When missionary and linguist Father Jacques Marquette and cartographer Louis Jolliet first saw the area around Chicago at the foot of Lake Michigan in 1673, they were struck by how easy it might be to build a canal connecting the headwaters of the Chicago River with the Des Plaines River.
Jolliet suggested that it wouldn’t take much labor to dig a deep enough canal to link the Des Plaines—part of the Illinois River system—to the Chicago River whose mouth is on Lake Michigan. One short canal, the Jesuit explorer suggested, would connect the south-flowing Illinois and Mississippi rivers with the Great Lakes highway from the interior of northern North America with the Atlantic seaboard colonies.
Local Indians, in fact, told the explorers that the two rivers occasionally mingled their waters during wet spring seasons or other times when both were at flood stage.
But while a canal linking the Illinois River and Lake Michigan didn’t seem like much of an engineering challenge to 17th Century French explorers, the idea never really took off, mainly due to the remoteness of the Illinois Country from the other settled areas of Colonial North America.
That the idea wasn’t acted upon didn’t mean people forgot about it, however. When the U.S. government moved into the area after the successful conclusion of the Revolutionary War, military officers and others again began contemplating the construction of a canal. When the government concluded a treaty with Indian tribes in northern Illinois in 1816, one of the provisions was a cession of land roughly 10 miles either side of the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers for 100 miles southwest from Lake Michigan to the rapids on the Illinois River that marked the head of steamboat navigation. The tribes were persuaded to give up the land for a virtual pittance on the assurance of Ninian Edwards, governor of the Illinois Territory, that a canal built in the area would be an economic boon for the Native Americans.
At first, the U.S. Government agreed with Louis Jolliet on the ease of connecting Lake Michigan with the Illinois River. Major Stephen Long of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrote to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun in 1816 contending that the canal could be built “with very little expense compared with the magnitude of the object,” which was building the economic power of the West. But President James Monroe figured it wasn’t the federal government’s job to finance internal improvements and so the idea again languished.
It wasn’t until 1822 that Congress finally authorized construction of a canal on the ceded lands. The idea was that land within the 10-mile strip on either side of the river could be sold to defray the cost of building the waterway. But Congress only gave the new state of Illinois enough right-of-way for the canal itself and the towpath, keeping the rest of the land for itself. Illinois Gov. Shadrack Bond decided to go ahead with the project anyway and got the engineering work moving ahead.
That’s when it was discovered the project wouldn’t be quite as easy as it seemed. While the area around Chicago seemed to be nothing but muddy wetlands, it turned out that bedrock hidden by all that mud and water was close to the surface. Further, there turned out to be quite a bit of fall between Lake Michigan and Peru, where steamboats had to stop most of the time due to rapids on the Illinois River. And finally, while it was relatively easy to get from the headwaters of the Chicago River to the Des Plaines, that really didn’t get you anywhere worthwhile. The Des Plaines, for much of the year, was so shallow that even fur trade canoes had to be portaged around long stretches of it. At certain times, the portage at Chicago to water where boats and canoes could actually float was up to 60 miles in length. So the river as part of the canal was ruled out, and a dug canal paralleling the river for 96 miles from Lake Michigan to Peru was in.
With those problems understood, engineers estimated the canal would probably cost $700,000, a huge sum in those days.
To help out, Congress granted the state a five-mile swath of land on each side of the proposed canal route in 1827 (a total of 290,915 acres), with the land sales at $1.25 an acre to help finance construction.
But at first, land sales were as sluggish as the Chicago River’s current, and cost estimates kept rising to astonishing heights.
Even so, there was agitation to get the project going. After all, the Erie Canal in New York, that linked Lake Erie with the Hudson River across more than 300 miles of extremely rough, almost mountainous, country had been built and opened in 1826. The New York canal was not only an engineering marvel—probably the greatest engineering triumph of the first half of the 19th Century in the United States—but was also a huge financial success.
So despite the ever-increasing construction estimates and other concerns, construction began July 4, 1836 in Bridgeport near Chicago. The start of construction immediately caused hysterical land speculation along the canal’s route.
And then the whole thing—canal construction, land speculation, and get-rich schemes too numerous to count—came to a screeching halt when the Panic of 1837, one of the nation’s most severe depressions, struck. The panic was a likely unintended consequence of President Andrew Jackson’s hatred of both paper money and the Bank of the United States. Jackson forced paper money to be recalled throughout the west and decreed only gold or silver coins would be accepted. The move literally sucked all the money out of the fast-growing western frontier of the era—meaning Illinois and the other states created from the Old Northwest Territory.
The outstanding bonds on the canal bankrupted Illinois—and cost estimates rose to more than $13 million. The General Assembly, led by Whigs who championed internal improvements at government expense, had involved the state ever more deeply in financing the canal. Although it limped along as a little money trickled in here and there, by 1842, construction had stopped altogether.
Very early on, a so-called “deep cut” strategy, which would have allowed boats to enter the canal directly from Lake Michigan and sail serenely to Peru was contemplated. But as soon as the route was surveyed and land contours mapped that was dropped in favor of building locks along the canal route.
The canal route descends 141 feet from its entry on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago to the end of the line at Peru. To handle the drop, a series of 15 locks were designed by canal engineer William Gooding. Dams and feeder aqueducts were built from several rivers and streams—including the Fox River at Dayton—to supply water for the canal. The feeders were made largely redundant in 1871 when a deep cut was made through the rise from the elevation of Lake Michigan to Lockport, and water from the lake could be used to fill the canal.
Along with other engineering miracles, the canal crossed the Fox River at Ottawa via an aqueduct.
After many fits and starts, the Illinois and Michigan Canal finally opened for business in 1848. And just as its promoters had promised, it became a powerful economic engine driving growth in northern Illinois.
However, the canal had the bad luck to be finished just as railroad construction began in Illinois, and so the I&M Canal’s heyday was to be very brief in duration, but not in impact. And even though railroads soon stole much of the canal’s business, the idea of shipping goods by water—which was and is much cheaper than by rail—did catch on. It was especially a boon for the region’s farmers, since the canal opened markets from New York to New Orleans. Soon, most of the region’s grain was flowing to Chicago via the canal where newly developed grain elevators loaded freighters headed east. That not only boosted Chicago but it marginalized once-booming river ports to the south including St. Louis.
Eventually the I&M was superseded by the Illinois Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Illinois Waterway, which still carry millions of tons of goods. As the huge tugs push giant tows up and down the river, the old I&M Canal still slumbers right beside the newer, much larger waterway.
Today, the I&M Canal has become a destination for nature lovers and those interested in the state’s early history. Cycling and hiking along the canal’s former towpaths, picnicking, wildlife watching, and even canoing along some sections draw thousands of visitors every year.