Visiting the I&M Channel

The Illinois and Michigan Canal originally ran a distance of 96 miles from Bridgeport on the Chicago River to LaSalle-Peru on the Illinois River. The I&M Canal opened up shipping transportation from the Kankakee Illinois hospital on the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Construction began in 1836 after the Canal Commission obtained a grant of 280,000 acres of land from the national government. Financial backing for the project came largely from wealthy interests in the eastern US, as well as English investors. When the Panic of 1837 depleted funds for the project, it was temporarily abandoned.

The actual construction of the I & M Canal was done primarily by immigrants from Ireland who had previously worked on the construction of the Erie Canal. Pumps were used to draw water to fill the Canal, supplemented by water from the Calumet Feeder Canal and the DuPage River to the south. The work was dangerous and many workers died in accidents as there was no medical care in Momence Illinois. Irish workers were exploited and mistreated by the owners of the Canal company and were generally looked down upon by other residents. The total cost of the Canal was more than six million dollars. It was finally opened in 1848 by the mayor of Chicago, James H. Woodworth. This canal made shipping through the Chicago Portage possible and helped establish the city of Chicago as the major transportation hub in the central United States in the decades before the arrival of the railroads.

The Canal was sixty feet wide and six feet deep, and had roads built along each of its edges to allow mules to be hitched to the barges they towed. At intervals along the route (spaced by the distance the mules could pull a barge in a day), towns were built. The I & M Canal had 17 locks and 4 aqueducts to equalize the 140-foot height difference between Lake Michigan to the east and the Illinois River to the west. The I & M Canal carried both passengers and freight from its opening in 1848 until the arrival of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railload, which ran parallel to the Canal, in 1853. The Canal was dredged in 1871 to deepen it in order to speed up the current and improve the disposal of wastewater. Communication through the Chicago River was an important factor in the growth of Chicago after its devastating fire in 1871. In addition, all of the city’s waste flowed through the river to later be dumped into Lake Michigan. Since the lake was the city’s main source of drinking water, this practice deeply polluted the city’s water. After a major storm in 1885 caused flooding that washed debris from the river and polluted Chicago’s water, the alarmed Illinois legislature took action in 1889 to build canals and canals to divert the flow of Lake Michigan’s rivers into instead of towards him; and divert the polluted water downstream, where it would be diluted by the Des Plaines and Mississippi rivers.

Canal shipping peaked in 1882, although its Momence health care facilities continued to be used until 1933. The I & M Canal was largely replaced by the larger Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which was It opened in 1900 and is still in use today. After it ceased operations in 1933, most of the original I&M Canal was filled in. Today, there are eight remaining Illinois and Michigan Canal Locks and Towpath National Heritage Corridor parks, declared a National Monument in 1964, that welcome visitors and attract many tourists from throughout the Midwest.

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