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Monday, June 8, 2020


I love rabbit trails – research rabbit trails, that is. You know what I mean: you start out searching for train travel in 1856 and end up reading about a canal that connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River.

The Illinois and Michigan Canal (I&M) opened in 1848 and ran 96 miles from the Chicago River to the Illinois River. From there, boat traffic could reach the Mississippi River, opening up trade routes to St. Louis and points west and south. It also made farming in the region profitable by opening up those same routes to the eastern markets.

When French explorers Father Marquette and Louis Joliet, the first known Europeans to travel through the region, Joliet  remarked that with a canal they could remove the need to portage—or carry your boat from waterway to waterway—and the French could create an empire spanning the continent.

The first survey to determine feasibility was done in 1816. Because several slave-holding states had been recently added to the Union, there was interest in granting Illinois statehood, hoping to align it with the free states. The northern border of the state was moved further north, from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to its current location, so the canal system would be all in one state.

Construction began in 1836 and finished in 1848. The canal was 60 feet wide with tow paths on both sides, allowing mules to drag loaded barges along its route. Passengers were also transported through the canal, but that ended in 1853, when the Chicago-Rock Island and Pacific railroad, which was constructed parallel to the canal, opened for service. The canal remained in use until 1933.

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. Today much of the canal is a long, thin park with canoeing and more than 62 miles of hiking and biking trails, constructed on the old mule tow paths. It also includes museums and historical canal buildings.

In 1900, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal replaced the I&M and reversed the flow of the Chicago River so it no longer flowed into Lake Michigan—but that’s another blog.

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  1. Very interesting. I didn't know about this canal. The men who built it must have had a remarkable story to tell.

    1. Though it was quickly replaced, there are still canals throughout the central part of Illinois.

  2. The river/canal system in Illinois is so fascinating. I thank you for your research and sharing this fascinating piece of history. Doris

  3. What an amazing piece of history, Tracy! I have never heard of this canal, but it certainly sounds as though it was quite a feat to create it. I'm happy to learn it was made into a park so that people can continue to enjoy it.
    Excellent article!