Feeding the Illinois & Michigan Canal was both an engineering and economic feat

The Erie Canal, championed and promoted by New York Governor DeWitt Clinton opened in 1826 and immediately became a huge economic engine, not only for New York but also for the newly settled states and territories of the Old Northwest.

The canal, 363 miles long, linked the head of navigation on the Hudson River at Albany with Buffalo on the shore of Lake Erie. Commerce on and along the canal absolutely boomed as soon as it opened, making a hero of Clinton (admiring New Yorkers heading west gave his name to counties and towns all the way west to the Pacific) and creating huge markets for Midwestern grain and livestock, not to mention providing an efficient transportation route for many of those westbound settlers.

Jesuit linguist Jacques Marquette and cartographer Louis Jolliet canoed up the Illinois River in 1673, and suggested it wouldn’t be difficult to build a canal linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois River.

The Erie Canal’s success also prompted a frenzy of canal-building elsewhere, especially in Ohio. And it also spurred reexamination of plans to build a canal in Illinois linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois River. The idea for such a canal had been first broached in 1673 when Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette paddled up the Illinois, Des Plaines, and Chicago rivers on their way back to Lake Michigan from a trip of discovery down the Mississippi. Jolliet, an experienced cartographer, predicted it wouldn’t take much effort or money to dig a canal from the headwaters of the Chicago River on Mud Lake to the upper Des Plaines allowing boats to quickly pass from the lake to the river and then down the Des Plaines to its junction with the Kankakee River where the Illinois River is formed.

And, in fact, sometimes Mother Nature provided the means to traverse from the Chicago to the Des Plaines River with no portage at all. During spring floods and after heavy rains at other times of the year, the two rivers basically merged. In July 1826, thanks to heavy rains, a crew of 13 voyageurs paddled Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass and his secretary, Robert Forsythe, on a desperate 16-day, 1,600-mile journey to warn the frontier that the Winnebago Tribe was on the verge of going to war with the U.S.

The crew started their journey at Butte des Morts on the Fox River of Wisconsin upstream to the portage to the Wisconsin River (today’s Portage, Wis.), and then down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi. From there they paddled down to Jefferson Barracks, the U.S. Army post at St. Louis, spreading the word along the way. Gen. Henry Atkinson lost no time loading soldiers aboard a steamboat and heading upstream to Winnebago territory—Cass, Forsythe, their voyageur crew, and their canoe was also loaded aboard. When vessel reached the mouth of the Illinois River at modern Grafton, Cass, Forsythe, and their crew left Atkinson and headed up the Illinois to warn as many settlers as they could. When they reached the forks of the Illinois where the Kankakee and the Des Plaines join, they were happy to see there was plenty of water in the Des Plaines—the river was notorious for being virtually dry during the summer months. But those July rainstorms had filled it nicely, so they set their course upstream, paddling as fast as they could. They reached the Mud Lake portage as night fell and laid over for fear of wrecking their canoe, but pushed on as soon as the sun rose. As it turned out, they paddled directly from Mud Lake into the Chicago River and got to the American Fur Company’s post at Chicago at breakfast time. After a day’s rest and reprovisioning, they left Chicago and headed back up the Lake Michigan shoreline, setting a canoeing record that will likely never be eclipsed.

But Cass and Forsythe knew they were lucky to make it over the height of land from the Des Plaines to Mud Lake. Most summers and autumns, the Chicago portage was some 60 miles all the way down the Des Plaines to the Kankakee, with canoes and cargoes often hauled aboard two-wheeled ox carts.

So the idea of a canal linking the Great Lakes with the Illinois River and the immense Mississippi River watershed was attractive and had been for more than 200 years.

In fact, at the Treaty of St. Louis, signed on Aug. 24, 1816, Fox and Sauk tribes ceded a 20-mile wide corridor to the U.S. Government as part of the treaty terms. The cession ran southwesterly from the shore of Lake Michigan down the Chicago, Des Plaines, and Illinois rivers to the Fox River at modern Ottawa. During the winter of 1818-19, John C. Sullivan and his assistant, James M. Duncan, did the initial survey of the corridor’s boundary lines. The accuracy left a bit to be desired—surveying in northern Illinois in the winter is generally contraindicated due to the ferocious weather.

So while the outlines were drawn, it wasn’t until 1821 that the land between the boundary lines was surveyed in anticipation of a canal being constructed. Already owned by the government thanks to treaties with the local tribes, as soon as the land was surveyed, it was opened to the preemption and homestead claims of settlers and speculators.

The Illinois & Michigan Canal was designed to link the Illinois River with Lake Michigan.

Throughout the 1820s, Illinois’ Congressional delegation pushed the Federal Government to appropriate funds and grant lands to finance canal construction. In the meantime, a number of issues concerning canal construction had been discovered. When more thorough surveys were done and elevations measured, it was found that the original idea of a simple ditch from Lake Michigan to LaSalle on the Illinois River simply wasn’t possible. The height of land where drainage divided, flowing either to Lake Michigan or to the Illinois River was found to be comprised of extremely hard limestone, creating a barrier that would be costly to burrow through. So engineers came up with a plan for a canal with several locks to get cargo boats up from Lake Michigan across the height of land, and then down 141 feet of fall between Chicago and LaSalle.

The final plan called for a canal 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep. The Erie Canal had been built 40 feet wide and only four feet deep, a size found inadequate almost immediately after opening, so the I&M Canal’s engineers determined to build it big enough to start. They planed to use 15 locks to get down the 141 feet of fall to LaSalle. Because no water would be flowing into the canal from Lake Michigan, three feeder canals were required (Calumet, Kankakee, and Fox), along with one grade-level crossing and feeder combination of the DuPage River. Feeders were a common solution to maintaining canal water levels. The Erie Canal, for instance, had dozens of feeders to regulate its depth.

Lock 14 on the I&M Canal near the Little Vermilion River aqueduct has been restored.

Another engineering problem was how to get the canal across two other rivers (the Fox and the Little Vermilion) and two creeks (AuSable and Nettle) and their respective valleys. Again, the Erie Canal’s engineers had solved a similar problem by building 18 aqueducts to cross streams and valleys along the canal’s course. For the much shorter I&M, just four aqueducts were built, along with one at-grade crossing of the DuPage River.

Construction finally began with great fanfare on July 4, 1836. Unfortunately, the Panic of 1837, a severe national financial depression created by President Andrew Jackson’s monetary policies, brought construction to a halt and essentially bankrupted the State of Illinois. It took several more years for the finances of the nation and Illinois to recover to the point that construction could be finished. The I&M didn’t open to traffic until 1848.

A lot of water was needed to maintain the I&M’s depth as boats and barges locked up and down the canal. As noted above, three smaller canals and one grade-level river crossing were constructed to maintain the I&M’s depth. Feeder canals were dug from the Fox River at Dayton to Ottawa; from the Kankakee River to the canal at Dresden, and from the Saganashkee Slough, the “Sag,” and the Calumet River to the canal near its northern end. The DuPage River was crossed at grade near Channahon.

The Kankakee Feeder was one of three 40-foot wide canals dug to supply the I&M Canal with sufficient water. (Map by the Kankakee Daily Journal, 2018)

Commercial traffic on the canal utilized nine canal basins; 12 widewaters for canal boat storage; sundry backwaters; the three feeders, also called lateral canals; and two hydraulic basins. Eleven towns developed along the I&M Canal, six of them founded by the canal commissioners, including: Ottawa, Chicago, LaSalle, Lockport, Channahon, and Morris.

In general it took between 22 and 26 hours to traverse the entire canal. The quickest recorded passage was 17 hours and 35 minutes. Canal boats traveled about 4 miles per hour.

While the canal itself had a huge economic impact on northern Illinois, the three feeder canals also had major economic effects on the areas surrounding them.

The Calumet Feeder Canal ran from the huge Saganashkee Slough at Blue Island, where the Little Calumet made a hairpin turn toward Lake Michigan, to meet the canal northeast of Lemont at the village of Sag Bridge.

The Kankakee Feeder ran northwest from a dam on the Kankakee River six miles north of Wilmington to the Des Plaines River. There, the feeder canal crossed the river on an aqueduct, to feed the canal just upstream from where the Des Plaines and Kankakee rivers join to form the Illinois River.

At Channahon, there was no feeder as such. Instead, the I&M crossed the DuPage River, creating a grade-level feeder for the canal. The Canal Commission built a dam across the DuPage just below where the canal crossed, creating a pool that was on the same level as the canal, allowing canal boats to cross the river with locks providing additional water for the canal as needed.

The Fox River Feeder for the I&M Canal ran south down the west bank of the Fox River to intersect the canal in Ottawa. From the canal, the feeder ran farther south before making a 90-degree turn to reenter the Fox River. (Click here to enlarge)

The final I&M feeder canal was the 40-foot wide Fox River Feeder. It began above the dam in Dayton and extended for nearly five miles south along the west bank of the Fox River to Ottawa where it crossed the I&M. From there, it extended seven blocks due south where it made a 90-degree turn to the east, where it abruptly narrowed to half its width to create more hydraulic power before emptying back into the Fox River. As wide as the original Erie Canal, the Fox River Feeder had its own towpath and could handle canal boats.

A number of businesses located along the Fox River Feeder in Ottawa to use the water power the feeder provided. Just south of the I&M, the I&M Canal Commission itself maintained a boat yard just a short distance from the canal itself. The 1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of downtown Ottawa shows that the H.C. King Box Factory, Pump and Cooper Shop’s machinery was powered by the feeder’s flow, as was the J.A. Koeppen Machine Shop, William Colwell’s plow works, the Grove and Hess Feed Mill and Cider Press, and the D. Sanderson Refrigerator Factory. And those were just the ones located immediately south of the I&M. From there, the feeder—also called the lateral canal—flowed due south to two blocks north of the Illinois River where it made a 90-degree turn to the east to enter the Fox River again. Along its length were located dozens of businesses from grain elevators to lumber yards to warehouses to factories of various kinds.

The Fox River Feeder’s course from Dayton through Ottawa on its way to empty back into the Fox River. (Click to enlarge)

The problem with the feeder canals is that the region’s floods—called freshets at the time—regularly damaged the dams that fed them. And when that happened, it wasn’t only the I&M that sustained losses but so did the businesses that had located along the feeders.

In March 1873, for instance, the ice went out of the Fox River suddenly after a cold winter. The thick ice rampaged down the river demolishing bridges and dams, including the dam at Dayton that fed the Fox River Feeder. The March 27, 1873 Kendall County Record reprinted the account of the effects the disaster had on Ottawa:


The ice that went out of Fox River recently gave the manufacturing interests of Ottawa a serious blow, two dams being damaged to such an extent as to stop many establishments for a short time. The [Ottawa] Republican of the 20th says:

The dam across the Fox River at Dayton, owned by the State, is to all appearances a total wreck. Some ten days ago a part of the comb of this dam on the east end, about a third the length of the dam and apparently about two feet in depth, went off. The damage seemed to be trifling but on Friday last a field of ice came down with such force that it racked the whole structure downstream and as the ice moved off leaving the water clear, there seemed to but little left of the old Dayton dam. The river fell almost instantly, and the water of the feeder [canal] turned in its course and ran back into the Fox river, leaving the Dayton mills and factory without propelling power.

This dam was built some years before the opening of the canal, which took place in 1848. John Green had constructed a dam at the same place to create a water power, with which he ran a flouring and saw mill. The State having established that point as the place from which to take water from the Fox river to feed the canal, made an arrangement with Green by which he was secured in the perpetual use of water power much greater than has ever yet been used. This dam was built of timber crib work, just above the old one, and in the filling up, both the old and new were consolidated making it a very strong structure. It has stood many shocks in the years that have intervened, with slight repairs and little care. It will of course be rebuilt as soon as the stage of water will permit, as canal navigation can hardly be carried on without the use of this feeder. In the meantime, serious inconvenience and loss will be suffered by the numerous manufacturers of Ottawa whose mills are propelled by water from the “side cut” and hydraulic basin, which are supplied by this feeder.

The Fox River Feeder was maintained as long as the I&M needed it. But after the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal opened shortly after the turn of the 20th Century, there was no longer a need for the I&M or its network of feeders and aqueducts. Businesses that once looked to the feeders for flowing water to power them had long since started relying on steam and then electrical power.

By 1931, the Fox River Feeder had become an unsightly, dangerous, economic liability through Ottawa’s downtown. The city hired workers unemployed by the accelerating Great Depression to fill in the feeder, thus ending a lively era of northern Illinois transportation history and one of the city’s links to the region’s canal age.


1 Comment

Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, Illinois History, Local History, Native Americans, Technology, Transportation, Uncategorized

One response to “Feeding the Illinois & Michigan Canal was both an engineering and economic feat

  1. Jeri Jahnke

    Looks fabulous! Thanks for the post; looking forward to listening to it!

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