Significance of the I&M Canal
I&M Canal was the final link in a national plan to connect different
regions of the vast North American continent via waterways. Linking the
waters of the Illinois River (and ultimately the Mississippi River) with
those of Lake Michigan, the idea of the canal went back to Louis Jolliet
and the early French fur traders of the 1670s.
the birth of the new nation, American leaders had recognized the urgent
need for a network of “internal improvements” to ease the problem of
continental transportation. The success of the Erie Canal, completed in
1825, marked a period of intensive canal building in the U. S. Indeed,
the years from 1790-1850 have been characterized as the Canal era. This
chapter in our nation’s history has been largely overlooked, as most
historians have focused on the railroads as the prime force behind
I&M Canal is nationally significant for many reasons. In 1827 the
Federal Government gave the State of Illinois nearly 300,000 acres of
prime farmland, the sale of which would finance construction of a canal.
The I&M Canal shares with the Wabash Canal in neighboring Indiana the
distinction of being the first American canals to receive federal land
grant toward its financing. This precedent is of great historical
interest, as it later served as the model for the first federal land
grant to support a railroad-the Illinois Central Railroad.
1843, with construction of the I&M Canal stalled due to the State of
Illinois’s near bankruptcy, investors from New York, England and France
put up $1.6 million to complete the canal.
completion in 1848, the I&M Canal created a new transportation corridor.
Travelers from the eastern U. S. took the Erie Canal to Buffalo, New
York, where steamboats brought them through the Great Lakes to Chicago.
Transferring to canal boats, a 96-mile trip on the I&M Canal brought
them to LaSalle/Peru. Here people boarded river steamers bound for St.
Louis and New Orleans. During the years of the California Gold Rush many
emigrants traveled part of the journey on the I&M Canal. During the
nation-wide cholera epidemic of 1849, the disease came to Chicago via
passengers on the I&M Canal.
Abraham Lincoln trumpeted the effects of the I&M Canal. While
acknowledging that the I&M Canal was entirely within the confines of one
state, (Illinois) he noted that its benefits extended far beyond those
borders, reducing the cost of transporting goods, thus benefiting both
buyers and sellers. “Nothing is so local as not to be of some general
benefit,” wrote the future President. “the benefits of an improvement
are by no means confined to the particular locality of the improvement
the canal enjoyed only five years free of railroad competition, these
years were absolutely critical in launching Chicago on its path to urban
greatness, and in spawning a dozen other towns along its banks that
would soon industrialize and help consolidate the western end of the
American Manufacturing Belt in northern Illinois. The opening of the
Illinois & Michigan canal radically reduced the costs of transferring
goods, particularly grain, lumber, and merchandise, between Midwestern
prairies and the East via the Great Lakes trading system. For the first
time, the canal allowed goods from the southern U. S., including sugar,
salt, molasses, tobacco, and oranges, to be shipped to Chicago. By
cutting travel times, the I&M Canal also precipitated a new era of
travel for people from the south to the north, and vice versa.