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The Illinois and Michigan Canal
A Channel to Progress and Prosperity

Benjamin M. Wassel
New Hebron Christian School, Robinson

More than 150 years ago, a waterway construction project took place in Illinois that enhanced transportation and shipping not only in the state of Illinois but also the east coast and the Gulf of Mexico. This project, known as the Illinois and Michigan Canal, brought settlement and opportunity to northern Illinois. Peter B. Porter of New York first suggested the Illinois and Michigan Canal in the early 1800s. During his presentation to Congress about the Great Lakes-Hudson River route, Porter mentioned something similar could be done to connect Lake Michigan through Chicago and into the Illinois River. However, this was not the first time that the canal system had been observed as an opportunity to connect the two major waterways: the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. In 1673, Jolliet recommended a canal be built to link the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

Major Stephen Long, an engineer and an officer from the War of 1812, envisioned a canal that would connect two long routes from east to west. The Illinois and Michigan Canal connected the Great Lakes to the Illinois River, the Mississippi, and the southern parts of the United States. With this canal, products could be transported from Pennsylvania to the Gulf of Mexico.

The granite-lined locks on the Illinois and Michigan Canal were put in place
mainly by Irish laborers, many of whom immigrated to America specifically to work on the canal.


Young Abraham Lincoln supported the construction of this canal because he felt strongly about river transportation and knew that any Illinois citizen with a boat and money for the toll could benefit from this canal. The Illinois and Michigan Canal would follow a trail once used by the Native Americans, early traders, and trappers, running alongside what is today known as the Illinois Waterway.

On November 26, 1824, Illinois Governor Edward Coles suggested to the state legislature that funding begin for the canal. The legislature disagreed and appropriated no funds for construction. On January 17, 1825, the Illinois Committee on Internal Improvements reported a bill saying a private corporation could manage all the Illinois and Michigan Canal's grants and donations. The U.S. Congress agreed to this plan, and also helped to finance the project.

Ground was broken for the Illinois and Michigan Canal at Bridgeport on July 4, 1836, by Colonel William Archer, a canal commissioner. The canal was to be forty feet across at the top, twenty-eight feet wide at the bottom, and at least four feet deep. The length of the canal was 101 miles long. In 1839 construction struggled financially and actually stopped from 1840 through 1844, but the Illinois and Michigan Canal finally flowed with water in April 1848.

Three main difficulties were faced in the construction of the I and M Canal, including the funding of the project, engineering and physical construction, and management of this public works project. The first engineering problem occurred after cutting through the thirteen-foot divide between Lake Michigan and the Des Plaines River. There, the canal would have to descend 141 feet. This problem was solved by controlling the descent with fifteen locks. Large boats were able to travel through shallow sections of the canal using these locks.

Between the Soganashkie Swamp and Lockport, a second obstacle was encountered. A solid layer of bedrock buried only one foot under the topsoil presented difficulties for the construction crew, but the stone was layered, able to be excavated and later used for lock construction.

The arrival of the first boat on the Illinois and Michigan Canal in Chicago was welcomed with much joy, music, and speeches. By July 1848 seventy canal boats were in operation. It became an important route for transportation and lumber from the Great Lakes, a well-known route for merchandise from the East, and from tropical fruits from the New Orleans and St. Louis markets.

The final cost for the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal was about $6.5 million. However, the total debt figured to be more than $8 million. A summary of the funds used to pay the canal debt revealed the following sources: canal land sales, tolls, Illinois Central Railroad funds, land and water power rents, canal funds savings interest, and other minor sources such as sale of timber, stone, and old machinery.

At this time, construction of the canal was a major reason for population growth in Chicago as the construction workers relocated to Chicago. In the first five years after the canal opened, the population of Chicago grew by 400 percent, and in the next decade it grew by 600 percent. The canal brought jobs through the workers who managed the shipping and locks on the canal. Towns also sprang up along the canal's banks. After the Civil War, the I and M Canal was used as a shipping route for agricultural needs and other large products to Chicago or back to the Mississippi. Use of the Illinois and Michigan Canal started to decline around 1879 because of competition with modern railroads. In 1854 the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad opened for service connecting Chicago with the Mississippi River. Because the railroad was quicker, passenger travel on the canal basically stopped. However, by 1866, the Canal was bringing in more than $300,000 in tolls from commercial use. In 1882 more than a million tons of goods were still transported on the canal.

Illinois and Michigan Canal use virtually ceased in the early 1900s because modern and quicker transportation sources were developed. In addition to rail, developments in the automobile industry led to construction of major highway systems and therefore faster and more efficient transportation. Today, the Illinois and Michigan Canal is part of the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor and is used for recreation. The I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor Act continues to preserve this important site, which was critical in the early settlement and transportation progress of Illinois history.[From Russel Bourne, Floating West, "Down the Drain, The Illinois and Michigan Canal," The Chicago Public Library Digital Collection; Carter Goodrich, Government Promotion of American Canals and Railroads 1800-1890, "I & M Canal Passage: The Stops Along the Way," Visitors Magazine (1998); Canal Corridor Association, Illinois and Michigan Canal Historical Time Line; "I & M Canal 150th Anniversary Guide 1848-1998," Chicago Tribune Advertising Supplement (April 1998); Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor pamphlet; John H. Krenkel, Illinois Internal Improvements: 1818-1848; John Lamb, Illinois and Michigan Canal, www. (Dec. 29, 2001).]


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