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Industry and the I&M canal

Illinois' industrial prowess began with the I&M Canal. The canal’s proximity to a rich bounty of natural resources, including coal, limestone, and sand, led to the development of new industries. Today industry is still critical to the local economy. Petrochemical plants in Lemont and Joliet continue the tradition of heavy industry, and there are also steel mills and numerous sand and gravel operations in the corridor.

 

In the nineteenth century the canal provided waterpower to a number of industries, particularly in Lockport. The water level dropped 40 feet at this point, requiring five locks. Hiram Norton became one of Will County's richest men when he acquired the leases for the Hydraulic basin in Lockport. This powered a variety of milling operations. The Norton family's fortunes were tied to the canal, and they became bankrupt in 1896, as a result of declining use of the canal.

 

A thriving coal industry developed around La Salle and Morris in the mid 1850s, but it largely died out by WWI1 as more abundant and cheaper sites were developed further south. The St. Peter sandstone found between Ottawa and Utica provided almost pure silica sand and was used in a variety of industries, including glassmaking. There were many breweries in Joliet and Morris including the Gebhard Brewery, founded in 1866. Marseilles had a large paper and cardboard industry, later taken over by Nabisco. The Westclox factory in Peru became one of the world's largest manufacturers of alarm clocks.

 

In digging the canal, large quantities of a magnesium-rich limestone called dolomite were exposed. Within a few years a new industry was born, and dozens of quarries opened in Lemont, Lockport and Joliet, creating thousands of new jobs. This heavy, durable stone was easily and cheaply transported on the canal, and was used in many buildings throughout the corridor, including the Joliet Penitentiary and the Chicago Water Tower. By about 1900 the local building-stone industry was largely eclipsed when superior Indiana stone came to be favored. Today the regional stone industry produces crushed stone, used in the construction industry and for erosion control along lakes. Quarries still operate in the corridor at McCook, Romeoville, Joliet, and Lemont.

 

In August 1998 the Joliet Iron Works Historic Site [INSERT PHOTO] opened, telling the story of one of America's most innovative manufacturing plants. Located along a stretch of the I&M Canal, this cultural park is devoted to the history of the iron and steel industries. Originally opened in 1869, the Joliet plant soon added Bessemer converters to convert iron into steel. As a major producer of steel rails and barbed wire, the Joliet Iron Works dominated Joliet's economy for many years.

 

Many industrial barons played larger roles in their communities than just providing jobs. Two German immigrants with backgrounds in engineering, Frederick W. Matthiessen and Edward C. Hegeler, opened a zinc-smelting and refining works in La Salle in 1858. Matthiessen donated the land for the state park that bears his name. Hegeler bankrolled the Open Court Publishing Company, and another industrialist, Louis Gebhard donated the land for Gebhard Woods State Park.

 

Dubbed "Porkopolis," nineteenth-century Chicago became famous for its slaughterhouses and meat- packing industry. A number of former canal workers labored in meat- packing plants, many located near the I&M Canal along the South Branch of the Chicago River. Working conditions in these plants were horrendous, and Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle (1906) exposed the unethical practices and unsanitary conditions of the meatpacking industry. This remarkable book led to tough federal regulation of the industry.

 

The twentieth century brought new innovations in industry along the canal. World War II transformed the town of Seneca from a sleepy agricultural hamlet into a vital cog in the war effort. Due in part to its proximity to the Illinois River and several rail lines, Seneca was chosen to manufacture thousands of landing ship transports. These amphibious vehicles were used in many campaigns, including the invasion of Europe (D-Day) in 1944. At the start of the war the town's population was barely a thousand, but by 1944 the plant employed over 10,000 workers. After the war the town resumed its smaller size and more leisurely pace.

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