The Illinois & Michigan Canal

The Illinois & Michigan Canal connected the Illinois River at LaSalle, IL with the Chicago River at Bridgeport, Chicago, IL, creating a waterway between the Mississippi River Basin and the Great Lakes Basin. This canal created a navigable route between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, and helped solidify Chicago as an early transportation hub.

But the delays in creating the canal would also somewhat damped its importance. Construction was first in 1824, it would not be completed until 1848, when in the same year, the first train would leave Chicago via the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad. However, even when trains were king, the canal was a large part of Chicago's transportation network, so much so that it would be abandoned around the turn of the 20th century in favor of the larger and deeper Sanitary & Ship Canal, which flowed along a nearly identical route.

The canal's path was decided upon when the Indian Boundary line in 1816 was established, when representatives of the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes signed the agreement, "which defined a corridor to allow European settlers access to Lake Michigan for the construction of a waterway." (Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates)

I&M Canal looking east at Lemont, IL. November, 2019. FRRandP photo.

Upon completion, it was 60 feet wide and six feet deep, and originally served passengers in addition to transporting barges. Passenger service ended when the Chicago Rock Island & Pacific Railroad began service in 1853. 

A Map of the I&M canal. The gap in Joliet is where the canal met the waters of the Des Plaines River. This map comes from a new map I'm working on of abandoned rivers that may or may not get a public release.

Along with the railroads, the canal was an integral part of making Chicago a central transportation hub in the United States, and establishing Illinois' cultural ties with the Northeast. The canal influenced the decision of Congress to extend the border of Illinois from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to its current border, ensuring that the canal would be located in a singular state, which would help balance the influence of slave states, when the number of free and slave states were equal in the US.

It also influenced population trends at the time, as when Illinois first became a state, much of its population was located in the Southern part of the state, while only subsistence farming took place in Northern Illinois. The canal, and railroads, would represent a complete and dramatic shift in population trends that remain true today, as 40% of the population of the state lives in Cook County alone, and that number increases to 66% when factoring in the Collar Counties.

Despite its importance in trade and in the creation of Illinois itself, it was largely replaced in 1900 by the much larger Sanitary & Ship Canal, and fully replaced in 1933 by the Illinois Waterway System. Some parts of the canal have been filled in, although most spots still flow with water today, albeit quite gently, and nowhere near the size it once was.

I&M Canal locks near LaSalle, IL. FRR&P photo.

Much of the canal towpath is still walkable as part of the I&M Canal Trail. The cities of Chicago, Summit, Willow Springs, Lemont, Romeoville, Lockport, Joliet, Channahon, Morris, Seneca, Marseilles, Ottawa, Utica, LaSalle, and Peru were all located adjacent to the canal.

Thanks as always for reading!


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