Why is it called the Boneyard Creek?

Why is it called the Boneyard Creek?

I've been writing a bit lately about the Boneyard Creek, and I've wondered how that name came to be since I first moved to Champaign in 2006. It seems a little morbid for the channel that drains storm water for a large portion of Champaign-Urbana.

So last week, I posed the question on Twitter -- at the time, I think I meant the question to be more rhetorical, but I was surprised by the responses I received (here, here and here).

I try to direct people away from Wikipedia whenever possible, so I did some light investigation myself. I scanned our newsroom's digital archive. Nothing. I asked T.J. Blakeman, a city planner whom I generally regard as my go-to source in the City Building for questions about local history, and Tom Kacich, the newsroom history buff. Unfortunately, (and I'm not proud to admit this) I'm not sure I can provide an explanation more verifiable than Wikipedia.

As important as the creek is to residents' livelihoods (if you own property in Champaign-Urbana, there's a good chance that the creek contributes to keeping your land and your basement dry -- or, sometimes, not so dry), and with the number of local organizations to which it has lent its moniker, the origin of the creek's name seems to elude everyone.

Here's the explanation I was given by Blakeman:

There are a couple of different claims on the name, but the most common is that when settlers first come to the area, they found small areas where the Native Americans (I believe Potawatomi) in the area would clean their kill after a hunt. There is actually a large area of bones (called the bone bank) that used to be at the divergence of the Wabash and Ohio River, which was on the route that many took to this area. Some think that settlers would have passed this along their journey and then saw these smaller areas here. I don't know that any bones have ever been recovered in modern times, but I have heard that one particular area of concentration was behind where the Courier Cafe is located today.

The other notion is that Native Americans would bury their dead along the creek in sacks made of leather or hide and over time those sacks would degrade and spill the bones of the buried into the creek as the shore eroded. I'm not so certain about that one.

There were efforts by UI President (Edmund) James to rename the creek back in the early part of the 20th century. He proposed Silver Creek, which was actually used for some time (hence Silver Creek Restaurant), but the name Boneyard has stuck for good. Remember, the president's house was on the northeast corner of Green and Wright, and the Boneyard ran through his backyard, so he had a vested interest in the issue.

I get a kick out of the explanation that the creek is named Boneyard for the remains of the students who couldn't hack it in the UI engineering curriculum. Sure, why not?

But the mystery of how the Boneyard Creek came to be named, I think, just adds to the local lore. I would almost rather have it that way.


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mankind wrote on April 18, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Why don't you go to the university or Urbana archives? There's something to be said for going to the original documents. And do not believe everything you see about U of I on Wikipedia. It's all skimmed from other people whose research doesn't extend beyond Google and Twitter. People in the 1800s did not post online.