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Boating on the ‘Fox-Chain’

book cover
David Lester’s book features historic boating photography and accounts between the the mid-1800s and today.

A book takes a look back at the role boating has played in building the “Fox-Chain.”

McHenry County is a boater’s paradise with the Fox River serving as a gateway to the Chain O’Lakes – Illinois’ largest concentration of natural lakes.

It turns out, boating on the Fox Waterway is a time-honored tradition, and the book, “The History of Boating on the Fox Chain-O’Lakes,” captures the spirit of boating through the generations. Written by David Lester, lifelong resident of McHenry and Lake counties, the book features 580 pages of historic boating photography and accounts between the the mid-1800s and today.

From the Book’s Foreward 

Following the Civil War (1861-1865) Chicago was a rapidly expanding, heavily congested, noisy and smelly place to be. This was especially true during hot summers. Sportsmen had known this hunting and fishing paradise for years as “The Pistaqua Lakes Region.” It became known as a vacationer’s getaway destination after the Civil War (1865). Business owners and the railroads advertised the region’s pristine beauty, fresh air, wildlife, swimming, sailing and boat tours through the exotic “Egyptian” Lotus Flower Beds on Grass Lake. Rail service was extended to McHenry in 1854, Lake Villa in 1882, Antioch in 1886, Ingleside in 1899 and finally to Fox Lake in 1901. After Fox Lake was founded in 1907, the area became known as the “Fox Lake Region” and then the “Fox Chain-O’Lakes.”

For 80 years, from the end of the Civil War to the end of WWII (1945), visitors arrived by train and relied on water taxis as their primary means of transportation to and between lakeside destinations on the Fox Chain. Cars overtook both trains and boats as the primary means of transportation, both to and around the Fox Lake region during the ’40s.

“Business owners and the railroads advertised the [Fox Chain-O’Lakes’] pristine beauty, fresh air, wildlife, swimming, sailing and boat tours.”

The explosive growth in Chicago businesses through the late 1800s and early 1900s was mirrored by growth in the number of summer homes, resorts, hotels and boarding houses built on the shores of the Fox River and lakes. Taking a two-hour train ride from the city, thousands of Chicagoans came to vacation on the Fox Chain-O’Lakes each week. Many would fall in love with the pristine beauty of the waterway and return time and time again.

Prohibition and the Chain  

The Chain O’ Lakes economy became dependent on seasonal tourism. Though the teens and the Roaring Twenties, resorts, hotels, dance pavilions and gaming establishments were also “Blind Pig” operators. This was another way of saying that they served alcohol (legally or not). Through the prohibition years (1919-1933) there were hundreds of speakeasies on the Chain. Fox Chain O’Lakes residents had little to do with the passage of the country’s Prohibition laws and probably had little in common with backers and proponents of alcohol abstinence. Prohibition laws simply shut down the legal distribution channels for alcohol and created a lucrative criminal alcohol supply chain. Businesses on the Fox Chain ignored and resisted enforcement of anti-gaming and alcohol Prohibition laws. The last thing that resort operators wanted to do was lessen or eliminate their customers’ opportunity to have fun.

 “For the most part, the Chain O’Lakes was a neutral zone [during Prohibition], used by gang members’ families for vacationing just like everyone else.”

Political representatives were elected to protect and promote the interests of local businesses. Mayors and community leaders hired and managed the local police force. Federal and state agents had to obtain permission from the locally elected Lake and McHenry county State’s Attorneys before they could “sweep” lakeside establishments on the Chain for illegal gambling and alcohol violations. Most resort and hotel owners on the Fox Chain O’Lakes had telephone services for their important Chicago business clients. They knew immediately when “outside” law enforcement officials were going to be in the area. They knew the drill and they practiced it as often as necessary.

The state of lawlessness that existed in the Fox Chain O’Lakes region during the Prohibition years was further endorsed by the significant number of influential Chicago businessmen and politicians who lived and played here through the summer months. Pistakee Bay was home to multiple Republican state senators, state representatives, Chicago mayors and othe Chicago and Cook County officials. Channel Lake was home to Anton Cermak, Chicago mayor and father of the Chicago Democratic Party political machine.

Bugs Moran, Al Capone and many other families connected to the Chicago crime syndicate underworld spent their summers on the Fox Chain. Rival gangs competed for the lucrative liquor distribution channels. There were shootings associated to the Chicago Beer Wars and Chicago kingpin, Bugs Moran, was caught by federal agents at a small hotel on Bluff Lake (Antioch, Ill.), but for the most part, the Chain-O’Lakes was a neutral zone, used by gang members’ families for vacationing just like everyone else. As interesting as the Prohibition years history is, this book does not delve into these back stories, nor does it profile the resort hotels, gaming parlors and dance pavilions. You can find those stories in city history books by Arcadia Publishing.

The Chain: Industry, Recreation – and Speed! 

The shorelines of the Fox River and Chain became populated with ice houses, resorts, dance halls, boarding houses, sportsman’s clubs, cottages, campsites and private summer homes. From the mid-1850s until the mid-1940s, nearly every visitor to the Fox River and Lakes Region arrived by train. They moved between shoreline destinations by boat.

Boaters are compelled to get from where they are to their next destination faster than anyone else. This made the Fox Waterway fertile territory for boat racing. Starting before 1910, boat racing clubs formalized racing that was going to happen regardless. Hydroplaning boat hulls were pioneered around 1910. Racing varieties used WWI aircraft engines. V-8 engines were introduced in the 1920s. Outboards were developed and produced in the Midwest starting in the late teens. Fox Chain-O’Lakes boat builders and racers were among the first to adapt and improve these innovations.

Generation has built on generation. The first world-record-setting driver from the Fox Chain-O’Lakes was Pistakee Yacht Club commodore and Coon Island resident, James Pugh. Pugh was a highly successful shipping and warehousing magnate in downtown Chicago. He employed cutting-edge hydroplaning boat hull engineers and internal combustion engine builders, to construct his world-speed-record-setting boats, which he named the Disturber(s). Driving Disturber IV in 1915 Pugh became the world speed record holder and the first man to surpass 60 mph in a boat of any kind. This was the first of many world records set by boat racers from the Fox Chain-O’Lakes.

In 1930, Grass Lake resident Ray Pregenzer Jr. became the first person to officially surpass 50 mph in an outboard powered boat. In December of 1959 Fox Lake resident, Jim Moulis, drove his boat, the Rumrunner 9, to capture the first official APBA SK-Class National Championship and he was the first man to officially surpass the 100 mph milestone in an SK-Class flat-bottom ski boat. This happened at a Kilo speed run on Alligator Alley, near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he also beat his own prior World Speed Record, by nearly 10 mph.

These are highlights for only three of 35 boat racer from the Fox Chain-O’Lakes who have captured more than 50 national championship titles and set 26 or more world speed records in various types of inboard and outboard powerboats. No other body of water in the world has been home to so many boat racing champions.

Books are available for purchase at retailers listed here

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