Tucked away in the in the extreme northeastern part of McHenry County lies 521 acres of preserved open space known as North Branch Conservation Area. Due to its biologically rich ecosystems, like the 125-acre wetland complex, 282-acre Genoa City Wetlands and Barrens, a Bur oak dominated savanna, and a 1.5 mile section of the North Branch of Nippersink Creek, the site is teeming with wildlife and an excellent place to view grassland birds.
In addition to the the high quality natural areas that exist within the site, a key element of the site was the ability to provide a 1.75- mile trail connection from the Prairie Trail to the Hebron Trail, a long sought after link for the Grand Illinois Trail System. With asssistance from an IDNR Recreational Trails Program Grant totaling $304,000, the site and trail opened in 2008. Visitors can hike or bike the trail and enjoy an outdoor lunch at the picnic tables located off the parking area. Long Distance cyclists can call ahead and make a reservation to camp overnight in the field.
The lowland graminoid fen, sedge meadow and marsh communities provide a haven for over 80 different species of grassland songbirds, ducks, hawks and shorebirds, including the state endangered yellow headed blackbird and black tern. Twenty-one species of butterflies also flutter in the woodlands, meadows and savanna amongst an abundance of wildflowers.
Due to its clear, spring fed water and continuous sand and gravel bottom, Nippersink Creek supports more mussel species than any other Northeastern Illinois creek, including 11 state endangered or threatened species. In addition, 30 different native fish species swim in its clear waters including eight pollution intolerant species like the state endangered pugnose shiner and blacknose shiner. These existing wetland and marsh areas also provide habitat for chorus frogs, leopard frogs, salamanders, Blanding’s turtles and northern water snakes.
Historic records document that in 1835, William Alexander McConnell arrived at an intriguing clearing on the banks of the North Branch of Nippersink Creek and spent his first night at the base of an oak tree. McConnell must have liked what he saw because he made claim to 480 acres in the southeastern quarter, and became the first documented settler of Richmond Township. (The oak tree, one of the largest in McHenry County, still survives today.)
In the spring of 1835, McConnell and his wife Elizabeth built the first building in the Township, a 16’ x 18’ log cabin. For fifteen years the McConnell’s and their three sons lived in the log cabin “built in the shade of a white oak”. In 1852, McConnell built a Greek Revival house across the street and lived there as he amassed 1,400 acres, upon which he built a pickle factory, creamery, cheese factory, and several impressive barns. McConnell became one of McHenry County’s most prominent citizens as the first postmaster, school director of Richmond Township, Associate County Judge and state legislator.
In 1999, the Conservation District began protection of the biologically and historically rich area. Over time, three additional parcels were acquired, contiguous to the first. North Branch Conservation Area opened to the public in July of 2008.
Situated between Route 173 and Broadway Road is the William Alexander McConnell Farmstead, a four acre home site of the first settler in Richmond Township. Early plat maps show McConnell owning portions of what is now protected within the North Branch Conservation Area, although not currently open to the public. A non-profit group, the McConnel Friends Foundation, is raising funds to restore the buildings on the site, which include the two-story 1870’s Greek revival house, small barn, large dairy barn, hand-hewn threshing barn, milk house, chicken coop, granary, corn crib and hog house. The potential exists for future development of the McConnell farmstead, which may include school field trips and educational opportunities that would reconnect visitors with local agricultural heritage specific to farm life and technology of the late 1800’s.