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History

Building the Canal

Canal Operation

Passenger Travel on the Canal

Canal Significance

Architecture and the Canal

Agriculture and the Canal

Industry and the Canal

Waterways

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Natural History

 

Canal Operation

Even before it opened, the canal attracted people to the Midwest. As a result land values along the canal and in Chicago skyrocketed. Indeed, it was one of the most frenzied periods of real estate speculation ever. Chicago's incredible growth stemmed largely from the I&M Canal. By 1848 Chicago's population was around 20,000. This figure is modest by today's standards, but it represented a 500 percent increase in just 10 years.

 

1848 was a pivotal year in northern Illinois. The opening of the I&M Canal in April brought prosperity to the region by opening new trade markets and making passenger travel quicker. In January the first telegraph message was received in Chicago, bringing the region into communication with the rest of the country. Construction on the first railroad in Chicago began the same year. The Chicago Board of Trade was founded in March 1848, in anticipation of the increase in grain trade brought by the I&M Canal. The first steam-powered grain elevator also opened in 1848, and were soon to become a prominent feature in Chicago's skyline. After the Mexican War dramatically increased the size of the nation, Chicago and northern Illinois were transformed from a frontier into a metropolis linking both halves of the country.

 

In its first few years the canal exceeded the expectations of even its most ardent supporters. Corn and wheat flowed into Chicago in huge quantities, as did lumber cut from the hardwood forests of Michigan and Wisconsin, making Chicago the lumber capital of the world. Beef , pork, stone, coal, sugar and salt were among the commodities shipped on the canal.

 

The canal contained 17 locks, plus two near Chicago, four aqueducts, and a pumping station at Bridgeport in Chicago. It covered 96 miles, from Chicago to La Salle. The water supply came via the Chicago, Des Plaines, Little Calumet, Kankakee, and Fox rivers. The canal was 60- feet wide at the top, 36- feet wide on the bottom, and six- feet deep.  Bridges, dams, locktenders' houses, and the towpath for the mules that pulled the boats were also constructed along the canal.

 

The I&M Canal carried on a lively passenger trade between 1848-1852. Canal packet boats carried thousands of people back and forth between Chicago and La Salle. Within five years, however, the completion of railroads that paralleled the canal route ended passenger traffic. The I&M Canal established Chicago as a transportation hub. Trains, cars and trucks, and airplanes all followed in its wake.

 

The canal had an immediate and lasting impact on the Midwestern economy. First and foremost, it opened the region to development. Before the canal, northern Illinois had no paved roads or railroads. Farmers and others found it difficult to ship goods to market. Without reliable transportation, many farmers only grew enough to supply themselves or their local community with food. During rainy seasons the few trails turned into rivers of mud, and in the summer, clouds of dust choked horses and people alike. With the canal open, a journey that in 1818 took fur traders three weeks, and in the 1830s took farmers days on muddy roads, took only 24 hours on a canal boat. Suddenly people, corn, wheat, stone, and other products poured into Chicago, and finished goods from the East Coast streamed into the West.

 

The I&M Canal was the last great American waterway built during the canal era. In the 1850s and 1860s the nation increasingly shifted to rail transport and thousands of miles of railroad were built. Railroads had many advantages over canals: they could run all year long, while canals were closed during the winter when the water froze; were faster and more flexible than canals, could be built anywhere and could build spurs to existing industries. Despite these advantages, the I&M Canal remained profitable until 1866, and shipped a record tonnage in 1882. The canal could best compete with the railroads by shipping heavy bulk items such as limestone, coal, and salt, and this competition kept railroad rates lower, giving Chicago an advantage over other Midwestern cities like St. Louis.

 

After 1900 use of the canal declined dramatically. There was a brief resurgence during World War I, but after this the canal fell into disrepair and was dubbed a "tadpole ditch." The opening of the Illinois Waterway in 1933 ended the shipping history of the canal, and saw the beginning of its transition to recreational use.

 

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