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Passenger Travel on the Canal

With the opening of the I&M Canal in 1848, people in northeastern Illinois experienced a revolution in travel.  In April of that year passenger boats began making the 96-mile trip from Bridgeport to LaSalle, and vice versa.  For five years, before railroads paralleled the route of the I&M Canal, thousands of people experienced the joys and travails of traveling via canal packet boats.  Indeed, the I&M Canal ushered in a new era in trade and travel for the entire nation.  As the final link in a series of waterways, the I&M gave travelers the option of taking an all water route that connected Buffalo, Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans.  These water highways provided a mud and dust-free alternative to overland travel. 

 

In the nineteenth century, boats that traveled a regular route and carried passengers and mail were called packet boats.  (The term packet originally meant a parcel of letters.)  There are numerous accounts of travel on American canal packet boats, by esteemed literary figures such as Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

 

In general, people enjoyed traveling on packet boats during the day.  In fair weather one could loll about on the deck, enjoying the passing scenery.  Some played cards or backgammon, while others sang or read the latest newspapers.  Since a trip on the I&M took anywhere from 17-24 hours, meals were also served.  The sleeping arrangements aboard packets, however left much to be desired.  As many as 120 people were crammed into the small cabin.  Children slept on the floor, while wooden shelves served as beds for the adults.  The fear of malaria meant that all windows were ordered closed, making for a long hot night in close quarters.  Thus, we can conclude that travel on packet boats was something of a Jekyll and Hyde experience: pleasant during the day, much less so at night.

 

Even chief engineer William Gooding recorded some of the calamities that overtook him on a canal packet trip.   The German canal driver complained of one horse in the team “vot wouldn’t go,” but Gooding laconically remarked that the driver was “as obstinate as the horse and a great deal less sensible.”  The captain and crew were ‘hard cases” who seemed in no hurry, to the consternation of the passengers.  The “villainous smell” of whiskey and tobacco constantly permeated the closed cabin, but Gooding reached the end of his endurance when he discovered that the boat contained no food, “except a little ginger bread, which a poor, half-starved, cadaverous looking passenger had thoughtfully stuffed into his pockets.” 

 

By the end of 1852 the Chicago And Rock Island Railroad paralleled the canal, effectively ending the I&M canal packet boat.  But the canal’s role in changing the face of travel did not go unrecognized.  One local historian noted the impact of the packet boat trade. “As the horses drawing them trotted along through the country, it seemed a decided improvement to the settlers over the old ox team, beset by mosquitoes, and moving at a snail’s pace, without mentioning the inconveniences incident to camping in all kinds of places, as well as hunting stray oxen in the morning… The change from the ox team to the packets was as great to the early settlers, as that of the boat to the palace [Pullman railroad] cars has been to later generations.” 

 

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