Answer Man

August 4, 2014

One river, two names: What's with the Okaw/Kaskaskia?

Answer Man

Got questions? You've come to the right place

I always thought it was called the Okaw River near Red Bud and Baldwin, but now everyone seems to call it the Kaskaskia. When did they change it? -- Bob Kaiser, of Belleville

I always get a kick out of KMOX Radio's Brian Kelly and Maria Keena on weekend mornings when they good-naturedly tease each other over what to call various St. Louis interstates.

Is the depressed section by the river now I-44 or do you still call it I-55/70? Do you prefer I-64 or U.S. 40? Well, apparently similar confusion has reigned for 200 years over what people call the Okaw/Kaskaskia River.

Some think the confusion may arise about 175 miles northeast of here, just south of where the river starts to form near Champaign. According to a history of station names by the Illinois Central Railroad, the town of Arcola originally was known as Okaw largely because folks called it the Okaw River up there.

Why? Perhaps because just to the west is a 32-mile-long stream known as the West Okaw River. So, just as there used to be a West Belleville and Belleville, calling them West Okaw and Okaw probably seemed logical. Today, the West Okaw forms an arm of Lake Shelbyville, where the rivers used to meet before the Kaskaskia was dammed in the 1960s to form the lake. From there, the Okaw/Kaskaskia takes off to the southwest by itself.

Conjecture is that residents south of Shelbyville simply continued to call it the Okaw -- and, as you know, that could extend a long distance. There is/was, for example, Okawville and the Okaw Valley Council of the Boy Scouts. Even an old history of New Athens, which once was home to the Okaw Valley Dairy and Okaw Valley Stove Co., notes:

"They used their boat to transport cargo from St. Louis down the Mississippi of the town of Kaskaskia," Ellen Kearns' account says. "The cargo was then transported upstream on the Okaw River, now known as the Kaskaskia River, to Tamarawa (New Athens)."

But the Okaw name was not universal. In 1796, Victor George Henri Collot went on a clandestine reconnaissance mission of southwest Illinois for the French government. When he returned to Paris he produced what some call the finest map of any part of the Mississippi River of its era.

Lo and behold, before the Mississippi River changed course in 1881, you'll see the "Kaskaskias River" flowing into the Mississippi just south of the settlement of "Kaskaskias." Apparently, French Jesuits and other settlers named the river for one of the tribes that made up the Illiniwek Confederation. The word itself reportedly comes from an old Miami-Illinois word for the katydid.

The best guess is that while the Okaw name spread south, the Kaskaskia name went north and as the river took on more importance in shipping and recreation, the Kaskaskia name began to dominate in more areas. Among Boy Scouts, the Okaw Valley name is gone, but there is a Kaskaskia District within the Lewis & Clark Council that covers Randolph and Monroe counties. However, for old-timers like you, perhaps never the twain shall meet.

To see Collot's fascinating 1826 map, go to

I have a couple of pinball/electronic games in need of repair. Any suggestions? -- A.M., of Belleville

Your pinball repair wizard may be Grand America Jukebox in St. Louis, which has been doing in-home repairs of everything from pinball machines to vintage soda machines for 25 years.

Give them a call at 636-928-1010 and see if they can't get your flippers moving again. It will help if you know the exact name of your games, the manufacturer, and any manuals you may still have in your files. For more information, go to

You might also try at (314) 892-5552, which has been in business since 1982.

Today's trivia

What popular product was first called Blibber-Blubber?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: If you're going to salute the flag atop the pole at the Palace of Nations in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, you might want to bring your binoculars. Shooting 541 feet into the air, the pole is thought to be the tallest free-standing flagpole in the world. Trident Support, based in San Diego, started putting together the 12-meter (approx. 39-foot) sections on Nov. 24, 2010, Tajikistan's National Flag Day, and tested it the following May 24. It is now taller than poles in Azerbaijan (531 feet) and near Panmunjom, North Korea (525 feet). It cost $3.5 million and celebrates the 20th anniversary of Tajikistan independence. However, on second thought, you may not need the binoculars. The flag that flies atop it is 98 feet by 197 feet and reportedly weighs a whopping 1,540 pounds. Last month, the Acuity Insurance Co. in Sheboygan, Wis., dedicated the tallest pole in the U.S. at 400 feet. See a video at

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 618-239-2465.

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