Rocky Glen, central Illinois – geoheritage


“It’s a record of the geology 300 million years ago, it’s a record of the coal miners and their strife 100 years ago, and it ties all that together. I think the coal mining history of Peoria is lost to the latest generation” (Ed Stermer).


The friends of Rocky Glen have been working hard to preserve this land as a public geoheritage site.

This then is a story of how a local group were SUCCESSFUL in persuading their City to secure 70 acres as a geoheritage site.  [For more information on this place, which I first heard of only quite recently, please contact the Friends of Rocky Glen – web: ; email: ◾ ]

This is what one would like to see more of – and around where I live, in Sydney, Australia, very many of the geological sites have been lost already to increasing development over the last two decades.

A summary of the geological and mining history at Rocky Glen is:

* Rocky Glen is a 70-acre property located near Peoria, Illinois, containing a box canyon with walls of sandstones and shales, two seasonal waterfalls, rare vegetation growth, and an abandoned coal mine shaft.

* Bedrock in the Peoria area is Late Carboniferous, Pennsylvanian, in age and was deposited in a coal swamp, delta environment.

* The 65-foot high sandstone canyon walls at Rocky Glen are the major bedrock exposure in the region.

*  This sandstone was most likely deposited as part of a river channel as evidenced by small scale cross-bedding and other sedimentary structures.

*  At the base of the cliff walls sandstone is seen an erosional contact with sandy shale.

*  About 50 feet beneath the property lies a 5 foot coal seam named the Springfield Coal.   This seam was actively mined from 1908 – 1922, and one mine incline entrance is still visible on the property.

* Groooved into the sandstone bedrock are names thought to be of coal miners who may have secretly met at Rocky Glen to organize the first local labour unions in the early 1900s.

* Erosion out of the Glen itself probably occurred about 18,000 years ago, due to flood waters from the melting ice at the end of the Wisconsin glaciation.  Before that time, the Rocky Glen property probably had just a few small streams and valleys but no bedrock canyons and waterfalls.

*  As glaciers melted and retreated northward, they deposited a mound of sand and gravel that blocked the flow of Kickapoo Creek, a large stream which flows just to the east of the Rocky Glen property.   Soon after, enormous volumes of glacial melt water backed up behind this sediment dam forming a narrow lake that would have extended some miles northwest of Rocky Glen.  Eventually the lake waters burst through the sediment dam, sending a torrent of water southward carving out a bedrock gorge along Kickapoo Creek.  These floodwaters may also have rushed up the Rocky Glen valley and scoured out main canyon.   Traces of the pre-existing creeks and land surface are now left hanging high above the canyon floor.  ( Ed Stermer [ Earth Science Teaching Chair, Professor of  Geology, Illinois Central College] who has been interpreting the past of Rocky Glen believes that the more than 70 feet of bedrock seen there could have been exposed by this process in “just a moment of geologic time” – pers. comm. November 2013).
At their website ( ), the Friends of Rocky Glen set out to publicise about the natural and cultural history (mining, picnicking etc.) of Rocky Glen, along with the story of their our efforts to secure and preserve this property.

There is also a 2013 magazine article “Of Land & Time Remembered – Stories of Rocky Glen” by Jonathan Wright ( ) which shows that effort to preserve this place extend back to the 1930s:  ” ‘I’m willing to bet that most boys who grew up in Bartonville or on the South Side through the 1950s had visited, or at least heard stories of Rocky Glen,’ says Marilyn Leyland, for whom the location is a family affair.  ‘Manual High School biology students went there on field trips in the 1930s, and probably told subsequent generations about it, or, like my dad, took their kids there.  My Girl Scout troop went there for a hike in the ‘50s when a classmate’s grandfather owned the property.  The noted botanist Irene Cull was with us, explaining plants along the way.  Meanwhile, my classmate kept urging friends to hurry up because she couldn’t wait to show everyone the big rock!’   Leyland’s grandfather, John Voss, taught science and was later principal at Manual. He was active in the Peoria Academy of Science, which campaigned to preserve Rocky Glen as a public park as far back as the 1930s”.

At the Geological Society of America annual meeting at Denver in October 2012, there was a session about the preservation of geologically interesting places.

There Edward Stermer presented a talk about the “rediscovery” and preservation of Peoria’s Rocky Glen.

When Stermer went to Peoria to teach, he kept hearing about a place named Rocky Glen where everyone used to go in the past but seemed to have become forgotten about.

Stermer discovered that although the City of Peoria had established “Rocky Glen Park”, they had actually purchased the wrong piece of property!   When he tracked down the correct location of “Rocky Glen” he learned that it had a rich as a coal mine and mine union organizing site.

Stermer helped start the Friends of Rocky Glen, to secure the correct property, which the City finally did.

Here is how they described Ed’s trip to Denver before the event, at Peoria:


Professor Ed Stermer of Illinois Central College’s Math, Science and Engineering Department will introduce Rocky Glen to the 125th meeting of the Geological Society of America, in Denver, Colo. on Oct. 27-30.    Stermer describes Rocky Glen as a geoheritage site, with significant history and geology of interest to the world.


And here is the abstract of what Ed said at the Denver meeting:



STERMER, Edward G.,  Illinois Central College, Math, Science and Engineering Department, East Peoria, IL 61635-0001,

Rocky Glen is a 70-acre property located near Peoria, Illinois, containing a box canyon with walls of Pennsylvanian-aged sandstones and shales, two seasonal waterfalls, rare vegetation growth, and an abandoned coal mine shaft.

The 65-foot canyon walls are the largest outcropping of bedrock in the region.   Etched into the sandstone bedrock are the names of coal miners who secretly met at Rocky Glen to organize the first local labor unions in the early 1900s.

Recognizing the aesthetic, historical, and scientific significance of this “geohertitage” site, a group of local citizens formed the Friends of Rocky Glen (FORG) to help raise community awareness and to work to preserve the land as a public park.

Permission was granted by the landowner for FORG to conduct monthly educational hikes for the general public, and a web site was created to disseminate information.

The geoeducation component was divided into three parts: 1) the rock and fossil evidence for ancient coal swamps; 2) the role of glacial deposition and melt water flooding in the formation of the canyon; and, 3) the significance of coal mining in the cultural and economic history of the region.

During the educational hikes, special emphasis was placed on how the geologic story of Rocky Glen connected with the participants’ life experiences (e.g. ancestors who were coal miners, local underground mine subsidence problems, regional groundwater issues, similar rocks and fossils found on their property, etc.).

The beautiful natural setting also offered an opportunity for concepts such as the geologic time scale and plate tectonics to be introduced to the public in a non-intimidating, relevant manner.

As a result of this educational awareness campaign and the tireless efforts of FORG working with the land owner and the local government, the City of Peoria purchased the property in 2012. Plans are currently underway to create a park with an interpretive trail.

Session No. 318
T122.  Geoheritage and Sense of Place in the Context of Earth Science Education

Wednesday, 30 October 2013: 8:00 AM-12:00 PM
Colorado Convention Center Room 403
Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs. Vol. 45, No. 7, p.731 )


Truck used to haul coal from the Rocky Glen area in the 1920s.
(Photo per Jim and Florence Eaton)

The Rocky Glen mine entrances are at the eastern edge of the Crescent Mine area.

There is an estimated 50+ miles of tunnels in the Crescent Mine area.  The mining was by bord and pillar method.

Note Horsehoe Bottoms to the east.   A novel by Bill Knight called “Horseshoe Bottoms” includes about coal mining and Rocky Glen.    The last coal mining in the district was in 1957.   The other old mine sh0wn on the map above is the Wantling mine.

In Peoria County as a whole there were over 650 former mine sites.

Some of the carvings appear to be union insignia at Rocky Glen.    Most prominent is a hand that rises out of a crack and has some sort of card in its grip, with what appear to be the letters “A-M-A”.   This may mean the American Mining Association (first active in the 1860s).  [In top picture see hand to the right of the boy.]

By Dave Pittman, the president of the Friends of Rocky Glen:

“Consider for a moment what these miner’s endured in such tough working conditions.  They worked before dawn until after dark, 6 days a week.  Their poverty was far worse than anything I have ever known, and I grew up in a poor rural area in western Colorado where money was very hard to come by.  I think part of my own motivation for this natural area purchase is to create some recognition of  this sacrifice made by people now nearly forgotten.  The carved pictures and initials in the rock are something greater than unique art.  For people who had nothing, the notion of a union was the notion of hope for a better future for their children.

“Coal is a powerful source of energy but the price we have paid is very very great.   Even as I devote so many hours of my life to the day we no longer pollute the world with coal, I hope we can celebrate the coal miners ……” ( ).

Dave Pittman’s connection with the Glen began about a decade ago when he stumbled upon mention of it:  “In the 1970s, the State of Illinois created the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, and biologists mapped out these areas… When I looked up the list of areas in Peoria County, I saw [Rocky Glen], and it had kind of a map.”

It was love at first sight for the West Peoria resident and former Peoria Park District trustee.   Several years ago, Pittman formed the Friends of Rocky Glen to bring attention to this neglected gem:  “I had known the landowner… and gotten permission to walk on his property,” he says. “And he gave [us] permission to start leading hikes.”

That was in late 2010 and the owner was looking to sell the land.  The Friends group approached the Peoria Park District, who in turn led them to the City Council, which had the power to access grant money from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources which could be used to buy natural area land.   In December 2012, the Peoria City Council voted 9-2 to purchase the 70 acres surrounding Rocky Glen.

The following three articles in the local newspaper trace this upsurge of interest in Rocky Glen, promoted by the Friends, and its purchase for preservation via the City council.

From the Journal Star.

  • Heartland: A forgotten property  called Rocky Glen

  •  “And  what have you figured out?” he said to Evans as he pulled the cork out of the  oil jug. “I dunno,” the timber man said. “It’s nothing likely, but we might as well go around to Rocky Glen on Sunday. We won’t be seen from there.” “I  thought of the Glen,”…
  • By Scott Hilyard

    Updated Aug. 16,  2010 @ 3:04 pm
DAVID ZALAZNIK/JOURNAL STAR |   Hiker  Dave Alexander talks about the canopy of trees sheltering the creek bed running  through Rocky Glen off of Kickapoo Creek Road in West Peoria. Pausing in the  creek bed in the background is environmentalist David Pittman.

“And what have you figured out?” he said to Evans as he pulled the  cork out of the oil jug.

“I dunno,” the timber man said. “It’s nothing likely, but we might  as well go around to Rocky Glen on Sunday. We won’t be seen from  there.”

“I thought of the Glen,” Haywood said as he filled his lamp. “I  thought of it that time you had the picnic there.  It was my first week here,  five years back. Do you recall?”

“I recall,” Evans answered.

The two men returned to their work, one to his timbers, the other to  his pick, and very soon the sound of their labor bouncing off their tools was scooped up in the underground symphony of the coal mine

[The above is] From “Horse Shoe Bottoms,” a novel about coal mining in central  Illinois by Tom Tippett, 1935.

Standing in Rocky Glen in West Peoria on a hot, steamy summer  morning feels like standing at the bottom of a life-sized  terrarium.

You’re in a bowl surrounded on three sides by 70-foot limestone  walls and on the fourth side by the trees and lush vegetation you tromped through for a half-mile to get there.

“It’s like a mini-Starved Rock,” said Mike Miller, the supervisor of  environmental services for the Peoria Park District who first visited Rocky Glen on a sixth grade science field trip.  “Right here in Peoria County”.

A canopy of trees that angle over the edge at the top of the canyon  cuts off most of the direct sunlight.  The ground beneath your feet is a cushion  of dead leaves, packed mud and fallen, decomposing trees. It is an earthy,  sweaty place, that’s rich with ferns and moss-covered rock. When your hiking  companions fall silent, the only sounds are the trickle of water over rock and  the buzz and chirp of insects and birds.

“Rocky Glen is a geological marvel,” said David Pittman, a West  Peoria resident, environmental activist and the leader of a recent hike to the  hidden treasure of exposed bedrock. “Totally unique.  Thousands of Peorians in  the last 20 years of the 19th century and the first 50 years of the 20th century  came to this place.   Many carved their names, some carved pictures in the  limestone.   For the last 50 years only a few people have come to Rocky Glen but this unique natural area with its seasonal waterfalls, mosses and lichens that cover some of the hundreds of human carvings remains as magical as  ever.”

Rocky Glen is located inside the triangle formed by the intersection  of Farmington and Kickapoo Creek roads. The property was one of several in the  area recently annexed into the city of West Peoria. Peorian Harold Connaughton bought the 94-acre parcel in 1954. When Harold Connaughton died in 1997 his son,  Jim Connaughton, inherited the land.

Read more:



From the Journal Star.  

    • Hearing elicits opinions on fate  of Rocky Glen nature site

By Nick Vlahos

Rocky Glen isn’t exactly Rocky Balboa or Rocky Marciano, as Jim Spears  noticed.
  • “They’d say, ‘We’re holding a fundraiser for Rocky Glen,’ and people would  think it’s a person,” the owner of Jimmy’s Bar in West Peoria said. “You know,  ‘What happened to Rocky?'”
  • Illinois Central College earth science professor Ed Stermer, right, explains the geological forces that formed Rocky Glen along Kickapoo Creek Road in West Peoria to members of Bradley University's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute during a May outing.
  • DAVID ZALAZNIK/JOURNAL STAR |  Illinois  Central College earth science professor Ed Stermer, right, explains the  geological forces that formed Rocky Glen along Kickapoo Creek Road in West  Peoria to members of Bradley University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute  during a May outing.

What might happen to Rocky Glen – in this case, a nature site in  West Peoria – was a topic of interest late Wednesday afternoon at City  Hall.

Spears and about two dozen others packed a fourth-floor meeting room  during a hearing designed to elicit public opinion about whether the city of  Peoria should buy the site of 70-plus acres.

The final decision is up to the City Council, which is expected to  debate the plan during its meeting Dec. 11. If the sentiment Wednesday was any  harbinger, purchase would win by knockout.

“If it does get purchased, it will be a public treasure,” said David  Pittman, president of Friends of Rocky Glen, a not-for-profit group dedicated to  the site’s preservation.

Pittman was among nine who spoke publicly during the hearing, which  lasted less than 30 minutes. All the speakers appeared to support municipal  purchase

Susan Schlupp, a city senior development specialist, produced  multiple letters of praise. Included were testimonials from state Sen. Dave  Koehler and state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, both Peoria Democrats.

“It’s heartening to be involved in something with such broad-based  support,” Friends of Rocky Glen member Rick Fox said.

The city would use Illinois Department of Natural Resources grant  money to pay for Rocky Glen, located along Kickapoo Creek Road.   The asking price  of the owner, Jim Connaughton, is at least $200,000.

The site includes limestone cliffs, forests and rare vegetation and  other features. Ed Stermer, an Illinois Central College professor of earth  sciences, said Rocky Glen is the only large-scale box canyon in central  Illinois.

“Preserved in that sandstone is what Peoria looked like 300 million  years ago,” Stermer said. “It’s an amazing, unique geological  place.”

Schlupp isn’t sure how the council might vote: “I really would like  to see it happen. I’m hoping everything goes smoothly from here on  out.”

According to Connaughton, everything went more than smoothly  Wednesday.

“There have been so many maybes, could-bes, should-bes.   I was kind  of down,” said Connaughton, whose family has owned the property since 1954 and  who for years has been trying to sell it.

“But this sounds good. It looks better than it has in a long  time.”

Nick Vlahos can be reached at 686-3285 or  Follow him on Twitter  @VlahosNick.

Read more:



From the Journal Star.

  • Peoria City Council approves  purchase of Rocky Glen nature area

Approval of the city’s purchase of the Rocky Glen nature area turned out to  be relatively smooth

  • Peoria,

    Updated Dec. 12,  2012 @ 11:05 am

    By a 9-2 vote Tuesday night, during its only regular meeting in  December, the City Council agreed to purchase the plot of West Peoria property that features 70-foot limestone cliffs and unique flora and fauna.

    The property owner, Jim Connaughton, is selling it to the city for $230,000.  The money came from a longstanding grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources

    Connaughton had been trying for years to sell the difficult-to-access land, located near Kickapoo Creek Road south of Farmington  Road.

“Maybe this opens up a window and people realize this place is in their backyard where they can spend some quality time,” Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis  said.

The city is expected to improve access to the site.   Friends of Rocky Glen, a not-for-profit group, has been conducting semi-regular hikes through the property of more than 66 acres.

Following the council’s vote, and while the meeting was in progress, Friends of Rocky Glen President David Pittman issued a celebratory news release.

“Rocky Glen will provide open space for an underserved part of the city, expand outdoor education opportunities for nearby District 150 schools and  safeguard a piece of Peoria history,” the news release stated. “This purchase  truly serves all Peorians well.”

The Department of Natural Resources grant dates from the early 1980s  and was intended to acquire and preserve open land along the Illinois River.  After the RiverPlex Recreation and Wellness Center was constructed, that  riverfront property was replaced by a Southtown plot.

That land was sold in 2007 for construction of a health care  facility, and the city had been looking for a suitable replacement ever since.

At-large Councilman Gary Sandberg praised Rocky Glen but wasn’t sure  the purchase of land located in West Peoria was in the city’s best interest.   He voted no, as did at-large colleague Beth Akeson.

Nick Vlahos can be reached at 686-3285 or  Follow him on Twitter @VlahosNick

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