CAIRO – The Illinois Department of Natural Resources assumed control of Fort Defiance State Park July 31. The park is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
The park, which will be a satellite of Horseshoe Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, is temporarily closed for maintenance. The City of Cairo had operated the park since the 1990s.
Joey Thurston, site superintendent at Horseshoe Lake, said his goal is to have the park re-opened as a day-use area by the end of the year.
“Our goal is to, when we came in it was in terrible shape, just to get it back to where it is respectable as a state park,” he said. “People can come in and see the confluence, have a picnic if they’d like, just like it always was for years.
“This was always set up to be an area where people can come in and see the confluence of the two rivers, have a picnic, walk, ride bikes, and do whatever they wanted with their kids.”
There are serious safety issues that have to be navigated before the park can be re-opened. Electrical lines and wires have to be removed from the abandoned campground at the site, debris has to be removed from both river fronts and extensive rip rap work must be completed.
“I don’t have a time frame as much as I just have certain things we have to do,” Thurston said. “We have to get the debris off the point, new toothpicks (wooden posts marking parking boundaries) put in, the electricity has to be safe. We have to dead end some open wires down here.
“As far as it being clean, knocking the weeds down and keeping it mowed, we’re OK there. We have issues in the campground with open electricity. We have to get that taken care of.”
Bids will be opened in the next couple weeks regarding debris removal and rip rap work.
The park’s boat ramp is also buried under a layer of silt. Thurston estimates the silt is 6-8 feet deep on some parts of the ramp.
“It is going to be a great task,” Thurston said. “It’s part of the plan to get it open as soon as we can. It hasn’t been maintained in years. We have a local family here that has kept it cleaned off as best they could so people could launch boats.”
Two other projects, opening the campground and establishing a visitor center, are part of a secondary phase of planning.
“What we’re going to do right now is take the existing electric out, but we’re leaving all the main boxes up, so if down the road if we decided to put the campground in, we could,” Thurston said. “The problem down here is water is in and out of here. We have to be ADA accessible. We have to have certain breakers. That’s not something that’s totally out, but for the time being it’s not the first priority.”
In addition, a two-story building that has historically not been associated with the park came as part of the package. The building has served as state police headquarters, a restaurant and a welcome center.
While Thurston said the building is being looked at as a possible visitor center, there are issues with black mold. The severity of the mold problem is now being studied.
“When we get those results back that is probably going to determine what happens there,” he said. “It’s a nice building. There has been a lot of money put into the building. That’s down the road. Right now the priority is to get the park opened up.”
In the meantime, IDNR personnel are working on weeding, mowing and safety issues. A new site technician will go to work at the park beginning Sept. 1.
“We want something, this is one of the first things you see if you come into the State of Illinois from the south,” Thurston said. “It’s been embarrassing to say the least. We want something to be proud of, for the IDNR and the community.
“Our goal is to get it back to state park status. That takes more than just knocking down some weeds and cleaning it up. We have things we working on. We just want people to be patient. The director on down is committed to this. We wouldn’t have taken it if we weren’t.”