History of the Hennepin
The Hennepin Canal played an important role in the history of the United States, and to commerce and industry beginning in the 19th century. The entire canal is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Thoughts of constructing a canal connecting the Illinois and Mississippi rivers date to 1834, but financial problems in the state held back many public works projects. Pressure for a transportation shortcut that was cheaper than rail continued though, and Congress authorized preliminary surveys on the project in 1871. Construction got under way in 1892 and the first boat, the Marion, went through in 1907, reducing the distance from Chicago to Rock Island by 419 miles. As the canal was under construction, the Corps of Engineers was widening the locks on both the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. With lock chambers 20 and 40 feet narrower than the rivers it connected, the canal was obsolete before the Marion made her initial voyage.
By the 1930s, the canal was used primarily for recreational traffic. The Hennepin and its sister canal, the I & M, tied the Illinois, Des Plaines and Mississippi river systems into a transportation network connecting Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico. The I & M was completed nearly 60 years earlier and helped make Chicago one of the nation's greatest cities. The Hennepin Canal, which at one time was known as the Illinois and Mississippi Canal, was open to boat traffic until 1951. There was no cost to use the canal. Ice made from the canal's frozen waters was sold during the winters to help pay the canal's maintenance costs.
The Hennepin was the first American canal built of concrete without stone cut facings. Although the Hennepin enjoyed limited success as a waterway, engineering innovations used in its construction were a bonus to the construction industry. Some of the innovations pioneered on the Hennepin Canal were probably used on the Panama Canal. Both used concrete lock chambers and both used a feeder canal from a man-made lake to water the canals because both needed water to flow ‘uphill.’
Of the 33 locks on the canal, 32 remain visible. The first one, on the Illinois River, has been under water since the 1930s. Fourteen of the locks had Marshall gates, which are unique to the Hennepin, and are raised and lowered on a horizontal axis, much like a rural mailbox. Five of the locks have been restored to working condition, although they are not used. One of these is a Marshall Gate lock. All of the gates from the remaining locks have been replaced with concrete walls, creating a series of waterfalls.
The Hennepin originally had nine aqueducts -- concrete troughs which carried the canal and its traffic across larger rivers and streams. Today, six remain while the other three have been replaced by pipes that carry the canal flow under a creek or river.
Before exploring the wonders at the park, stop in at the Visitor Center near Sheffield. Several displays help illustrate the canal's past, including tools used to build and operate it. At the time the canal was built workers often made their own tools by hand. There's also a model of a lock with a boat going through it and a model of an aqueduct. Get a peek at the plant and animal life at the park through other displays at the center.
Just outside the Visitor Center is a beautiful half-acre patch of wildflower prairie. Among the plantings are little bluestem and big bluestem-- the official state prairie grass.
Don't miss the marsh observation area and duck blind located near the Visitor Center to see a variety of plants and animals, including ducks, geese, redwinged blackbirds, muskrats and cattails.
Picnic tables are sprinkled throughout the day use areas and main complex for your relaxation and enjoyment. Three shelters in the park's main complex near Sheffield provide areas for group gatherings, the largest one can be reserved. Call the site office to make a reservation. The largest shelter is handicapped accessible. Playground equipment, located at the largest shelter, will keep the kids busy while the grownups have a chance to chat. Drinking water is available at Locks 21 and 22 from hand pumps, as well as at the Visitor Center. Outdoor toilets are located at Locks 3, 6, 11, 17, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 26; Bridges 14, 15 and 23, as well as the Visitor Center on the Main Canal. There are facilities at Bridges 50, 52 and 64 on the feeder canal.
An old tow path, originally intended but never used by animals for towing boats along the canal's main line and feeder routes, provides 155 miles of one-foot-after-the-other fun. Because you're right next to the canal, you'll get a great view of its locks and aqueducts, not to mention the animal life. The going is level and easy at the Hennepin -- but be sure to make several stops along the way if you're hiking the canal's entire length.
If you're up to something more challenging, try the 4.5-mile trek in the main complex which is moderately difficult and gives you a broad taste of landscape from tall timber to grasslands to marsh.
Hiking the Hennepin is particularly satisfying in the fall, when Mother Nature works her wonders on the leaves.
With the completion of the new trail surface, mountain bikes are no longer a necessity. East to west the trail is surfaced from Bureau Junction, near the Illinois River, to Colona on the Rock River. A feeder canal to Rock Falls, 29.2 miles long, also is surfaced. Bring your own refreshments as only three areas along the corridor have water (Locks 21, 22 and the Visitor Center). Be sure to yield the right-of-way to horses.
It's a well-kept secret, but fishing along the Hennepin is well worth the trip. Whether you're angling for bluegill, crappie, walleye or bass, 70 bridge or 32 lock locations are available and the pools are regularly stocked.
There's unlimited horsepower for boats between bridge 37 and Lock 24 at the Hennepin; elsewhere it's 10 horsepower. Take off on the launching ramps at the Visitor Center complex, Locks 21, 22 or 24, Route 82 north of Geneseo, Route 92, Route 78 north of Annawan, bridge 39, 28 or 45.
If canoeing is your sport, come ready for a workout, as the waters are calm and back and arm power are required. The locks are no longer operational and must be portaged (from Lock 21 east is particularly tough). For a great one-or two-day trip, begin at Rock Falls and continue to the Visitor Center.
Class "C" and Youth Group camping are allowed along the Hennepin Canal Parkway at the following locations:
Lock 6, north bank East of lock
Lock 11, west of the Canal Prism
Lock 17, northwest of the lock
Lock 21, North Day Use Area
Bridge 14, north bank.
Lock 22, southwest of the lift bridge (drinking water available)
Bridge 23, south bank
Lock 23, just west of the parking lot.
Lock 26, south bank
Equestrian camping is restricted to the south side of the Lock 21 area. Clean up after your horses.
The Canal is open annually from April 15 to October 31. Bring your own horse and prepare to enjoy 48 miles along the main canal and more than 25 miles along the feeder. Gallop to your heart's delight along the corridor. Stay out of the picnic areas and off the west tow path between bridges 43 to 56, and Locks 30 to 32. You will be sharing surfaces with bicyclists and pedestrians around aqueducts and in areas where usable towpath only exists on one side.
Take a shot at dove hunting during season at the park's main complex. Enjoy waterfowl hunting on Lake Sinnissippi near the Rock River, where more than 30 blind sites are awarded in an annual draw. For more information, please review the Hunter Fact Sheet.
When the snowflakes fall, break out the skis and go cross country on 4.5 miles of moderately difficult trail in the main complex or venture out onto the canal, but keep an eye out for the snowmobilers.
The Hennepin boasts the longest snowmobile trail in the state -- 91 miles on the tow path. Use the ice at your own risk, but pay heed to the locks, bridges and culverts where the ice likely is thinner than the rest of the canal. If grace under your own power is more your style, bring your blades and ice skate along the entire canal.
SPECIAL NOTE: No motorized vehicles, except for snowmobiles during designated times, are allowed on the tow path.
Most of the Hennepin Canal, with the exception of 12 miles on the lower feeder and 5 miles in the Milan area, will be open to snowmobiling this year. This includes some additional 9 miles to the system on the west line that will now take travelers into Colona.
The trail must meet the following criteria and be declared "open" by site staff, which will be posted at access areas and on the site’s telephone system (815-454-2328). To be declared "open" requires at least six inches of frost in the ground and four inches of snow on the ground.
The trail on the towpath, as designated below, is signed.
Snowmobilers may ride the ice at their own risk, when the trail is declared open, in the above referenced section. The water does not always freeze solidly inside the tubes. Riders using the ice should be aware that such things as ice conditions, ice skaters, and structures including tubes exist.
Please be aware of and respect other people who may be using the Canal for other recreational purposes. Take care when approaching and crossing roads, and traversing trail tubes.
We enforce all regulations and laws concerning the use and operation of a snowmobile at the Hennepin Canal Parkway.
General Mileage Information
Lock 2 to Bridge 15 South towpath 21.7 miles
Bridge 15 to Bridge 17A North towpath 4.8 miles
Bridge 17A to Bridge 18A South towpath 0.5 miles
Bridge 18A to Bridge 39 North towpath 23.7 miles
Bridge 39 to Bridge 40 South towpath 2.7 miles
Bridge 40 to Bridge 42A (6th Street, Colona)
North towpath 5.6 miles
Bridge 42A to Lock 29 South towpath 1.5 miles
Bridge 44 (Dixon Ave., Rock Falls) to Bridge 56 (Route 92)
West towpath 16.6 miles
Directions to the Visitor Center
The Hennepin Canal Parkway basically parallels I-80 in Bureau and Henry counties in west central Illinois. The Parkway's Visitor Center is one mile south of I-80, just west of Route 40. East or westbound travelers on I-80 should take Exit 45, turn right (south) on Route 40. They almost immediately cross the Canal and in about 1 mile is the brown sign directing them to the Parkway Visitors Center. Turn right (west) and proceed to the Center.
• While groups of 25 or more are welcome and encouraged to use the park's facilities, they are required to register in advance with the site office to avoid crowding or scheduling conflicts.
• At least one responsible adult must accompany each group of 15 minors.
• Pets must be kept on leashes at all times.
• Actions by nature can result in closed roads and other facilities. Please call ahead to the park office before you make your trip.
• We hope you enjoy your stay. Remember, take only memories, leave only footprints.