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The Boneyard Creek: Unearthing the Complex History of a Champaign Staple

By Alexis Delgato

The Boneyard Creek has been an intricate aspect of Champaign history since before the town’s conception. The story of Boneyard Creek delves into historical, environmental, and social narratives, tracing its journey from a natural watercourse to a symbol of adaptation and coexistence amid urban development. The Boneyard Creek has shaped and been shaped by the local landscape of Champaign-Urbana, creating a dynamic relationship between nature and the community. 

The Boneyard Creek itself is a long body of water just north of Engineering Hall, stretching about 3.9 miles long and flowing through both the cities of Champaign and Urbana at different points (1). Located between Springfield Ave on the South, 1st Street on the West, and 2nd Street on the East, the Boneyard covers an extensive area of land (2). In addition to its length, it is connected to the 2nd Street water basin, or Helms Park, and Scott Park marking it as an integral site within the two cities for aesthetics as well as functions. The Boneyard seems to affect every aspect of life on the University of Illinois campus and beyond as it travels near the Engineering Quad, through the heart of Campustown, and continues into downtown Urbana.

To begin, the origins of Boneyard Creek date back to before the founding of Champaign and Urbana. In a 1916 article in The Champaign Daily News, the author describes the old memories of the Boneyard existing before the town of Champaign itself (3)! Many describe the body of water as a defining feature of the area, for better or for worse, “it’s always been there.” 

In 1822, settlers of the region began to refer to the body of water as Silver Creek, but the name “Boneyard” comes from the discovery of bones inside and along the creek. In 1836, a blizzard ran through the region forcing many animals and wildlife to seek shelter alongside the creek. Unfortunately for them, many perished and left remains both along and inside the creek. A supporting account for this story, published in the Daily Illini in 1921, describes the story of the lowly buffalo that once grazed the prairies of Urbana along the creek freezing to death by the blizzard described above (4). 

Another relation goes back to 1865, when the surrounding marsh of the creek was drained, and bones were discovered inside the creek. Many speculate whether the native tribes around the land had used the creek as a dumping area for their kills or as a burial site for the remains of their dead. However, there has been no conclusive evidence of human remains being found (5). An article titled “In My Day” published in the Daily Illini in 1930, describes the account of Mrs. R. A. Webber’s stories of the Native Americans heading westward leaving their camps where their animals prowled, with many of their bones being strung along the banks (6).

"Rustic Bridge over the Boneyard" 1914

University of Illinois Digital Archives

Not only embedded in the rich history of Champaign-Urbana but also the history of the University of Illinois, the Boneyard Creek was famed in “song and Illini tradition.” (7) Due to its proximity to the engineering campus, the Boneyard became a place of ritual and muse. The song “Where the Boneyard Flows,” depicts the creek as the center of student life at the University of Illinois, describing how its “wild waves tell stories grim of poor little frosh who couldn’t swim.” (8) In the 1870s, many engineering students participated in the tradition of swimming in the creek. In addition, a traditional tug-of-war game was played between the freshman and sophomore classes with each being at one side of the creek attempting to pull the opponent into the depths (9). The student’s impact on the creek is felt today as their relation to the name “Boneyard” Creek is what influenced the later change from Silver Creek.

Tug of War

University of Illinois Digital Archives

Not only did the creek have a lasting impact on the psyche of the University of Illinois, but also on the physical development of the campus. Over the years, Boneyard Creek has witnessed the growth and urbanization of the student population and campus. Many of the reconstructions of campus were a result of the habitual flooding of the creek. As recently as 1993, Grainger Library was flooded by the overflow of water from the Boneyard. In 1995, construction projects were planned to build two retention ponds, one south of Grainger Engineering Library, and another built behind McKinley Health Center, to prevent future flooding (10). 

While the Boneyard Creek holds a cherished place as an integral part of Champaign-Urbana’s history, many view and have viewed the creek as a liability due to its frequent flooding and past pollution. Before the creek was transformed with the urbanization of Champaign and the university’s campus, it was sometimes regarded as an eyesore for the sister cities. Not only have there been records of historic flooding leading back to the early twentieth century, but the creek was also used as a polluted dumping ground. Frequent flooding left “clogged sewers, canal-like walks on campus, rain-filled basements in University as well as city buildings, all caused by water backing up from inadequate city drainage systems.” (11) Numerous projects have been attempted by the cities of Champaign and Urbana to combat the flooding, such as channeling the creek which in the long run made things worse. There have been four major plans run by the cities to combat the massive floods that occurred in 1979 and 1993. The Boneyard Creek Task Force was created to come up with a comprehensive plan to alleviate the flooding problem (12). Ultimately, the latest plans for the Boneyard involved creating retention-detention bases to hold the stormwater, which allows the water to re-enter the creek slowly, thus reducing the flooding (13). The 2nd Street Water Basin came about from this plan and has provided many environmental and social benefits. Not only does the basin provide 100 years of flood protection, but also improves the habitat value of the site from “poor/marginal” to “suboptimal” for animals such as geese, ducks, and turtles (14). Socially, the basin provides the first complete bike path connection between the University of Illinois campus and downtown Champaign. In addition, there is an annual Boneyard Creek Community Day where community members will come to clean litter and invasive plants from the banks of the basin (15).

Photo by Garrett Pauley/UI Public Affairs

The history of Boneyard Creek reflects more than just a geographical feature of Champaign-Urbana but embodies a dynamic entity that encapsulates a profound history entangled with the development of the cities themselves and the University of Illinois. From its geological origins predating the towns to its role in indigenous and settler times, Boneyard Creek has witnessed centuries of change and adaptation that is ever-present today.


  1. Anderson, Bethany. “A Tributary Runs Through It: Engineering’s Boneyard Creek.” January 22, 2014.

  2. “Champaign-Urbana.” LocalWiki. Accessed March 10, 2024.

  3. The Boneyard—A “City Beautiful” Asset, or Liability?” The Champaign Daily News, Volume 21, Number 296, 8 July 1916

  4. Juliet Was Right. “How Silver Creek Became Boneyard Told in Thrilling Tale of Lowly Buffalo.” Daily Illini, 22 April 1921

  5. “Boneyard Creek History.” Fishes of Boneyard Creek. Accessed March 10, 2024.

  6. Webber, R.A. “In My Day.” Daily Illini, 15 March 1930

  7. “The Boneyard Just Isn't the Boneyard ; Early Settlers Called It Silver creek.” Daily Illini, 28 July 1948

  8. Anderson, Bethany. “A Tributary Runs Through It: Engineering’s Boneyard Creek.”

  9. “Half a Century Look at Boneyard,” News-Gazette, October 12, 1975, University Archives Reference File, Record Series 35/3/65, University of Illinois Archives.

  10.  Challos and Zents. “Construction Projects Planned.” Daily Illini. Volume 124, Number 102, 10 February 1995

  11. “Get Working on the Boneyard Plan.” Daily Illini, 2 October 1974

  12. “Boneyard Creek History.” Fishes of Boneyard Creek.

  13. Richardson, Elaine. “Creek Flooding Causes City to Plan for Future.” Daily Illini, Volume 122, Number 172, 21 July 1993

  14. “Boneyard Creek Restoration: Scott Park and the Second Street Detention Basin.” Landscape Performance Series, June 9, 2023

  15. “Boneyard Creek Restoration: Scott Park and the Second Street Detention Basin.”


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