The Illinois and Michigan Canal: Turning Points in Illinois History

To say Illinois changed the nation in the 1830s would be an understatement. Illinois, by itself, transformed from a wild place in the 1830s to the economic engine that drove the interior of the continent. A series of events in the 1830s

The Canal in 2010

turned the prairie from a place where the buffalo roamed and the deer played into the agricultural and commercial giant of the 1800s. A town that was incorporated in 1837 would have 1 million citizens in its limits less than 50 years later. The main reason for this growth was there was money to be made in Illinois. Beginning with the Black Hawk War in 1832, the invention of the self-cleaning plow in 1837, the coming of the railroad, but most importantly, a canal linking the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico would turn the prairie skyline dotted with trees into a skyline dotted with grain elevators and skyscrapers. The idea of canal linking the Great Lakes and the Illinois was envisioned by Marquette and Joliet during portage to the Illinois in the 1600s. It would be another 150 years before it became a reality. And so, the Irish came to build a canal…

Historian Anne Keating states:

The Irish who came to Chicago were in large measure very poor. They had few skills, little that would have allowed them to negotiate an urban setting easily. And they were pulled out to Chicago to do the dirtiest, hardest work that was imaginable. And they were despised for it.

Newspapers at the time called the Irish workers, “not merely ignorant and poor…but… drunken, dirty, indolent, and riotous so as to be the object of dislike and fear to all.” The press did not deter the task at hand. For ten years and almost 100 miles, the Irish built the Illinois and Michigan Canal (I&M Canal). Building the canal through a forest filled with mosquitoes, insects, malaria, and other dangers was not an easy task. It is estimated that 1000 Irish died the first year of building the canal in 1838.

The project continually ran low on money. In return for work, the Irish were given land up and down the canal, from LaSalle to Bridgeport, the canal would transform the surrounding communities. The Canal would for five years, transport grain and other products out of the prairie and to the world. And in return, other products would flow upstream to the prairie. The canal itself would only be six feet deep. Its 60 feet width would allow for two tow barges to pass along side of ea

Curly, a mule, shows how it is done.

ch other. Along the side of the canal would be the tow path where mules would provide the energy needed to move the barges. The opening the I&M had a lot of effects. The cost for shipping goods dropped dramatically. Grain, lumber, and merchandise of

the prairies passed barges filled with sugar, salt, molasses, tobacco, and oranges from the south.

Along the path of the canal, towns grew up. And in those towns grain elevators were built to store grain to transport.  A young congressmen from New Salem, Illinois said of the canal,

“Nothing is so local as not to be of some general benefit, the benefits of an improvement are by no means confined to the particular locality of the improvement itself.”

But the canal spurred investment in the prairie, particularly in Chicago.  However, the railroad would soon come. William Butler Ogden, a financier, used the concert of the two to get people to invest in the railroad. In 1848, Ogden’s railroad began. Add in the McCormick Reaper, and all of sudden, the prairie was now filled with wheat and corn being grown, harvested, and shipped all over the world.

Today, the canal is a national historical site. Parts of the canal are gone. Some do remain and are filled with bike paths, walking paths, state parks, and places to revisit the past that made Illinois the center of the nation’s economy in the 1800s.

Today, there is a boat in LaSalle that gives a 1 mile tour of the canal pulled by a mule.

All pictures were taken by the author on a field trip in October of 2010.

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