The Illinois and Michigan Canal connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. In Illinois, it ran 96 miles (154 km) from the Chicago River in Bridgeport, Chicago to the Illinois River at LaSalle-Peru. The canal crossed the Chicago Portage, and helped establish Chicago as the transportation hub of the United States, before the railroad era. It was opened in 1848. Its function was largely replaced by the wider and shorter Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1900, and it ceased transportation operations with the completion of the Illinois Waterway in 1933.
Illinois and Michigan Canal Locks and Towpath, a collection of eight engineering structures and segments of the canal between Lockport and LaSalle-Peru, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964.
Portions of the canal have been filled in. Much of the former canal, near the Heritage Corridor transit line, has been preserved as part of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor.
Canals, in the 1800s, were important modes of transportation. The Illinois and Michigan Canal connected the Mississippi Basin to the Great Lakes Basin. The canal influenced Illinois's north border. The Erie Canal and the Illinois and Michigan Canal cemented cultural and trade ties to the Northeast rather than the South. Before the canal, farming in the region was limited to subsistence farming. The canal made agriculture in northern Illinois profitable, opening up connections to eastern markets. With the expansion of agriculture, the canal created the city of Chicago.
The first known Europeans to travel the area, Father Marquette and Louis Joliet went through the Chicago Portage on their return trip. Joliet remarked that with a canal they could remove the need to portage and the French could create an empire spanning the continent.
With several slave states recently admitted to the Union, Nathaniel Pope and Ninian Edwards saw the opportunity to make Illinois a state. They proposed moving the border northward from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to allow the canal to be within a single state. They believed that the canal would firmly align Illinois with the free states and so Congress granted them statehood even though Illinois did not meet the population requirements.
Construction on the canal began in 1836, although it was stopped for several years due to an Illinois state financial crisis related to the Panic of 1837. The Canal Commission had a grant of 284,000 acres (115,000 ha) of federal land which it sold at $1.25 per acre (309 $/km²) to finance the construction. Still, money had to be borrowed from eastern U.S. and British investors to finish the canal.
Most of the canal work was done by Irish immigrants who previously worked on the Erie Canal. The work was considered dangerous and many workers died, although no official records exist to indicate how many. The Irish immigrants who toiled to build the canal were often derided as a sub-class and were treated very poorly by other citizens of the city.
The canal was finished in 1848 at a total cost of $6,170,226. Chicago Mayor James Hutchinson Woodworth presided over the opening ceremony. Pumps were used to draw water to fill the canal near Chicago, which was soon supplemented by water from the Calumet Feeder Canal. The feeder was supplied by water from the Calumet River and originated in Blue Island, Il. The DuPage River provided water farther south. In 1871 the canal was deepened to speed up the current and to improve sewage disposal.
The canal was eventually 60 feet (18 m) wide and 6 feet (1.8 m) deep, with towpaths constructed along each edge to permit mules to be harnessed to tow barges along the canal. Towns were planned out along the path of the canal spaced at intervals corresponding to the length that the mules could haul the barges. It had seventeen locks and four aqueducts to cover the 140-foot (43 m) height difference between Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. From 1848 to 1852 the canal was a popular passenger route, but passenger service ended in 1853 with the opening of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad that ran parallel to the canal. The canal had its peak shipping year in 1882 and remained in use until 1933.
Experiencing a remarkable recovery from the devastating Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Chicago rebuilt rapidly along the shores of the Chicago River. The river was especially important to the development of the city since all wastes from houses, farms, the stockyards, and other industries could be dumped into the river and carried out into Lake Michigan.
The lake, however, was also the source of drinking water. During a tremendous storm in 1885, the rainfall washed refuse from the river, especially from the highly polluted Bubbly Creek, far out into the lake (the city water intakes are located 2 miles (3.2 km) offshore). Although no epidemics occurred, the Chicago Sanitary District (now The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District) was created by the Illinois legislature in 1889 in response to this close call.
This new agency devised a plan to construct channels and canals to reverse the flow of the rivers away from Lake Michigan and divert the contaminated water downstream where it could be diluted as it flowed into the Des Plaines River and eventually the Mississippi.
In 1892, the direction of part of the Chicago River was reversed by the Army Corps of Engineers with the result that the river and much of Chicago's sewage flowed into the canal instead of into Lake Michigan. The complete reversal of the river's flow was accomplished when the Sanitary and Ship Canal was opened in 1900.
It was replaced in 1933 by the Illinois Waterway, which remains in use.
The actual origin site of the Illinois and Michigan Canal has been converted into a nature park that integrates history, ecology and art to communicate the Canal's importance in the development of Chicago. In 2003 the Chicago Park District - in cooperation with the I & M Canal Association, hired Conservation Design Forum to develop plans to convert the brownfield site into a landscape that provided for passive recreational uses in a landscape setting with native plant species. Interpretive panels built into a wall along a bike trail were designed by local high school art students. also consulted on landscape stabilization techniques to repair a significantly degraded shoreline (water levels can fluctuate as much as 5 feet).
Today much of the canal is a long, thin linear park with canoeing and a 62.5-mile (100.6 km) hiking and biking trail (constructed on the alignment of the mule tow paths). It also includes museums and historical canal buildings. It was designated the first National Heritage Corridor by US Congress in 1984.
Many towns in Northern Illinois owe their existence directly to the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Chicago, Lockport, Morris, Ottawa, and LaSalle were platted by the Canal Commissioners to raise funds for the canal's construction. From east to west the towns along the path of the canal include:
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