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Waterways

The I&M Canal was the first in a succession of waterways that shaped the development of northern Illinois. Canals played a central role in shaping the American economy. During the canal era in the U. S., from about 1790-1860, over 3,000 miles of canal were built. In 1825 the Erie Canal opened a water route to the West. The I&M followed soon after, giving Illinois the key to the mastery of the mid-continent. The I&M Canal created new trade and passenger routes, and transformed the frontier into a transportation center. By 1900 the I&M had largely outlived its usefulness, although it continued operating until 1933. The larger Sanitary and Ship Canal opened in 1900. The Cal Sag Channel, completed in 1922, also served industry. The Illinois Waterway, opened in 1933, established a deep-water shipping route between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan. Today this route continues the tradition of water transport that helped define the Midwest. The latest link, the St. Lawrence Seaway, opened in 1959 and connected the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes allowing ocean-going ships to dock at Lake Calumet.

 

In July 1871 the I&M played a central role in one of the boldest engineering feats ever attempted-—the reversal of the Chicago River. Contemporary observers called the river a "sluggish, slimy stream, too lazy to clean itself." Sewage and other waste dumped into the Chicago River, which emptied into the lake, had polluted Chicago’s water supply for years. The canal was deepened, allowing the waters of Lake Michigan to flow down the canal and into the Illinois River. Residents of canal towns, afraid of diseases being brought by the canal, were furious, and complained of the terrible smell, and reduced property values.

 

However, this achievement did not constitute a final solution, and in 1900, the Sanitary and Ship Canal permanently reversed the flow of the river. Many people today confuse the much wider and deeper Sanitary and Ship Canal with the I&M Canal; they run parallel to each other. The Sanitary and Ship Canal also performs the same functions as the I&M, namely the shipping of bulk goods and the transport of sewage. Most nineteenth- century canals were replaced by railroads or other means of transportation, but here in Illinois water is still an important means of delivering goods.

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