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A Brief History of the Illinois and Michigan Canal

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The Canal:

I first encountered the canal shortly after World War two. I was staying with my Grandmother, and accompanied her and some friends to their “bottom” gardens. Several blocks from her home, we crossed the Rock Island Railway tracks, up and down a small embankment, crossed a wide ditch, up another small embankment, across what appeared to be narrow path, and then down into the bottoms.  In the spring when the Illinois River flooded, the water went over the banks and poured into the flood plain. When the water receded, a rich black loam was deposited on the “bottoms.” Over the years, folks had cleared out a lot of the brush, and planted their gardens in the rich soil. As I helped my Grandmother, I asked her about the ditch we had crossed.  “Oh that? That is the canal!” she said.

 I had never heard of the canal, so a week or so later my best friend and I rode our bicycles down to the rail road tracks, walked our bikes across the tracks, the ditch, and up onto the path. We were able to follow the path for quite a distance, crossing washouts, and climbing over downed trees. We reached the Little Vermillion River, and were astounded to see the ditch became a metal ditch bridge. Attached to the sides of the ditch bridge were rusty iron beams, and attached to the iron beams were eight inch by eight inch wooden logs. We cautiously ventured out onto the weathered logs, staring down 30 feet or so to the VermillionRiver below us. The logs must have been cut from Oak trees, for as bad as they looked, they turned out to be solid all the way across the river, until the metal ditch became a dirt ditch again. 

Underbrush
Credit: R.P. Strout

This was the start of what would become many day long bicycle trips along the towpath, from La Salle to Utica, passed Split Rock and the Limestone mines.

The Need Identified:

In the 1670s, the French explorer Louis Joliet, accompanied by Father Marquette, traveled from Montreal to Lake Michigan. They followed rivers and portages across what is now Wisconsin, and arrived at the Mississippi River. Following the river to the south, he encountered at a large Indian encampment. Here the Indian Chief provided his son as a guide, and Joliet continued southward. He arrived at the mouth of what is now known as the Arkansas River. He was informed by the local natives that there were strange men in metal clothing farther down the big river. He guessed that these were Spanish soldiers, and from that information determined the river emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. Heading back up the river to avoid the Spanish, the young Indian guide led Joliet into the mouth of what we now know as the Illinois River, and he followed it northward.  At the headwaters, he followed the native Indian portage to a smaller river, now called the Des Plaines, and again into a still smaller river, now named the Chicago. Although he lost his original notes when his canoe capsized on his return to Montreal, Joliet recreated his notes from memory and supposedly commented that a waterway from the lake to the Illinois River would be a boon to commerce in the area.  

The Process Starts:

In 1824, a Commission was authorized to survey a 96 mile route from the Chicago River, which fed into Lake Michigan, to the Illinois River at La Salle. The survey was completed, and funds were sought to construct a canal that would extend the entire distance. Fifteen locks would be needed to accommodate the 140 foot change in elevation as the terrain dropped, and four aqueducts would be needed to cross the Calumet, Des Plaines, Fox, and the Little Vermillion Rivers. The Federal Government provided a land grant of 284,000 acres, which the Canal Commission sold to raise funds. Additional funds were obtained from grants and loans. Fund raising would continue, and it wasn’t until 1836 that the actual construction would start. 

I and M Lock at Marsailles
Credit: American Canal Society

The next year, the Panic of 1837 created a financial crisis in Illinois, which slowed construction to the point of work stoppage in 1842. Borrowing and the use of indebtedness certificates (basically IOUs) that promised to pay when funds were available provided capital for the work to start up again. And in 1843 the work was restarted.

I and M Canal IOU
Credit: Illinois State Archives

During the construction of the Erie Canal, Irish immigrants came into the country to work on the canal project. Many of these same immigrants were drawn to Chicago and the prospects of continued work on another canal. They were the builders of the canal, and an unknown number of them lost their lives in the construction process.  Limestone blocks used in constructing the locks were quarried from the limestone deposits that are abundant in the region.

 

The canal was finished in 1848. It was 60 feet wide at the top, narrowing to 36 feet at the bottom and had an average depth of six feet. Along the side of the canal was a towpath for the mules or horses that pulled the boats. It was a popular passenger route, and the Chicago to La Salle trip took about 20 hours to complete at an average speed of five miles an hour. When the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad was completed parallel to the canal in 1853, passenger traffic virtually disappeared. The faster rail service was preferred. The canal remained popular for bulk shipping of grain, cotton, and live stock. Although the peak year for shipping was 1882, its use continued until 1933 when the canal was virtually abandoned.

 

 

The Rehabilitation:

 

In 1973, the La Salle Rotary Club was tired of nothing being done to restore the canal and voted to launch a committee to voluntarily work on the canal. The initial work was done using hand tools, such as axes and shovels. This turned out to be quite a chore, based upon the thick brush that had overgrown the canal. The group learned that funds were available from a State task force, and a grant of $10,000 was awarded to the city of La Salle for seven miles of canal restoration. These funds, along with hundred of hours of volunteer labor coupled with loaned heavy equipment allowed the work to continue.

 

The aqueduct over the Little Vermillion River required extensive repair. Many of the metal plates that made up the floor had been removed when the canal was abandoned and drained in the 1930s, Volunteers scraped rust and other debris from the floor, and new steel plates were welded in place. To insure that the aqueduct would remain watertight, a coating of gunnite was applied on top of the plates.

 

The next steps required that the canal bed be scoured out to its original width. Local construction businesses donated the use of their bulldozers and operators to assist in the cleanup. By the time winter arrived in 1973, over half of the work in the project area had been completed. Over the next few years, , trees and brush were removed from the towpath, washouts were filled, and the path widened to 14 feet. Crushed rock was added to the path.

 

The Canal Towpath
Credit: R.P. Strout
Mule
Credit: R.P. Strout

President Ronald Reagan established the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in 1984.

 

In 1998, the 150th anniversary of the opening of the canal was celebrated. The towpath was open for biking and hiking from La Salle to Ottawa.

View of the locks
Credit: R.P. Strout

The addition of a replica canal boat in 2008 completed the rehabilitation project up to lock 15. The steamboat basin located below the lock may be restored in future projects

Canal Boat Replica
Credit: R.P. Strout
Lock Doors
Credit: R.P. Strout

 

The Benefit:

 

 Along the entire 96 mile length of the canal right of way there are opportunities to camp, hike, or bicycle the historic route. In La Salle, there is the opportunity to ride on a canal boat pulled by mules.

 

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