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St. Joseph River (Lake Michigan) facts for kids

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St. Joseph River
St. Joseph River flowing west from Elkhart (top) through Osceola (middle) and into Mishawaka (bottom).
Native name Sakiwäsipi
Other name(s) La Rivière des Miamis (River of the Miamis)
Country United States
State Michigan, Indiana
Physical characteristics
Main source Baw Beese Lake
Hillsdale, Michigan
1,096 ft (334 m)
41°54′18″N 084°36′57″W / 41.90500°N 84.61583°W / 41.90500; -84.61583
River mouth Lake Michigan
St. Joseph, Michigan and Benton Harbor, Michigan
581 ft (177 m)
42°06′51″N 086°29′18″W / 42.11417°N 86.48833°W / 42.11417; -86.48833
Length 206 mi (332 km)
Basin features
GNIS ID 1624891

The St. Joseph River (known locally as the St. Joe) is a 206 miles (332 km) long tributary of Lake Michigan flowing generally westerly through southern Michigan and northern Indiana, United States, to its terminus on the southeast shore of the lake. It drains a primarily rural farming area in the watershed of Lake Michigan. It was enormously important to Native Americans and greatly aided in the colonial exploration, settlement and administration of New France and the nascent United States as a canoe route between Lake Michigan and the watershed of the Mississippi River.

Description of the watershed

The St. Joseph River watershed drains 4,685 square miles (12,130 km2) from 15 counties: Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Hillsdale, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren in Michigan and De Kalb, Elkhart, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Noble, St. Joseph and Steuben in Indiana. The watershed includes 3,742 river miles (6,022 km) and flows through and near the Kalamazoo-Portage, Elkhart-Goshen, Mishawaka-South Bend, and St. Joseph/Benton Harbor metropolitan areas. The St. Joseph River main stem is 206 miles (332 km) long, rising in southern Michigan in Hillsdale County flowing from Baw Beese Lake, within 5 miles (8 km) of the headwaters of the other St. Joseph River of the eastward-flowing Maumee River watershed. Baw Beese Lake was historically named for the Potawatomi Chief Baw Beese.

The river follows a zigzag route generally westward across southern Michigan, dipping into northern Indiana. From its headwaters, it flows initially northwest past Hillsdale into southeastern Calhoun County, then turns abruptly southwest to flow past Tekonsha, Union City, and Sherwood. At Three Rivers it is joined from the north by the Rocky and Portage rivers, then 3 miles (5 km) further southwest by the Prairie River from the east. The river continues southward into northern Indiana, flowing west through Elkhart, Mishawaka, and South Bend, where it turns abruptly to north to re-enter southwestern Michigan in southeastern Berrien County. In southwestern Michigan, it follows a wide meandering route generally northwest through Niles and past Berrien Springs. It enters Lake Michigan between St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, receiving the Paw Paw River from the north approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) from its mouth on Lake Michigan.

There are 190 dams in the St. Joseph River watershed, and 17 on the river mainstem. Most of these dams block fish passage, although fish ladders constructed on the lower dams allow salmonine passage as far as the Twin Branch Dam in Mishawaka, Indiana. But, the fish ladders are not adequate for many native species, such as sturgeon, and the dams tend to be built on the higher gradient portions of the river, which are the most critical river habitats for fish spawning.


The St. Joseph River flows through downtown South Bend, Indiana. The abrupt turn of the river gives the city its name.

Sakiwäsipi (Outlet River), as it was called by the Miami people, was inhabited for thousands of years by various indigenous tribes as it served an essential trade avenue in the Great Lakes region. The most recent indigenous inhabitants of the area were the Miami and Potawatomi peoples. Two different portages allowed nearly continuous travel by canoe among different watersheds of the region. The first major transfer point was at the headwaters in southwestern Michigan, where travelers could make a portage to the St. Joseph River of the Maumee River watershed, which drained into Lake Erie. The second major transfer point was at South Bend, Indiana, where a short portage to the nearby Kankakee River allowed access to the Illinois River and subsequently to the Mississippi. Another major access point along river was at Niles, Michigan, where the Old Sauk Trail, a major east-west Indian trail, crossed the river.

The indigenous trade and navigation networks in the area allowed for extensive trade and movement of people, which allowed early Europeans access to the area in 1675 when Père Jacques Marquette was guided up the Mississippi River via the Illinois River, then to the Kankakee River and portaged to Sakiwasipi and then down to Lake Michigan. On November 1, 1679 René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle sailed southeast across Lake Michigan and built Fort Miami at the mouth of the river. La Salle named the river La Rivière des Miamis (River of the Miamis).

At the end of 1679, La Salle followed indigenous trade routes in the opposite direction of that taken by Marquette; heading up the St. Joseph River and portaging to the Kankakee River, getting as far west on the Illinois River as modern-day Peoria, Illinois, before returning to Fort Miami. After giving up on the return of his ship, Le Griffon, in April 1680, he became the first European to walk the well traveled indigenous routes east across the Lower Peninsula of Michigan back to the Detroit River and Canada. The French established Fort St. Joseph at the crossroads of Old Sauk Trail and this well-established east–west trail in 1691.

The watershed was later used as canoe route by early French fur trappers in the Illinois Country. European American settlement of the St. Joseph river basin area began to increase in earnest after southwestern Michigan was surveyed in 1829. From the early 1830s until 1846, the river bore various commodities from upstream to a busy port at St. Joseph, where they were loaded onto lake boats for shipment to Chicago and elsewhere.

On April 11, 1893, a Lake Michigan seiche (a phenomenon similar to an ocean tsunami) pushed a wall of water, 3 to 5 feet (0.91 to 1.52 m) high, up the river at St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. This raised the level of the river by 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 m). The cause of the seiche was unknown, but has been attributed to a sudden squall or change in atmospheric pressure.

South Bend Race Canals

Factories located in South Bend because of access to the river and hydro-power created in the East and West Races. The water rights to what would become the East and West Races were claimed by Alexis Coquillard and Lathrop Taylor in 1831, when the city of South Bend was founded. Although the idea of digging a mill race (man-made canal) was put forth in 1835, a dam and the East and West Races were not constructed until 1843. The construction was done by the South Bend Manufacturing Company, incorporated in December 1842 for this very purpose. The South Bend Manufacturing Company thus became owner of the water power rights on the West Race canal, while Samuel L. Cottrell purchased the water rights along the East Race canal.

In 1867 the South Bend Hydraulic Company purchased the rights to the East Race canal for $100. In 1903 the ownership of stock, property rights, and property of the South Bend Manufacturing Company on the West Race canal passed to the Oliver Chilled Plow Works. Over the next two years the Oliver Chilled Plow Works constructed a hydro-electric power plant on the waterway to supply electricity for light, heat, and power to the Oliver Opera House, Oliver Hotel, South Bend factories, and other Oliver buildings.

Other sources of energy and changes in technology resulted in the canals no longer being used for industrial purposes. In the late 1940s the Indiana and Michigan Electric Company purchased the rights along the East Race canal. They began filling it in around 1954 for re-use for other purposes. In 1973 the Oliver Chilled Plow Works hydro-electric plant was demolished to make room for construction of the Century Center, which was completed in 1977. The West Race still exists as a canal North of Jefferson Boulevard and South of Colfax Avenue on the banks of Century Center, between Pier Park and Island Park.

In the early 1980s, the East Race canal was re-excavated. It was converted to a man-made whitewater kayaking course, now known as the East Race Waterway.

East Race Waterway

41°40′34″N 86°14′42″W / 41.676°N 86.245°W / 41.676; -86.245

East Race Waterway

In 1984, the abandoned East Race canal in South Bend, whose outlets were both at the river, was converted into the East Race Waterway, North America's first artificial whitewater waterway and the first of four in the United States. Locals first proposed in 1973 that the 19th-century waterway be reopened; construction began in August 1982 and the East Race reopened on June 29, 1984. Through the use of movable barriers and obstacles, the East Race can be configured to provide a whitewater course for recreational and competitive canoeing, kayaking and rafting.

Historic sites

Two sites in the river basin, Moccasin Bluff and Fort St. Joseph, are listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Carey Mission, Fort Miami, and Burnett Trading Post are listed as State Registered Historic Sites.

Ecology and conservation

Before European settlement, the watershed was dominated by deciduous forests consisting of maple, ash, oak, elm, walnut, and beech species, along with pockets of white, red and jack pine species. There were also prairies up to several miles across, which were grazed by elk (Cervus canadensis), white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), moose (Alces alces), and bison (Bison bison). By 1900 the virgin forests were mostly logged, and the prairies largely converted to agricultural use, as were many drained wetlands.

Among the unique natural features that remain in the watershed are prairie fens, coastal plain marshes, bogs, floodplain forests, hardwood swamps, and moist hardwood forests. Rare plants include prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), rosinweed, tall beak rush, and umbrella grass.

The wetlands and floodplain forests provide habitat to nearly half of all migratory birds in Indiana and Michigan and are a vital habitat for resident species as well, such as wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), coyote (Canis latrans), fox, beaver (Castor canadensis), mink (Neovison vison), Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis), eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), and the rare spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) and northern redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata), both protected by the State of Michigan. The lower Pigeon River is home to the federally endangered Indiana Bat.

In 1969, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources began stocking the lower 23 miles (37 km) of the river for steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch). In 1975, Michigan constructed a fish ladder at the Berrien Springs Dam to enable the salmonids to run an additional 10 miles (16 km) upstream to the Buchanan Dam. In 1980 the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Indiana Department of Natural Resources and United States Fish and Wildlife Service signed the "St. Joseph River Interstate Cooperative Salmonid Management Plan", which led to construction of fish ladders at the Buchanan, Niles, South Bend and Mishawaka dams. By 1992 the salmonid runs were extended to the Twin Branch Dam in Indiana, a distance of 63 miles (101 km) from Lake Michigan. This enabled the trout and salmon to spawn in coldwater tributaries such as McCoy Creek.

Although completion of fish ladders on the lowest five mainstem dams in 1992 allowed salmonine passage as far as Twin Branch Dam in Mishawaka, Indiana, 94% of the fish that pass are salmon and trout, as the ladders were not designed to permit passage of migrating native fish. Historically, the migrating native species included lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), bass (smallmouth and largemouth), redhorse (silver, golden, shorthead, river, and greater) (Moxostoma ssp.), walleye (Sander vitreus), lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush), lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis), northern pike (Esox lucius) and American pickerel (E. americanus vermiculatus). Every spring the Potawatomi and early settlers used spears, seines and dip nets to catch their annual supply of fish. The abundance of lake sturgeon made the area around Niles famous in the mid-to late-1800s. Fish up to 12 feet (3.7 m) long and 300 pounds (140 kg) were taken by anglers, and their roe was exported to Russia as caviar. Sturgeon used to migrate as far as Hillsdale County, Michigan, and Sturgeon Lake near Colon, Michigan still bears the name of this mighty fish. Now the spawning sturgeon rarely reach Niles, as they are impeded by the dam at Berrien Springs, reducing the length of the river used by them for spawning by 155 miles (249 km). Historically, ninety-seven species of fish were native to the St. Joseph River Basin.

In 1994, the Friends of the St. Joe River (FotSJR), a non-profit conservation organization, was founded by Athens, Michigan residents Al and Margaret Smith, to organize the river communities to clean and restore the river. In 2002 FotSJR developed the St. Joseph River Watershed Management Plan, with grant support from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The river delivers significant pollutants to Lake Michigan - including sewage overflows from riverside communities, sediments and toxic substances such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB). When the plan was developed, the river carried the greatest portion of atrazine into Lake Michigan. It is an agricultural herbicide associated with cancer even at low levels and is a very common contaminant of drinking water.


The St. Joseph River is an exciting trout and salmon sport fishery, encompassing 47 miles (76 km) of river in Michigan and 16 miles (26 km) in Indiana. The economic benefits to local Michigan and Indiana communities are estimated at several million dollars annually.

Canoeists can travel the entire length of the main stem, if they are prepared to portage. Many of the larger tributaries offer excellent opportunities for paddling, hiking, hunting, and fishing.

Cities and towns along the St. Joseph River

The St. Joe River widens as it flows west through Elkhart.
The St Joseph River in Benton Harbor
The St Joseph River between Benton Harbor and St Joseph near Lake Michigan.



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