History of Canal Corridor Association

The Canal Corridor Association has its roots in another non-profit agency, Openlands Project.  Founded in 1963, Openlands soon became the official voice for open space in the civic community and media in northeastern Illinois.   The organization played an early role in advocating for the I&M Canal, as Openlands’ first director Gunnar Peterson lobbied the state legislature for a “Greenstrip”   
designation along the canal route.  In 1966 Openlands formed an “I&M Canal Coordinating Committee,” which pushed for state                   
Former President Ronald Reagan
preservation of the canal as a recreational area.  
signing legislation to create the I&M
                                                                                               Canal National Heritage
Corridor, the
                                                                                               nation's first Heritage Corridor
                                                                                               Chicago, 1984

Sensing the growing support for turning the canal corridor into a regional showpiece, a group of business leaders took decisive action by forming the Upper Illinois Valley Association (the predecessor of the Canal Corridor Association), which was duly incorporated July 17, 1981.  The first board included George W. Overton, an attorney and president of Openlands; Edmund B. Thornton, chairman and CEO of Ottawa Silica Company; Thomas Flavin, CFO of Inland Steel; Brooks McCormick, retired chairman of International Harvester; and Arnold B. Sobel, vice chairman at Material Service Corporation.  The involvement of so many business leaders was a critical component of the success that led to the creation of a “new kind of national park.” 

With a staff consisting of Jerry Adelmann and administrative support provided by Openlands Project, the UIVA began operation in July 1982.  The organization took the lead role in pushing for federal designation of the Heritage Corridor, and, given the project’s prominent backers, it seemed that approval would be easy.  However, the idea of a heritage corridor was a bit too daring for some.  People often fear things that are novel; some industry leaders, already reeling from the economic downturn, were afraid of new environmental or land use regulations, and others saw a federal land grab.   As point man for the proposal, Jerry Adelmann attended countless meetings, assuaging fears and answering questions.  Finally, after two years of concerted lobbying, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill authorizing the establishment of the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor in August 1984. As one author put it, this landmark notion of a public/private urban national park “changed the nature of perceptions of open space preservation in this country.”  The Heritage Corridor concept was the first explicit marriage of preservation, conservation, recreation, and economic development.  Indeed, the I&M Heritage Corridor helped spark a national trend, one that shows no signs of abating.  To date there are 27 national heritage areas, and in a sense all owe their existence to the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor. 

In 1988 Gerald Adelmann took over the reins of both Openlands Project and CCA, and in 1991 the UIVA changed its name to the Canal Corridor Association, in order to better reflect its mission. Emily J. Harris was hired as executive director in June 1990.  In 1992 the Metropolitan Planning Council gave CCA their prestigious Burnham Award for Excellence in Planning.  In December 1992 the organization decided to begin honoring individuals who had made outstanding contributions to the Canal Corridor.  The first recipient was Nick Melas of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, and other winners have included Bill Kurtis, John Trutter, Brother James Gaffney, Barbi Donnelley, Mayor Richard J. Daley, and former Congressman William Lipinski.

A new executive director, Ana B. Koval, came on board in 1996.  CCA’s efforts to spread the word about the canal reached a fever pitch with the sesquicentennial of the canal’s opening in 1998. Planning for the Sesquicentennial celebrations began in 1995, and a regional network of Sesquicentennial coordinators was created with representation from 34 communities. Many long-term initiatives came to fruition and new projects were begun during the Sesquicentennial year.  The Sesquicentennial brought together a great number of partners in a coordinated way, and the public heard a unified message throughout the year and the region. This multifaceted celebration brought new awareness of the canal's role in shaping the region.  At Chicago’s Navy Pier a series of mosaic sculptures entitled Water Marks were unveiled, many crafted with the aid of Corridor residents.  This public art symbolizes the transportation story embodied by the I&M Canal.

Among the major region-wide events, one with national exposure was the publication of the book Prairie Passage: The Illinois & Michigan Canal Corridor, and the opening of a major accompanying exhibit at Chicago's Cultural Center.  A notable effort to develop a cohesive, regional picture of the entire corridor, the book was published by the University of Illinois Press for the Canal Corridor Association.  Work on the project began with funding from the Illinois Humanities Council back in 1991.  The sesquicentennial celebration afforded an opportunity to secure major state funds for the project, matched with private support.  Exhibit partners included the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and the Illinois State Museum.

For the book, the noted landscape photographer Edward Ranney captured the natural and industrial environments currently found in the Heritage Corridor in 200 large-format black-and-white photographs.  A few interspersed historic photographs put the contemporary landscape into a time context.  Nationally known authors Tony Hiss and William Least Heat Moon offered their thoughts on the landscape, while CCA vice president Emily J. Harris contributed the main essay illuminating the canal's history, organized in a geographical sequence from one end to the other. The book is a fitting tribute to the shared heritage of the canal corridor, and the striking photographs demonstrate how the waterways, man-made and natural, provide a link through urban, rural, and small-town landscapes.  The accompanying exhibit attracted 50,000 people in Chicago, Lockport, and Springfield.

After years of planning, the Association’s I&M Canal Passage Wayfinding program moved into high gear in the year 2000.  A new corridor logo has been developed, featuring a young I&M Canal mule driver and mule.  In partnership with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, CCA installed sixty two mile markers along the I&M Canal State Trail.  Each marker contains two facts about the canal, as well as directional information to nearby attractions.  In an effort to further personalize the story of the canal, CCA and Joliet artist Marsh Lega have created 30 life-size Cor-Ten steel silhouettes of individuals who settled and shaped the passageway.  These exhibits in Lockport, Morris, Joliet, Romeoville, and Hodgkins highlight people from all walks of life, including industrial workers, naturalists, canal employees, pioneers, and even the Marx Brothers.

Another major project involves creating and installing driving tour and highway signs from Lemont to LaSalle.  This initiative aims to get visitors and tourists off the interstate highways and into the towns themselves, where they can experience first-hand the charms of places such as Morris, Lockport, and Ottawa.  These signs were installed in the summer of 2001.

Even more ambitious plans are afoot. The canal lacks a major draw, and the absence of boats on the canal is one of the greatest impediments to attracting more tourists.  In a major effort to fill both needs, the Association, working with the City of LaSalle, is spearheading efforts to put canal boats in the water.  The first phase includes a replica canal boat ride where visitors can get a feel for what it was like to travel on a canal boat.  

Canal Corridor Association, 754 1st Street, LaSalle, IL  61301   phone 815.220.1848
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