River to River Trail and Shawnee Forest Exploration
River to River Trail Hike
The History of the Shawnee National Forest and the creation of the River To River Trail.

The History of the Shawnee National Forest and the creation of the River To River Trail.

(This page will be edited and photos added at a later date) The Idea of a National Forest in Southern Il had been discussed for years with no action being taken.

This was written by someone who worked at the Harrisburg supervisor’s office and was kept in the files for years. An Elizabethtown man copied it from the files in the early 1980s. I found it stuffed away at Morris Library on the campus of Southern Illinois University. The history is reprinted in four parts. (Created July 13, 1996 by Jon Musgrave) — Shawnee National Forest History (illinoishistory.com)

I’m using a lot of the posts from this as a source.

“About 1930, people in Illinois suddenly began to realize that the area in the southern part of the state, known as Little Egypt or the Illinois Ozarks, was topographically and otherwise suited to reforestation purposes, and began writing the Forest Service asking it to consider the establishment of a forest in this territory. Thus the stage was set for promotion of the idea, and promotion of the idea, and promotion actually began at the first meeting of the Central States Forestry Congress held in Indianapolis, Indiana, in December 1930.” from a copy of an earlier)

The purpose of the forests restoration was to control erosion, produce timber (the only crop thought to be sustainable at a profit) and to attract tourism by building accessible all weather roads to visit the area.

“The general history of the unit showed that the region had been farmed for 100 years, and that much of the soil was worn out and beyond reclamation as farm soil. Many farms had been abandoned on account of worn-out soil and erosion, and a large percentage of these were on soil which should not have been cleared of timber at all. The entire area had been logged from one to ten times, and nearly all of the original timber had been removed and replaced by second growth where the land was not completely cleared for farming. Many abandoned farms were at that time being reforested naturally.”

“Mr. Barker’s report went to the Forester at Washington in March 1931. After analyzing the report and existing economic conditions, the Forester disapproved the recommendation. He stated that there were no funds available for the purchase of any lands within the state, and that it was not the policy to establish forests on areas such as we have in the southern part of Illinois. Thus far, forests were operating chiefly in mountainous parts of the eastern and western sections of the United States, and in the denuded areas of the north.”

So that was that. Or so it seemed.

“Shortly after Mr. Barker’s survey, the Harrisburg Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs conceived the idea of having an organization set up whose principal objective would be to make an organized effort to get the forest established. This organization was named the Illinois Ozarks Reforestation Unit. It was perfected and officers were elected at a meeting held during the early part of 1931, at Golconda, Illinois. This organization under the guidance of L. O. Trigg, has since made an annual tour of the Illinois Ozarks.”

So they tried again.


The Department of Conservation with the assistance of the Department of Natural History Surveys, put through the State Legislature on June 18, 1931, the Enabling Act which, in effect, invited the United States Government to acquire land within the state for forestry purposes. In the same month, various counties petitioned the National Forest Reservation Commission and the Senators and Representatives representing Illinois, for a forest. In this petition, the importance of conserving the natural resources was stressed. It was pointed out that the fields within the Illinois Ozarks were slowly deteriorating and becoming quite heavily eroded. Because of the usual practice of burning annually, few of the forested areas were producing merchantable timber, and further, there were several recreational sites which were inaccessible and would prove to be beneficial to the public if made accessible and forested.

The task before the Illinois Ozarks Reforestation Unit in 1931, was that of justifying and securing support for the proposed forest. Congressman Claude V. Parsons of Illinois repeated presented arguments to the Forester and his staff in favor of the forest. In 1932, Congressman Parsons went before the National Forest reservation Commission stressing the importance of having a forest in Southern Illinois. While he was in Washington making exhaustive efforts to bring about the establishment of the forest, local interests were consistently working in behalf of the project in the locality concerned, and had secured a large number of petitions and also had written a great number of letters to the U. S. Forest Service, the National Forest Preservation Commission, and to Congressmen and Senators. These letters presented logical reasons why the forest should be established, and stressed the importance of early action. It was brought to the attention of the forester in Washington that a forest existed in Kentucky which was in a locality similar to the proposed forest area in Illinois, and that by creating a national forest here, the watershed protection of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers would be materially increased.

A newspaper article in the March 23, 1933, issue of the Daily Register, published in Harrisburg, Illinois, stated that a meeting had been called at the Masonic Temple for March 24, at which Messrs. H. N. Wheeler, Chief Lecturer of the U.S. Forest Service, Washington, D. C., Lewis B. Springer, Superintendent of Forestry, Department of Conservation, State of Illinois, and Stanley Lock, Assistant Forester, State of Illinois, would appear. It stated that a petition two feet high requesting the establishment of national forest purchase units in Southern Illinois, had been forwarded to the National Forest Reservation Commission in Washington. It stated that if units were established a camp would probably be set up within the units.

Apparently at that time there were no indications that the CCC program would reach a point where not one, but eleven camps would be established within the proposed area. The public was invited to attend this meeting and special invitation was extended to rural school teachers and other semi-public officials. The meeting was to follow a meeting of the Kiwanis Club at the Masonic Temple, at which Dr. Wheeler and the other officials mentioned above were to appear.

The March 25, 1933, issue of the Daily Register carried a report of the meeting on March 24, stating that representatives were present from Stonefort, Golconda, Elizabethtown, Equality, Eldorado, Marion, Ridgway, Carrier Mills and Harrisburg, Illinois. Dr. Wheeler had given a talk on the possibilities and purposes of a national forest area in Southern Illinois, and had pointed out that 7,000,000 acres of land what was then being used for farming or for ordinary pasture could better be utilized for the production of timber. The work in erosion prevention and fire prevention that might be expected from the Forest Service should a National Forest purchase unit be established, was also stressed.

The May, 1933 issue of the Daily Register showed that a provision had been incorporated into the proposed national reforestation plan for the purchase of 212,000 acres of land in Southern Illinois for the purpose of converting it into a National Forest. The issue of May 22, 1933, carried a story to the effect that the creation of two National Forests, with a total area of 600,000 acres in ten southern Illinois counties, had been urged as a public works project by the Governor of Illinois in a wire to the President. It was proposed that the two forests would be named Shawnee and Illini, and it stated that recommendation for this had been before the Chief Forester since March 6, 1931, and that since then various local groups had been working in support of the project.

The same newspaper carried a dispatch on July 1, 1933, stating that a letter had been received advising that the proposed Shawnee and Illini units could not be established since the related act provided that funds could only be expended in areas hitherto established by the Secretary of Agriculture with the approval of the National Forest Reservation Commission and, since neither the Shawnee or Illini had thus been established, there appeared no possibility that they could be included; however, the same letter bore a postscript stating that after the letter had been written, notice had been received that the President had modified his order, permitting purchases in new areas.

Thus, the prospect for establishment of the Southern Illinois units appeared brighter, and on July 15, 1933, a news article appeared under the headline, “Will Consider Shawnee Unit” that the Forester had stated that the Shawnee and Illini units would be considered at an early meeting of the National Forest Reservation Commission, and that the Regional Forester at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had been asked to submit additional data in support of the proposed national forest. The same newspaper carried a headline on August 30, 1933, “Approve Shawnee Unit for Forest” and the article following stated that it would mean purchase of 300,000 acres of land in Saline and other counties.

The article prophesied that if the units were established, the establishment of several all-weather camps to be occupied by CCC personnel, the building of all-weather roads and observation towers, and the establishment of fish and game preserves and tree nurseries would follow. It also announced that a four-county reforestation association headed by Judge B. F. Anderson of Golconda as President, had been instrumental in securing these units, and that the following organizations had cooperated: University of Illinois, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Agricultural Association, State Academy of Science, the Friend of our National Landscape Association of Illinois, State Federation of Women’s Clubs, State Planning Commission, States Forestry Congress, Illinois Izaak Walton League, as well as the State administration and various other organizations and private citizens.”

“The issue of September 30, 1933, mentioned that a meeting of the directors of the Shawnee Reforestation Unit had been attended by Messrs. William L. Barker, Jr. and L. E. Sawyer. The issue of September 23, 1933, stated that Mr. Barker had tentatively chosen the site for nine proposed camps, and that it was expected the unit supervisor would be in Harrisburg some time that week. “


They were originally going to create 2 forests. The East side one was going to be the Shawnee Forest. The West side one was going to be the Illini.

In 1933 the 2 purchase Units were combined into a unit called the Shawnee Purchase Unit. “In November 1938, an attempt was made by the supervisor to have the designation changed to Lincoln Purchase Units, with the idea that the region would ultimately be known as the Lincoln National Forest.”

I’m so glad it stayed the Shawnee. Maybe just because I’m used to it.

Tons of info. on these pages including the CCC camps, the Purchasing of the lands and the establishments of the Harrisburg and Vienna ranger stations. Creation of the Shawnee National Forest, Part IV (illinoishistory.com)

Moving on to the idea and creation of the River to River trail and getting this dream organized and connected over all sorts of obstacles including private land and along public roads.

This is from an excellent article published in the Benton News on John O’Dells Passing Nov. 9th 2021.

‘A giant in southern Illinois’: Region mourns the passing of John O’Dell, founder of the River To River Trail (bentoneveningnews.com)

“Many had thought about making a trail between the two rivers, as far back as the 1930s, Ferguson said, including Delyte Morris, who became Southern Illinois University Chancellor in 1948.

Years ago a short trail was fashioned from Battery Rock on the Ohio River to Route 45, but it was extremely out of the way and never caught on, Ferguson said.

In the 1990s, O’Dell decided to do it himself.”

“He got his topo (topographical) maps, put on his boots and blazed a (t)rail from the Ohio to the Mississippi,” Ferguson said. O’Dell and his wife, Merilee, would map out each day’s journey as he worked to find the best path forward.

Over the years the path has changed in parts. Now it is almost entirely on public land, and the Shawnee National Forest has worked to ensure it is sustainable.


As far as I could tell, the Original trail ran from Battery Rock to High Knob, ran North around Garden of the Gods. There was actually a gap somewhere around RT45 I believe on the maps. West of The Tin Whistle it is marked up around This old roadbed with the same painted on squared off “i” that is still also to be found on the Max Creek Loop and the Cedar Wonders area trails. Plus it went North around Cedar Lake, through the bottoms below Natural Bridge past Pomona and over the Bluff south of Horseshoe Bluff and along the old road near the Big Muddy north to the Levee road.


I hope to have a map made sometime soon of where i think it originally went. Many changes for the better over the years, but it never would have ever got off the ground without John O’Dells hard work, the other unrecognized people who negotiated hand shake deals with private land owners and got this dream turned into reality.