Building the Canal
The I&M Canal brought
people and prosperity to Chicago and the entire Midwest. It
revolutionized the transportation system of Illinois and helped
establish Chicago as a passageway for goods and people traveling
throughout the continent. Today, Illinois is still a leader in
transporting goods and people, but few realize that it all started with
the I&M Canal.
water has been the best way to transport people and goods. From 1673 on,
explorers, politicians, investors, travelers and farmers alike saw the
advantages of building a canal near Chicago that would link the waters
of Lake Michigan with those of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, thus
providing a water passage all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1825,
when the Erie Canal opened as a link between the Great Lakes and Eastern
seaboard, the proposed Illinois canal gained impetus because its
construction would provide a continuous water highway stretching from
New York to New Orleans.
After years of
planning, the Canal Commissioners began building the I&M Canal in 1836,
but faced numerous hurdles including a shortage of workers, and a
national financial panic in 1837. Irish, as well as German, Swedish and
other immigrants, attracted by the promise of abundant jobs, flocked to
Illinois to begin the arduous work of digging the canal by hand.
The workers lived in
rude shanties, and many died of diseases, including cholera and
dysentery. During the summer months the men feared contracting malaria.
On one occasion, workers, arguing that the whiskey would protect them
from the disease, demanded that they be supplied with whiskey before
they venture into the water to fabricate the canal's foundation. The
hard-pressed contractor relented. In many cases canal workers were paid
a dollar and a gill of whiskey per week.
The economic crisis of
the late 1830s and early 1840s resulted in wage reductions for canal
workers, and violence erupted on several occasions. For several years
virtually all work on the canal was halted. By the early 1840s the state
of Illinois was virtually bankrupt. Although unfinished, the completion
of the I&M Canal was the one tangible hope for a brighter future.
Fortunately, loans from European and American investors allowed the
project to carry on, and the canal was completed in 1848.