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 the fledgling City of Chicago as an early transportation hub, something that greatly helped the westward expansion of the United States in the early part of the 19th century.

But the delays in creating the canal would also somewhat damped its importance. Construction began on the canal in 1824, but it wouldn't 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 its abandonment was not because of the railroads, but in favor of the larger and deeper Sanitary & Ship Canal, which flowed along a nearly identical route.

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

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)

"Niagara" Between Locks 3 and 4, Lockport - Courtesy of Lewis University

However, steam railroads were a new and upcoming technology at the time, and people involved with the construction of the canal wondered if it might have made more sense to construct it as a railroad instead. While such wisdom did not ultimately win out, the technology did, and the canal was obsolete as soon as railroads were readily constructed in and around the Chicago area.

In fact, according to Trails to Rails, such a proposal was even surveyed. "James M. Bucklin, chief engineer of the canal project, surveyed two routes, one for the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which he estimated would cost $100,000 a mile, and one for the Illinois and Michigan Railroad, which he estimated would cost $25,000 a mile. After journeying to Baltimore and conferring with the engineers of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Bucklin returned to Illinois and urged the abandonment of the canal scheme and the construction of the railroad. In 1833, the Illinois legislature actually authorized a railroad to be used.

This all being said, the railroad was still too new a technology at the time, and the general sense from the public was that canals were safer, and less prone to breakdowns, than railroads, which was not untrue. Governor Reynolds explained the decision to back the canal project instead of the railroad, "When well made they [canals] require less expensive repairs, and are continually improving, and will last forever, while railroads are kept in repair at heavy expense, and will last but about fifteen years." 

With hindsight, it's quite clear that a railroad line would have been preferable, but given such a line was constructed soon after the canal was complete anyway, building a railroad would not have significantly impacted the development of the area much.

And so the canal was built over the next fifteen years.

Aux Sable Aqueduct - Courtesy of Lewis University

Upon completion in 1848, 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.

The commerce of the City of Chicago and the region also improved as did the infrastructure. One example of this is the Morton Salt Company, which is still operating to this day, and used the canal to transport salt across the US.

"Peerless," Morton Salt Co. on I & M Canal - Courtesy of Lewis University.

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. 

"City of Pekin" Canal Boat - Courtesy of Lewis University

That has changed completely today. 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.

"Nashota" at Seneca - Courtesy of Lewis University

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.

"City of Henry" Boat at Rock Falls - Courtesy of Lewis University

Thanks as always for reading!


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