From the Lakes to the Gulf

In 2018 Illinois enacted a law which would allow farmers to apply to the Illinois Department of Transportation to obtain a temporary weight-limit waiver during harvest season. It would allow them to load more of their crops onto trucks and deliver them to markets. It was the latest development in a 200-year-long struggle for Illinois farmers to get their crops to markets as efficiently as possible. Long before trucks started rolling along asphalt highways it was thought that this need could be met with small boats on a system of canals.

The idea of canals linking Illinois’ waterways has been around for hundreds of years. It had been used by local Native Americans for commerce long before European explorers reached the region. The first French explorers to survey the Midwest had come through the Great Lakes and made the short overland journey near present-day Chicago to connect to the region’s river system, eventually accessing the Mississippi.

Louis Joliet observed in the 1670s that a short water passage connecting Lake Michigan with Illinois’ river system would be a great boon to exploration and commerce. In his time, explorers would portage their canoes over the short distance of land separating the waterways. As vessels and their cargoes grew larger and heavier, that stopped being an option.

By the early 19th century, canals were being built throughout the eastern United States. The most famous was New York’s Erie Canal, linking the Great Lakes with the Hudson River and New York City. The Erie Canal; brought into being by New York Governor DeWitt Clinton; also had the spinoff effect of linking northern Illinois with the east coast ports as well – via the Great Lakes. Clinton would go on to have not one but two Illinois counties named for him: Clinton County in southwestern Illinois, and DeWitt County in central Illinois, with its county seat in the town of Clinton.

Not long after statehood new energy was given to the idea of a system of canals linking different parts of Illinois with each other and the rest of the country. Many of these projects; which were called “internal improvements” by their proponents; would be proposed, but the largest and most enduring of these to be completed was a water pathway between Lake Michigan and the Illinois River known as the Illinois and Michigan canal.

In 1823 the state created a Canal Commission to get to work on making the canal a reality. What seemed like a quick and relatively short project soon turned into something much more complicated, however, when a full survey of the river revealed that it was not just going to involve connecting the headwaters of the Illinois with Lake Michigan. When it was completed, the canal would be nearly 100 miles long, owing in large part to the rocky, shallow stretch of the river near the Ottawa area. This section of the river created an impediment for larger riverboats and would have to be re-engineered if the waterway was going to be a success.

Congress approved the project, but did not give Illinois as much help as had been hoped for. Instead of giving the state large parcels of federally-owned land to sell to raise money, Washington only granted the state the river right-of-way and a narrow strip of land on either side. Still, the state of Illinois decided to move forward, estimating the cost of the project at between $639,000 and $713,000.

Their projection proved to be far off.

The first private company chartered to build the link was unsuccessful. But Congress soon stepped in again, buoyed by the success of canal projects in the east, and in 1827 granted the state almost 300,000 acres of land along the proposed route. Congress required the state to begin work within five years, finish in 20, and never charge the federal government any tolls for using the canal.

By 1830 the project was stumbling forward. Commissioners had put forth designs for the two cities nearest the ends of the canal, Chicago and Ottawa, but had gotten a disappointing return on the first round of land sales in the new towns. Governor John Reynolds, Illinois’ fourth chief executive, had been elected on a pro-canal platform, but upon taking office he began to have his doubts. Reynolds started looking at another new technology, railroads, as a possible option for overland transportation in Illinois.

Some skepticism about the project was allayed when Congress, which now included an ever-increasing number of legislators from west of the Appalachians, began increasing federal investments in western infrastructure. House Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky was aggressively pursuing his “American System” dream of tying the nation together with federally-funded roads, canals and other internal improvement projects. One of these projects involved dredging and expanding Chicago’s harbor, building a pier and widening the entrance to the river. With a busier port on the lake, commerce picked up and support for the canal was reignited. Governor Joseph Duncan, who took office in 1834, even sought to widen it to accommodate the larger steamboats then beginning to appear on the Mississippi.

By this time any idea of hiring a private company to complete the canal was long gone. The state would do the work, and carry the costs. To find the financing, Illinois would borrow money from eastern financial establishments, pledging the full faith and credit of the state of Illinois to repay the loans. Cost projections skyrocketed, but Duncan was undeterred, borrowing the money to finally begin construction on July 4, 1836.

Problems compounded. Marshy ground slowed progress, hand tools proved insufficient for the task, road building was necessary for bringing supplies to points farther and farther inland. All of these drove up the costs. Legislators from the southern end of the state, still the more populous region of Illinois, were not enthusiastic about continuing to invest ever-increasing sums in a project that only seemed to benefit the sparsely-populated northern reaches of the state.

Short on laborers, canal executives began importing workmen from Ireland to help in the construction. Many of these workers would settle near the canal’s starting point, Bridgeport, and create one of America’s largest Irish-American communities. Paid about $25 a month, these laborers helped build Chicago and many of the communities along the canal’s route.

Just as the project was getting going it was struck by more bad luck. An economic collapse, known as the Panic of 1837 hit. Land prices fell, businesses and banks failed, and mortgage payments lagged on the land sales which were financing the canal. By this time the cost of the project had ballooned to more than $5 million, with even more needed to complete it.

Needing to cut costs, engineers changed the design of the canal from a 60-foot wide, six-foot deep route fed by Lake Michigan water to a much shallower, narrower path fed by smaller canals to bring in water from the nearby Fox, Calumet and Kankakee rivers.

With funding running out, the state tried issuing non-interest bearing scrip in lieu of payments to contractors. More land was put up for sale, but no one was buying. The project needed more money, possibly as much as another $3 million, but the state did not have it. Compounding the problem was a state investment in railroads, spurred along in part by a central Illinois legislator named Lincoln. In 1842 canal construction ground to a halt.

When Governor Thomas Ford took office in 1842 the state stood more than $15 million in debt, a significant amount of which came from the canal. Ford was determined that the state would finish the canal and pay its debts. Ford put up as collateral more than 200,000 acres of land near the canal and over 3000 lots along the route and succeeded in borrowing another $1.6 million to finish the project. To cut the state’s losses, Ford sold off the state-owned but incomplete Northern Cross railroad which had been meant to run across the central part of the state, as well as tons of unused material intended for its next sections.

A group of bondholders appointed new trustees to supervise the renewed construction on the canal and finally completed the project in 1848. Twenty-five years after it was first authorized, the canal was completed at a cost nearly ten times its original projection. The canal opened on April 23, 1848. Within six months, 162 vessels had used the route and the state had collected over $80,000 in revenue from tolls.

The impact of the canal went beyond its revenue generation, however. Chicago had become the linchpin of an inland water route which connected almost every part of the country east of the Rockies. The city’s merchants could now exchange goods from all over the nation. Illinois farmers could reach eastern markets easier, quicker and at much less cost than before. What was once a 40-day journey up the Ohio River and over the Appalachians was now a 12-day boat trip through the canal and over the lakes. With Chicago established as the crossroads of the America’s interior it would only seem logical in the coming decades for the nation’s expanding railroad system to make the same city the hub of its network as well.

Packet boats and steamboats soon began making the 72-hour trip between Chicago and St. Louis and leisure travelers were now able to explore more parts of central and western Illinois. Just one year after the canal opened, thousands of Americans set out for the west coast, seeking to make their fortune in the California Gold Rush. Many of these travelers used the canal along their way west, or their return east. Eventually the canal would help the state recoup the debts it had incurred in construction, one of a very few such projects of the era to do so.

Towns now popping up all over central Illinois were built with logs floated down the lake and canal from Wisconsin and Michigan. Other towns located along the canal’s route prospered as well. When it was finally completed, the canal was an engineering marvel. Not just a big ditch connecting two bodies of water, it had 15 locks which were necessary to adjust for the differences in elevation between Chicago and La Salle.

The I & M Canal remained in use until 1933 when a larger waterway project opened up the entire river to larger craft. In the subsequent years, the old canal became a state park, the Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail, which celebrates the scenic beauty and the history of the many communities along its route. The region was also set aside the I&M Canal National Heritage Area by the National Park Service.