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The Archaeology of 19th Century Canal Boats 

Morris Wide Water, Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail


The Illinois and Michigan Canal

Transportation corridors have always played a significant role in the settlement of Illinois --whether during the prehistoric or historic period. In northern Illinois, the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which opened for navigation in the summer of 1848, connected the southern tip of Lake Michigan (and the port city of Chicago) with the upper Illinois River valley and greatly influenced the settlement of the northern region of the state. The construction of this commercial waterway helped transform the northern region of the state from a sparsely settled frontier district to a commercial, agricultural, and industrial region that supplied the port city of Chicago with a wide variety of commodities. Interest in building a canal connecting these two waterways began immediately after the War of 1812. The Federal government granted the State of Illinois a 90-foot-wide corridor of land in 1822 for construction of this waterway, and the next year, a Canal Commission was created to oversee the design and construction of this internal improvement project. Funding and design of the canal proceeded slowly with the official ground breaking ceremonies not being accomplished until July 4, 1836.

Wooden, mule- and/or horse-drawn canal boats were the work horses of the Illinois and Michigan Canal system. Unfortunately, none of these boats have survived to the present day, and little is known about their construction. During the initial years of construction, settlement along the canal corridor was sparse, and contractors relied heavily on recruiting Irish immigrants for their work force. Many of the Irish workers were later to settle along the corridor, improving farms within the countryside and establishing businesses within the many communities that sprang up along the corridor. In contrast, with the opening of the Erie Canal in New York State, many New England families settled along the corridor, bringing a strong Yankee culture to the region. By the late 1830s, settlement along the Canal had intensified and many small communities had begun to develop in the region. The financial panic and economic crash of 1837 was devastating, and by 1842, construction had halted on the Canal. Although construction was restarted shortly thereafter, the Canal was not completed until 1848 at a cost of over 6.4 million dollars. Stretching 97 miles in length, the Illinois and Michigan Canal maintained a 6-foot-deep channel, minimally 60 feet in width at the top (and 30’ in width at its base) and required 15 locks, numerous aqueducts, and multiple feeder canals to operate.

During the early years of navigation along the Canal, packet boats, traveling at the rate of 5 to 6 miles per hour, transported passengers as well as a wide range of small commodities, competing successfully with the overland stage and teamster service typical of the period. By the Civil War period, and the introduction of the competing railroad system that paralleled the Canal, the majority of the cargo hauled along the Canal was bulk commodities such as grain, coal, stone, and lumber. These boats traveled at a slightly slower rate of approximately 3 miles per hour. The greatest tonnage hauled on the Illinois and Michigan Canal occurred in 1882. By the late 1880s, the competition from the railroads had taken its toll and the tonnage hauled along the Canal quickly declined. By the 1890s, most of the canal boats that had been in use on the Canal had been relocated to duty along the Illinois River.

Although several studies were conducted during the late nineteenth century to revitalize and/or expand the Canal, they ultimately resulted in limited improvements to the waterway with a greater percentage of the Canal traffic being relegated to pleasure boating and leisure activity. The opening of the Calumet-Sag Canal in 1906 cut through the Illinois and Michigan forcing canal boat traffic along the upper reaches of the I&M Canal to travel along the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal (which connected Chicago with Lockport and was initially designed to transport raw sewage from Chicago to the Mississippi River). By the late 1910s, canal boat traffic along the Illinois and Michigan Canal had all but ceased, and the Canal was officially closed in 1933 with the opening of the Illinois Waterway -a 9-foot channel maintained by a lock and dam system within the Illinois River.

Photos courtesy of Fever River Research.

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