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.
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.