In the years following the Civil War, cultivation of the prairie accelerated due to the development of railroads which gave farmers transportation for their produce and an easy way to get wood and lumber necessary for building and heating. By 1900 most of the Illinois prairie was gone. Although most individuals did not mourn its disappearance, there were some that did. Dr. A.N. Herre, upon returning to Illinois, wrote the following:
The disappearance of the prairie was more than the loss of vast acreages of plants. It was the loss of a huge grassland ecosystem, its plants and animals. Unfortunately, few descriptions of the bird life of the unbroken prairie are in existence. One notable exception is Dr. Robert Ridgeway’s description of the bird populations of Fox Prairie in Richland County from the late 1800’s:
A third visit to this prairie was made early in June, 1883 -- exactly twelve years after the first trip. The change which had taken place in the interval was almost beyond belief. Instead of an absolutely open prairie some six miles broad by ten in extreme length, covered with its original characteristic vegetation, there remained only 160 acres not under fence. With this insignificant exception, the entire area was covered by thriving farms, with their neat cottages, capacious barns, fields of corn and wheat, and even extensive orchards of peach and apple trees. The transformation was complete; and so it was only by certain ineffectual landmarks that we were able to identify the locality of our former visits. As a consequence, we searched in vain for the characteristic prairie birds. Upon the unenclosed tract of 160 acres, dickcissels, Henslow’s buntings, yellow-winged sparrows, and the meadowlarks were abundant as ever; and running in the road, now wallowing in the dust, then alighting upon a fence stake, were plenty of prairie larks, but equally numerous were the detestable and detested European house sparrow, already ineradicably established. We searched in vain for Bell’s Vireo, for all the thickets had been destroyed. Neither was a solitary kite, of either species, to be seen. We left our beautiful prairie with a sad heart, disgusted with the change (however beneficent to humanity) which civilization had wrought.
The same is the history of all the smaller prairies in many portions of the state; and it will probably not be many years before a prairie in its primitive condition cannot be found within the limits of Illinois (Ridgeway 1889)."
The words of Ridgeway were all too prophetic, for only vestiges remain of the once vast Illinois prairies. Looking Glass Prairie, String Prairie, and the largest prairie of all, the Grand Prairie exists today as names on maps. Relatively undisturbed prairies still remain Illinois along railroad rights-of-ways, in pioneer cemeteries, or on sites that are unsuitable for row crop farming, pasture or development.