The St. Joseph River of today looks much different than it did during the last glacial age, some 16,000 years ago. At that time, a mountain of snow and ice, perhaps a half a mile thick, covered much of St. Joseph county. Tremendous quantities of meltwater from this glacier, as well as from glaciers to the north, formed a gigantic river, known as the Glacial Kankakee. The river coursed through what today is downtown South Bend. Where you are no standing, a river one mile wide and at least 100 feet deep, ice-cold and rapidly flowing, would have journeyed to the southwest, eventually following the modern Kankakee channel.
As thousands of years passed, the river narrowed to its present boundaries. The high bank you see before you would serve as the southern boundary for the river. The northern compliment of this bank can be found at the intersection of La Salle and Eddy streets in South Bend. How did the bank get to be so high? Actually, it not that the south bank is so high, but rather the north bank is so low. The glacial material that was formerly present here gradually washed away until all that remained was a level plain. The power of the river current caused it to cut further into its own bed, year after year. Even today, the river continues to cut deeper into its own channel.
South Bend was a much different place 16,000 years ago. Northern Indiana was covered with tundra, similar to what is found in the arctic regions today. Animals associated with a northern climate, like moose, caribou, and loons, were found here. Extinct glacial animals, such as ground sloths, giant beavers, cave bears, and mastadons were present as well. We know this by the discovery of remains in our area.
Many animals, no longer seen in the city, called the river their home. About 150 years ago, beaver, muskrat, mink, otter and bald eagles all made their home along the St. Joseph River. The St. Joe, with its sandy and gravelly bottom, was an ideal breeding location for walleye, northern pike and small-mouth bass. Giant Lake Sturgeon, six feet in length, were seen by the original settlers of the city passing through the shallow water near Leeper Park en route to their breeding grounds. How could the fish be seen so easily? At the time of the city founding in the 1820's, the river was described as "cool, clear, and swift," with its bottom visible from any vantage point overlooking the water.