Swimsuit? Birthday suit? Remembering swimming holes

Swimsuit? Birthday suit? Remembering swimming holes

Swimming holes have been going in and out of style, but they're guaranteed to raise a smile, at least in our memories.

Many around here were open ditches, as in the Saline Branch and the Boneyard, or gravel pits, or land scooped up to build highway ramps.

Every generation has its own memories of getting away from tiresome adults and skinny-dipping with friends

The age of innocence ended when liability issues trumped fun.

As it is now, there's no legal swimming hole in the area, the closest thing being a swimming beach at the Middle Fork Forest Preserve.

You can't swim in current or former quarries such as one near Mahomet, now the Riverbend Forest Preserve, nor one near Fairmount — occasionally people have drowned in the surprisingly deep waters at quarries, or dived into rocks where it was surprisingly shallow.

Quarries also have very steep sides, says Dan Olson, director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. So it's no go in the deep pond at Riverbend. Swimming has also been banned at the Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve.

"But out at Middle Fork, we encourage people to swim at the beach; it's not very deep," he says. No swimming after dusk, he warns.

Real swimming holes are transient. Sometimes they only last for hours, with the flooding of streets so common in this marshy area, especially along Green Street a few years ago

"College students had a grand time in Lake Neil," says former Champaign mayor Dannel McCollum.

Janna Heuer of Urbana remembers the land at the future Meadowbrook Park before it was landscaped and improved.

In the 1970s, there was a very small waterfall on the creek there that "scooped out a four- or five-feet hole, just big enough to swim in."

There was a lightning-struck tree near it, and her group of friends enjoyed its ambiance. No trace remains; even the tree has rotted away.

Drainage ditches and other engineering improvements eliminated many of the area's original swimming holes, so newer ones have been dependent on human interference with nature — a quarry or a borrow pit for construction.

There's no swimming in the Boneyard, which has been changed enormously by civil engineering to prevent flooding.

In the past, the Boneyard offered no chlorine, but lots of other chemicals — and even leeches in one of the deepest holes near the Urbana Armory off University Avenue.

People swam in the Boneyard despite its essentially dangerous nature. In the 1960s, Kathy Wallig of Urbana swam at an Urbana spot where a local TV-radio repair shop dumped its vacuum tubes.

The constant change has meant that even almost a century ago, nostalgic writers were mourning their loss.

A 1925 News-Gazette article lamented the loss of holes on the Saline Ditch north and east of Urbana, Lemon Hole, Sycamore Hole, Sulphur Springs — the last did have some sulphur in it, believed then to have healing properties, but not enough that any business could exploit it.

"Swimming suits were taboo," the author wrote, at Devil's Hole, which was shielded by trees from voyeurs. All are long gone.

New ones were sought out by adventurous teen-agers.

Sandra Ahten remembers a spot some call the Mouth of Jordan, a hard to spot creek hole in Vermillion County, which also had a lot of holes due to strip mining.

Kickapoo State Park forbids swimming, but the closest thing is a 2-mile tube ride down the Middle Fork, says Todd Alcorn, general manager of Kickapoo Landing.

Kathy Wallig's father used to own the gravel pit southwest of Mahomet. It's where the forest preserve property is now, once called Midwest Sand and Gravel.

"Kids used to swim there all the time, which was not at all welcome by my dad. If they only knew how deep that water was, I doubt any sober person would have jumped in," she says.

Phil Bloomer of rural St. Joseph fondly remembers the hippies and would-be hippies of the early 1970s.

"I discovered one (illegal) hole driving down Interstate 57. You could see naked people swimming. It was a bunch of hippies, and my friends ended up there several times," he says.

Memories, misty water-colored memories — with some occasional nasty pollutants.

Phil Bloomer:

Mattis Lake, off Devonshire Drive. "There was no development" there circa 1970, he remembers. "No one would police things." In recent years there have been problems with algal bloom — and goose poop, a problem everywhere without natural predators.

Kathy Wallig:

"I grew up on Hill Street in Urbana. (A local TV repair business) would dump tubes in the Boneyard. My sister and I still marvel that we're alive after swimming in the Boneyard.

Dan McCollum:

Some creeks or ditches now run underground for long stretches, Champaign's historian says. Swimming holes were for everyone, he says, but not necessarily in the same swimming holes. His friend, the late Erma Bridgewater, told him about swimming in the Saline Ditch, in the north and east of Urbana — and the time of segregation at Urbana's Crystal Lake Swimming Pool.

Mike Bays:

"An old gravel pit by Brownfield Woods; I'm not sure if it's still there. There was skinny-dipping, as boys will do, but I don't remember girls doing it much."

Robert Idleman:

Barrel Lake, a borrow pit in west Champaign. "When I was around 13 to 15, you had to walk through the corn to get there. Completely secluded and a drop-off that wasn't too deep. So we would take our clothes off and dive in. When Interstate 72 was built with an overpass, we switched over to the pits (near Mahomet). An abandoned gravel pit accessed by a narrow, steep drop-offs to its sides. It was a true pit. Very deep and very steep sides, very secluded, too. Plus snakes. All the local long hairs and bands hung out here.

Swimming holes and skinny-dipping in movies and TV:

"The Beverly Hillbillies" had a ce-MENT swimming hole. A similar show, "Petticoat Junction," shows the girls skinny-dipping in the water tank.

The first victim of the Shark in "Jaws" is a skinny-dipping lass. A few years later, in "1941" with John Belushi, the same actress played a woman who has a close encounter with a Japanese submarine. (This one survives.)

Skinny-dipping moved from holes to swimming pools in "National Lampoon's Family Vacation," wherein Clark Griswold swims with a very naked Christy Brinkley — and gets caught by his family.

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Reykjavik wrote on July 20, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Goose poop is a big problem at almost all potential swimming holes.  Geese just wreck the experience of visiting nearly all lakes and ponds in this area.  I wish there was a way to remove those critters, permanently.

Another problem is chemical run-off from farming.

ialdabaoth wrote on July 20, 2014 at 4:07 pm

nice try NG, but you'd have to try harder than that to actually obscure the identity of a local urbana TV repair shop on the banks of the boneyard...

for what it's worth, we kids these days know a thing or two about illicit swimming. we hop fences and swim in your rich, suburban backyard pools when you're out of town. we break into the pools that scumbag landlords only maintain during the month of august in order to con prospective tenants. if it's unsupervised and three feet deep or greater, the 'long hairs' and all the local bands have skinny-dipped there