May 08, 2008

Book details significance of the Illinois Waterway

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- An associate professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and an SIUC alumnus have teamed up on a book that focuses on the lives of people living along one of the state's vital waterways.

Writer Gary Marx and photographer Daniel V. Overturf are co-authors of "A River Through Illinois." The 256-page book details the lives of those living along the Illinois Waterway -- a 330-mile stretch of rivers and canals from Chicago to Grafton that connect the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. The book also looks at the waterway's commercial significance and environmental issues.

A book signing is set for 5 to 7 p.m., Saturday, May 10, at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press published the book in April.

Overturf, an associate professor and former chair in the Department of Cinema & Photography, is an award-winning photographer. He shot the initial photographs in what became the project's genesis in 1998 near Peoria. Marx, an award-winning journalist, is a 1976 SIUC journalism graduate. He is a former columnist and news editor at The Southern Illinoisan and is currently a copy editor at The Kansas City Star. The two started working on the project in earnest in spring 2000.

"Dan and I had been working together trying to find a project to meld his photographs and my words for a long time," said Marx, who has a lifelong interest in rivers.

"What interested me about the project is, No. 1, it's about the river. Rivers are iconic things - they tap something primal in all of us," he said.

There is also a broader appeal because the project involved people -- from carp fishermen in Chicago to riverboat pilots, scientists, engineers, hunters, farm families, shopkeepers, and other men and women from all walks of life.

"It was telling people's stories that really convinced me I wanted to do the book," he said.

The two spent years interviewing and photographing people along the Illinois Waterway - from Chicago to rural areas of the state. Some people interviewed and photographed have passed away, but "we were fortunate enough to capture their stories and photographs," Marx said.

The book contains about 120 color photographs. There is no formula or standard way in presenting or describing a subject as complex as the Illinois Waterway and the people related to the river -- or initially knowing how the project will end, Overturf said

"Gary and I often remarked that preparing the book's final materials was forced by a need to wrap up the project, not by any delusional notion that we had a 'complete' document," he said. "The book is a collection of our experiences and what we found at the time when we were working on the project. The Illinois River has gone through so many changes since we began the book, so we are content that what we have in the book will represent the period and, more importantly, be faithful to the people we met and the times we shared."

The Illinois Waterway's characteristics change throughout the 330-mile journey -- from navigational channels used for commerce to areas utilized as recreational areas. How people view the river is also striking, he said.

In Chicago, a man fishing with thousands of dollars invested in equipment searched the Chicago River for carp -- which he considers a game fish. Yet, several hundred miles downstream, another fisherman considered carp as "garbage fish," and threw them out, Marx said. Many people may know a 20-mile portion of the river that they frequent, but not the whole river.

There are striking differences, but "the river connects us all," Marx said.

Various museums and galleries in Illinois have hosted a traveling exhibition of 50 framed images and mounted text blocks from "A River Through Illinois." Some of the images are as large as seven- to eight-feet long. Details are forthcoming on a show planned in the Chicago area to open in 2009, Overturf said.

More information on the book is available at