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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.

 

Throughout history 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.

What's in a Name?

Many of our roads were built over old Indian trails, including Clark Street, and Ogden and Archer Avenues in Chicago. Hundreds of Illinois town and geographical place names are derived from Indian languages. Those from the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor include: Kankakee (Kankakee River) is Mohegan for "wolf" or "wolf land"; Minooka is Delaware and probably means "good land"; Ottawa is a tribal name, probably derived from the Algonquian word, "to trade"; Seneca was the tribal name given to the Mohegans; Chicago is Algonquian for "onion place' or "garlic place"; Calumet (Calumet City, Calumet Park, Lake Calumet) was the name of the ceremonial peace pipe of the Algonquian tribes. A variation of the word also referred to a body of "deep, still water"; Channahon is an Indian word signifying "meeting of the waters"; the Fox River is named after the tribe of that name; hickory (as in Hickory Hills) is a Powhatan name for a food made from hickory nuts; the state of Illinois and the Illinois River are named for the tribes that went under that name; Indian Head Park derives its name from Native Americans; Kickapoo Creek is named for the Kickapoo tribe; Mazon (Mazon River) is an Illinois name for a species of nettle or wild hemp; Lake Michigan is named for the Miami words for "great lake"; and Pecumsaugan (Creek) is possibly derived from the Potawatomi word for "hatchet".

 

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