompassing not only the state's recent history, but its pre-history. Illinois' earliest known inhabited site is the 10,000-year-old Modoc Rock Shelter south of East St. Louis. Though there may be a number of ancient sites scattered around the state, especially in major river valleys, Illinois officials have barely begun to scratch the surface of these hidden cultures. So far, only 2 percent of the state has been surveyed archaeologically. As a result, archaeologists at the preservation agency rely on private individuals or other government agencies, such as the Illinois Department of Transportation, to identify important sites. In fact, much of our information about earlier cultures is unearthed during the building of highways.
At the other end of the spectrum, the preservation agency has begun to explore the historic value of 20th century sites, including World War II factories and even the roadbed of old Route 66. Aside from redefining what constitutes the state's heritage, the agency is exploring new ways to interpret and present history to the public.
The state points to the new $8.2 million world-class Interpretive Center at Cahokia Mounds near East St. Louis as an example of the ways in which our past can be placed into a meaningful context. The center at the site, which is on the United Nations World Heritage List, includes an exhibit enabling visitors to peer into the past through special mirrors that create a so-called "infinity box." The effects give the visitor the impression of being in the great Cahokia civilization around 1100 A.D. The exhibit also explains the significance of the city —with a possible population of 40,000 — within the Mississippian and world cultures.
Now, the state is thinking of making underwater museums out of the Lady Elgin, the Seabird or some of the 100 or so recorded shipwrecks at the bottom of Lake Michigan. The state of Michigan has already started such a program, and some Illinois officials believe the Chicago area's 15,000 sports divers, as well as those who would travel to Illinois for the adventure, could enjoy similar attractions.
Certainly the state agrees with Harry Zych's assessment of the historical worth of the Lady Elgin: "The wreck itself is such a fascinating part of Americana." But how the salvager and Illinois officials ultimately settle their dispute over control of these sunken boats may itself make history. The decision in this conflict between private and public interests will define the parameters of the state's preservation powers. At stake is the value to be placed on Illinoisans' collective heritage and on individual enterprise.
Peggy Boyer is Statehouse bureau chief for Sangamon State University's WSSU-FM, the anchor station of the Illinois Public Radio Network. Ray Long is a Statehouse correspondent for the Peoria Journal Star.
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