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A Glacier Runs Through it: How Champaign County Got its Shape

Although Champaign County was named after a county in Ohio, its name couldn’t be more fitting. Champaign means “level, open country.” Situated in the second flattest state in the country, Champaign County doesn’t break form, bearing a flat-to-gently-rolling landscape and a general lack of forest. On a clear day, it seems as if you can see for miles. But how did it get this way?

It all started with ice. Continental glaciers to be more exact.

Photo Credit: Lenville J. Stelle Research published by Parkland College

Beginning roughly two million years ago, the earth experienced a general cooling and large glaciers began to form. Over hundreds of thousands of years, multiple glaciers flowed south from the Arctic region and traveled through present-day Champaign County. These massive, dense sheets of ice moved, or flowed, across the land, driven by the pressure of its weight and the force of gravity. The glaciers functioned as bulldozers, scraping away at the land and flattening it out.

However, if you wander around the county long enough, you’ll find it isn’t entirely as flat as advertised. One of the more significant elevation changes—long, low ridges called moraines—are also due to the glaciers. When a glacier scrapes away at the land it passes over, the ice sheet collects much of the disrupted earthen material. Then, as the temperature warms, the glacier will slowly melt and retreat, depositing the pulverized sediment along its edges. The resulting ridges are moraines.

Two large moraine systems cut through Champaign County: the Bloomington System and the Champaign System. The Bloomington System crosses the Indiana-Illinois border just north of Danville. It travels through the northeast corner of Champaign County, entering south of Penfield and exiting west of Ludlow. The system continues further north into Ford and Livingston Counties and then, like an upside down “V,” cuts back in a southwesterly direction and passes through Bloomington. Finally, the system curls north, moving through Peoria and up into Dekalb County. The moraine’s size ranges from 5 to 8 miles wide and from 60 to 90 feet high, with steep sides.

The Champaign System has numerous branches and an irregular shape. From the west, the main ridge starts near the Bloomington System in McLean County and runs southeast, entering Champaign County near Mahomet. The ridge continues southeast, passing through Champaign and Philo. At Rising, a large branch shoots off from the main ridge to the northeast and approaches the Bloomington System. At Staley, another offshoot branch breaks from the main ridge—this time to the south. The ridge passes through Tolono and Pesotum, enters Douglas County, and eventually turns east toward Vermilion County. There are a number of other small offshoots in the Champaign System as well. The ridges in this system are relatively elevated but have a much gentler slope than the Bloomington moraines.

The moraines in Champaign County also serve as watersheds, creating separate river basins that each drain different areas of the region. In the western portion of the county, water drains to either the Sangamon or Kaskaskia River. Water north of the Champaign Moraine System drains into the Sangamon River and from there to the Illinois River. Water south of the system drains into the Kaskaskia River and on to the Mississippi River.

With the Rising and Staley ridges as dividers, all water in the east of the county drains to the Wabash River. However, north of the Champaign moraine, the water drains into the Middle Fork, Salt Fork, and Little Vermilion River and continues on to the Wabash River. Water south of the Champaign system drains to the Wabash via the Embarras River.

The continental glaciers also created a once-notable feature of the land: the vast expanse of prairie land. As the glaciers receded, they deposited layers of clay, sand, and gravel over the underlying bedrock. Then, a layer of loess—fine, mineral-rich silt—was windblown over the landscape. With the loess in place, various prairie grasses sprung up across the land.

Trees have never been abundant in the region. Historians estimate that only about 20 percent of the total area of the county was covered in trees when the first European-American settlers arrived, most of these trees situated along the rivers. This is likely due to repeated forest fires, which prevented trees from establishing themselves except in areas with a water source for protection. Prairie grasses, on the other hand, were able to survive the fires and regrow.

So, the glaciations of the past were key in helping Champaign County live up to its name. They produced a level, open country. Of course, human intervention and other factors also played a major role in shaping the land into what we know today. But that’s a story for another day.


“Champaign.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 2017, Accessed 27 December 2017.

Cunningham, J.O. The History of Champaign County. N.P., 1905.Urbana Free Library Local History Online Catalog, Accessed 27 December 2017.

McCollum, Dannel. Essays on the Historical Geography of Champaign County: From the Distant Past to 2005. Champaign County Historical Museum, 2005.

Smith, Mitch. “Study says Illinois is second flattest on mainland.” Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune 19 June 2014. Accessed 27 December 2017.

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