Social Education 57(7), 1994, pp. 372-380
National Council for the Social Studies

The Magic of Elsah Creek

Cynthia Bidlack and Robert Williams
Contemporary Elsah, Illinois, a village of &Mac222;ve hundred people, has worked hard to retain its nineteenth-century charm and style. Not surprisingly, it is listed in the National Register of Historic Towns. Entering Elsah is like taking a step back in time. This is a quiet, sheltered hamlet, filled with narrow cobblestone streets, old-fashioned streetlamps, stone cottages, screened-in porches, a one-lane bridge, wildflowers growing along the roadside-the perfect place.
Since the 1850s Elsah has nestled in the narrow, mile-long ravine that cuts into the bluffs facing west along the Mississippi River. Elsah is not difficult to find, even though no billboards or neon signs lure visitors to the village. It is located between two other historic river towns, Alton and Grafton, on the Illinois' Great River Road. A small inconspicuous sign points the way (see figure 1 map of Elsah Creek area).

James Semple, founder of Elsah, bought the land around the ravine and plotted out the town. He sold the lots at reasonable prices and in some instances gave the land away. To get a free lot, the owner had to agree to build a house of native stone. As a result, several old stone buildings, which were plain and functional, are still standing and in use. Today, following that 150-year-old tradition, all homes and business in Elsah are subject to an ordinance requiring any restoration or building be maintained in the historic style of the village.

Elsah Creek meanders through this small quaint town of sixty-five dwellings. The houses and buildings lie close to the creek and the rocky walls. Two fifteen-foot-wide streets, some parts paved, some bricked, also follow the creek that flows into the Mississippi River. Fountain Spring feeds into the creek at Fountain Park. Just as Ponce de Leon searched for the legendary fountain of youth, Elsah too has a whimsical legend surrounding Elsah Creek. As the story goes, a visitor must be careful, for after drinking the good water from the spring, he or she will always long to return to the quaint village.

This intriguing town invites you with places to visit and trails to explore. One of the most famous is Elsah Landing, a restaurant noted for its delicious homemade breads, soups, and desserts. The Elsah Emporium is a specialty shop that sells crafts, antiques, and other types of home decor items and gifts. In recent times, Elsah has become a bed and breakfast community for those people living in St. Louis searching for a weekend get-away. The village offers the appropriate atmosphere for city dwellers who want to take a step back in time. Elsah is so authentic that during March of 1991, the town was used for a film set dated at the turn of the century. Located on the bluffs overlooking both Elsah and the Mississippi is Principia College, the only Christian Science College in the United States. The faculty and students of the college add their special flavor to Elsah.

On the surface, all is well, but has the environmental plague attacked this historic village? Has Elsah remained untouched by the pollution generation? What is lurking in Elsah's meandering creek? Is the magical water from Elsah Creek safe for any visitor to drink? The answers to these questions, unfortunately, do not paint a pretty picture. A blemish mars this village's peaceful and beautiful existence. Had it not been for a chemistry experiment at Jersey Community High School involving a small jar of the creek's water, this blemish might never have surfaced.

A Chemistry Beginning
Jersey Community High School, in Jerseyville, Illinois, is located in the same county as Elsah (figure 2). Advanced chemistry students in a water testing project began to test the water quality at six locations along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers in Jersey County. Initial testing sites were: Piasa Creek; Pere Marquette Park Harbor on the Illinois River; Dabbs Road at Eagle Lake; a drainage ditch; Otter Creek; and the 1300 N. marker on the Illinois River. After interest began to build in the water testing, a high school student, who is also a resident of Elsah, brought in a sample of water from Elsah Creek. She said the creek had an odor and she wanted the chemistry class to test the water. From that small jar of water, senior students at the high school became actively involved in an environmental issue. Using their knowledge, based on water quality studies, helped the students directly affect that community.

The class tested Elsah Creek using the Field Manual for Water Quality Monitoring: An Environmental Education Program for Schools (Michell and Stapp 1991). The students conducted the following nine tests to determine the water quality: dissolved oxygen, fecal coliform, pH, biochemical oxygen demand, temperature change, total phosphorus, nitrates, turbidity, and total solids. After students completed each test, they recorded the results and transferred them to a weighting curve chart where they obtained a numerical or Q value. Each test, or parameter, is multiplied by a weighting factor to obtain this Q value. The National Sanitation Foundation designed this Q-value system to allow comparisons between different bodies of waters. It weights each of the nine tests based on their contribution to overall water quality on a scale of 0 to 1.00. The students combined these nine values into an overall water quality index that they then compared with national water quality standards.

The Illinois River Project
These students were participants in the Illinois Rivers Project, an innovative interdisciplinary approach to the study of the Mississippi and lower Illinois Rivers through science, social studies, and English. Students practice these disciplines through water quality testing, engaging in historical research of their local communities (through methods such as personal interviews, field trips, library research), by writing poetry, songs, folklore, and factual articles based on their investigations. The project is coordinated through its own computer network, SOILED NET (the Southern Illinois Education Network housed at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville).

The project network currently consists of 250 schools ranging from Little Falls, Minnesota, in the north, to Cairo, Illinois, in the south, and on every river in Illinois. The project's goal of water quality monitoring on every major river source in Illinois has now become a reality. All schools collect and test river water, analyze data, as well as investigate the historical significance of the river in their local area.

The Illinois State Board of Education Scientific Literacy Grant Program funded the Illinois Rivers Project. It began as a pilot project involving eight schools, twenty-four teachers, and five hundred students in a study of the river and its influence on their local communities. Each school, with its team of teachers (one each from science, social studies, and English) developed a curriculum. The only firm guidelines involved water quality testing and the submission of written material for the project's publication of student writings, Meanderings.

Fecal Coliform Testing
After repeated testing, it became apparent that the fecal coliform level of Elsah Creek was unacceptable. The fecal coliform bacteria is found in the feces of humans and other warm-blooded animals. It is not pathogenic (does not cause illness or disease). Fecal coliform bacteria, however, are easily-identified indicator organisms that may occur with dangerous disease-causing organisms. When fecal coliform counts are high (over 200 colonies/100 ml water sample), an increased probability exists that pathogenic organisms are present. A person swimming in such water might swallow some pathogenic organisms, or these organisms might enter the body through the nose and ears or through a cut in the skin. The agents that cause typhoid fever, cholera, hepatitis, gastroenteritis, dysentery, or ear infections may be found in water with high fecal coliform counts (Mitchell and Stapp 1991). Treated sewage effluent levels should not exceed 200 colonies/100 ml water. The same level is true for swimming although the acceptable level for particle body contact (e.g., boating) is 1000 colonies/100 ml water (American Public Health Association 1985).

Government Classes Enter the Picture
In May of 1990, several senior students became actively involved in responding to the Elsah Creek water problem. These chemistry students had tested the water, seen the high coliform results, and were now ready to work with the environmental problem. They took an interdisciplinary approach as suggested by the Rivers Project itself. Most of the advanced chemistry students were also in the government class that the high school principal had chosen as the social studies class to participate in the Rivers Project. The students concern about the high fecal coliform counts they continued to get from Elsah Creek motivated them to take action. What better place than a government class to develop political action? Their teacher encouraged the students to generate ideas for improving the poor water quality of the creek and to create plans of action before taking responsibility for pursuing them.

The students sent letters to state and federal senators and representatives, explaining the Rivers Project, what they had been doing, and how they had found the high fecal coliform counts. Their primary concerns were to make the politicians aware of the environmental problem and to find a solution to the problem. The students also sent a letter to the Elsah City Council explaining the Rivers Project and informing it of the alarmingly high fecal coliform counts. The students suggested that the council should have trained professionals evaluate the water quality of the creek since it could be harmful to those that reside near it-the entire town. The reply from the mayor absolutely amazed the students. She said Elsah had been aware of the problem since the 1950s and had made many attempts to remedy the problem, but so far every attempt had failed. The students were intrigued and began, during the 1990-91 school year, to investigate the history of Elsah's sewage problem.

The students sent a set of letters to the Jersey County Health Department, the Illinois Department of Public Health, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The students explained that they were involved in a water quality monitoring project and described the consistently high fecal coliform counts taken from Elsah Creek. The letters expressed a desire that each jurisdiction might take steps to restore the creek and the river to their original healthy states. The local newspaper, the Alton Telegraph, gave prominent reportage to all of the actions.

By this time, the school year had ended. Two students, active in the project, wanted to continue testing through the summer months. The fecal coliform results remained high during these testing periods. At the end of July, the two students asked to walk along Elsah Creek, taking samples at different spots to see if they would get the same results the entire length of the creek. They became known as the Elsah Expedition.

The Elsah Expedition
On July 29, 1990, two teachers and the two summer school students walked the length of the creek. It was a sunny, hot, and humid day. The group carried sterilized jars, ßags for spot-markers, paper, and pencils. They marked with a flag each place where a water sample was taken and recorded their observations. The expedition took three hours, and, in the end, confirmed the fact that the entire creek (which ran through the town) had high fecal coliform counts. One of the students compiled a &Mac222;ve-page written summary of the expedition that included the objectives, site synopses, a description of the aquatic life found, a diagram of the explored area, the test results, and a project conclusion. Along with the information gathered, another and completely unexpected outcome of the expedition occurred when an outraged Elsah citizen telephoned the government teacher. She claimed the creek behind her house was private property and that the group had been trespassing. She wondered what the group was trying to prove and even went so far as to say that if it happened again, she would have them arrested. The Expedition force certainly thought this was an interesting twist, but it did not stop their political action. It was later found out that the legal boundaries of streams in Illinois is a murky and untested subject.

Continuing in the Fall
With the start of a new school year, a second group of government students was ready to continue the action. They investigated Elsah's lack of a sewage system. Students conducted interviews of people who had attempted to obtain a local sewage plant, the mayor of Elsah, the president of the Elsah Sanitary District, the engineer from the &Mac222;rm hired to design a sewage system, the Director of Environmental Health for the Jersey County Health Department, and a representative from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

The students discovered that Elsah was very much aware of its water problem. Since the 1950s, concerned citizens, along with the City Council, had been investigating various solutions to the problem. In the 1970s, the most feasible solution seemed to be a provision of the Clean Water Act that provided funding for local sewer projects. An engineering &Mac222;rm was hired to develop a plan for the Village of Elsah. The Environmental Protection Agency rejected their first plan. At that time, the EPA informed the Sanitary District that they would give them 85 percent of the money to finance an alternate system. Elsah would have to &Mac222;nance 15 percent of the project. By 1989, the EPA had approved a second plan. In March 1990, after many heated public meetings, the citizens of Elsah rejected the referendum.

The alternative to the sewer project was for each home or business to install a septic system. At that time approximately twenty homes and businesses had new septic systems. The others were old, out-dated, and not working properly, as was obvious from the fecal coliform testing. The Environmental Director of Jersey County sent letters to the residents of Elsah stating that they were to begin the process of complying with state standards. At that time, many of the residents refused to take the order seriously.

That fall a group of students attended all public meetings held in Elsah. One meeting addressed the types of individual sewage systems available. During one city council meeting, the students gave a slide presentation on the Rivers Project and answered questions from the members. They observed another city council meeting. A citizen, who had complained about the trespassers, requested a fourth meeting. The meeting began as a gripe session by the Elsah residents against the students and the Rivers Project. By the end of the meeting, the residents began to understand what the students were doing and how the students wanted to help find a solution, not cause trouble.

In October 1990, the students conducted a survey of the residents. They prepared fifteen questions that ranged from "How close are you to the creek?" to "What type of sewer system do you have?" (figure 3). Students divided the town into sections and in groups of four they visited each home. They quickly discovered that the residents of Elsah did not want to talk to them. People would look out their windows but not answer the door. One woman was on the telephone and turned her back to them. Naive 17- and 18-year-olds learned quite a lesson in civic virtue that day. The students then developed a flier to distribute in Elsah (figure 4). The flier warned citizens and visitors that Elsah Creek may be hazardous to their health. It disclosed the high fecal coliform counts describing the diseases that might be associated with fecal coliform. The flier also asked the citizens of Elsah to take action to help solve the problem.

The more the students became involved in the issue, the more they wanted to do. What a change! Their involvement created a real educational excitement. Eventually, the students, with the help of their teacher, filed a complaint with the Jersey County Health Department against the citizens of Elsah. The students stated that the residents had the opportunity to remedy the problem (the referendum) and chose not to do so. Now they must be held accountable for the creek in their backyards. The mayor of Elsah once made the comment, "If only these students had been involved in their project earlier, maybe the outcome of the referendum would have been different." The students believe that they would have affected the outcome of the referendum.

Eventually the citizens of Elsah underwent a metamorphosis. This was very apparent when the referendum was voted down. The students' actions forced the citizens to confront the issues and take action where before they chose to ignore the problem. Everyone was not against the students' involvement. About twenty-five adults were in favor of the city supporting a sewage system and they worked hard for passage of the referendum. Other townspeople were against it and were well organized and strong in their successful fight to defeat the sewage bill.

After the November city council meeting the residents of Elsah became more cooperative and started to listen to what the students were saying. Groups that had opposed each other in March now realized the consequences of those actions. Townspeople and high school seniors tackled Elsah's problem with vigor and are seeing the results of their actions. The students remain involved. They are helping residents find a way to finance the very expensive sewage systems and continue to monitor the water.

The Job Well Done
With all the criticism of today's youth, this project shows that with proper guidance and a good challenge, teenagers will learn enthusiastically. School can assimilate the environmental problems of the 1990s-air pollution, need for clean water, recycling waste material-through a cooperative effort in science, government, and English classes.

Increased student awareness and the ability to convince others to take action have been unexpected but rewarding results of the project. Students have seen, firsthand, that chemistry has application in everyday life. They observed the changes they could effect through their political action; they chose to address issues head-on, no longer adopting an "I don't care" attitude. What they learned through the activities of the Rivers Project and through the hands-on experience of science and government being integrated in the classroom, they will carry into their adult lives. For those teaching about the environment, and for those so actively involved in the Illinois Rivers Project, that will be the greatest reward.

Who knows what lasting effect this will have on the students? This could inßuence them into pursuing political careers, careers in law, or just continuing their education as informed, mature citizens. Only time, and following the careers of these students, will give us the answer.

In the meantime, Jersey Community High School students have had a pronounced inßuence on the residents of Elsah. Maybe in the near future, the magical water of Elsah Creek will once again be safe to drink.

Allen, John W. Legends and Lore of Southern Illinois. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press at Carbondale, 1963.American Public Health Association. Standard Methods for the Examination of Water and Wastewater. 16th ed. New York: American Public Health Association, 1985.Mitchell, Mark K., and William B. Stapp. Field Manual for Water Quality Monitoring: An Environmental Education Program for Schools. Dexter, Mich.: Thomas-Shore, 1991.Underwood, Melissa. "Elsah, A Historic Landmark." The Springhouse Magazine 1, no. 2 (January/February 1984): 25.Cynthia Bidlack is Project Coordinator for the Rivers Curriculum and Illinois Rivers Projects and is a former teacher at Jersey Community High School. Robert Williams is Professor of Science Education at Southern Illinois University and Project Advisor for the Rivers Curriculum and Illinois Rivers Projects.