Morris Wide Water,
Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail
Transportation corridors have always played a significant role in the settlement
of Illinois -- whether during the prehistoric or historic period. In northern
Illinois, the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which opened for navigation
in the summer of 1848, connected the southern tip of Lake Michigan (and
the port city of Chicago) with the settlement of the northern region of
the state. The construction of this commercial waterway helped transform
the northern region of the state from a sparsely settled frontier district
to a commercial, agricultural, and industrial region that supplied the
port city of Chicago with a wide variety of commodities.
Interest in building a canal connecting these two waterways began immediately
after the war of 1812. The Federal government granted the State of Illinois
a 90-foot-wide corridor of land in 1822 for construction of this waterway,
and the next year, a Canal Commission was created to oversee the design
and construction of this internal improvement project. Funding and design
of the canal proceeded slowly with the official ground breaking ceremonies
not being accomplished until July 4, 1836.
During the initial years of construction, settlement along the canal
corridor was sparse, and contractors relied heavily on recruiting Irish
immigrants for their work force. Many of the Irish workers were later to
settle along the corridor, improving farms within the many communities that
sprang up along the corridor. In contrast, with the opening of the Erie
Canal in New York State, many New England families settled along the corridor,
bringing a strong Yankee culture to the region. By the late 1830s, settlement
along the Canal had intensified and many small communities had begun to
develop in the region.
The financial panic and economic crash of 1837 was devastating, and by
1842, construction had halted on the Canal. Although construction was restarted
shortly thereafter, the Canal was not completed until 1848 at a cost of
over 6.4 million dollars.
Stretching 97 miles in length, the Illinois and Michigan Canal maintained
a 6-foot-deep channel, minimally 60 feet in width at the top (and 30' in
width at its base) and required 15 locks, numerous aqueducts, and multiple
feeder canals to operate. During the early years of navigation along the
Canal, packet boats traveling at the rate of 5 to 6 miles per hour, transported
passengers as well as a wide range of small commodities, competing successfully
with the overland stage and teamster service typical of the period. By the
Civil War period, and the introduction of the competing railroad system
that paralleled the Canal, the majority of the cargo hauled along the Canal
was bulk commodities such as grain, coal, stone, and lumber. These boats
traveled at a slightly slower rate of approximately 3 miles per hour.
The greatest tonnage hauled on the Illinois and Michigan Canal occurred
in 1882. By the late 1880s, the competition from the railroads had taken
its toll and the tonnage hauled along the Canal quickly declined. By the
1890s, most of the canal boats that had been in use on the Canal had been
relocated to duty along the Illinois River. Although several studies were
conducted during the late nineteenth century to revitalize and/or expand
the Canal, they ultimately resulted in limited improvements to the waterway
with a greater percentage of the Canal traffic being relegated to pleasure
boating and leisure activity. The opening of the Calumet-Sag Canal in 1906
cut through the Illinois and Michigan forcing canal boat traffic along the
upper reaches of the I&M Canal to travel along the Chicago Ship and Sanitary
Canal (which connected Chicago with Lockport and was initially designed
to transport raw sewage from Chicago to the Mississippi River). By the late
1910s, canal boat traffic along the Illinois and Michigan canal had all
but ceased, and the Canal was officially closed in 1933 with the opening
of the Illinois Waterway - a 9 -foot channel maintained by a lock and dam
system within the Illinois River.
The Morris Wide Water
The Morris Wide Water is a turning basin along
the I&M Canal that is located on the eastern edge of the community of Morris
in Grundy County. Turning basins are slightly wider sections of the canal
that allowed the canal boats to pull over to the side and temporarily stop
to allow other boats to pass.
During the late summer of 1996, an unusually extreme
thunderstorm deposited over 15" of rainfall on Chicago's southwestern
suburbs within a 24-hour period of time. A result of this torrential downpour
was the destruction of a dam across the DuPage River at Channahon that supplied
a large section of the Illinois and Michigan Canal with water. The unexpected
result of the dewatering of this stretch of canal was the exposure of seven
canal boat hulls within a section of canal known as the Morris Wide Water.
The Morris Canal Boats
a common site along the canal, with hundreds of boats plying the waters
between Chicago and LaSalle, not a single canal boat has survived to the
present day in Illinois. As such, little is known about canal boat construction
techniques in Illinois.
Although the earliest of canal boats were brought
over the Great Lakes from other areas (such as the Erie Canal), by the late
1850s the majority of these massive structures were being built at one of
three boat yards located along the Canal at Peru, Lockport, and Bridgeport
(Chicago). Archival research indicates that the men responsible for constructing
these water craft had immigrated to Illinois from such areas as New York
State, Canada, and England and probably were trained in traditional maritime
construction techniques through an apprenticeship system of labor. Unfortunately,
these traditional methods of construction generally relied on personal experience,
which utilized few measured drawings. Except for photographs that detail
the exterior of the canal boats, little to no information (such as scaled
plans, patters or ledger books) has survived regarding interior details
of construction or spatial layout.
Our knowledge of canal boats along the I&M Canal
was greatly increased with our recent study of the submerged resources at
the Morris Wide Water. At this location, historical archaeological investigations
have resulted in the detailed documentation of seven canal boats and have
contributed to our understanding of the nineteenth-century maritime resources.
The canal boats at the Morris Wide Water were generally
all about the same size. The preserved sections that we documented were
approximately 15' to 100' long. Canal boat size, which varies dramatically
from region to region, is dependent predominately on the size of the locks
along canal. The canal boats at the Morris Wide Water had been constructed
to fit exactly within the space allocated by the smallest lock along he
canal corridor. The largest of the canal boats carried a cargo of 150 tons.
Although the Morris canal boats were remarkably
similar in overall size, they varied dramatically in the techniques employed
to construct these vessels. Some of the more significant information gathered
by the archaeologists was related to how the boats had been constructed.
As was expected, a wide range of local hardwoods (particularly white oak)
was just for the construction of the boats hulls. In contrast, non-local
wood such as white pine, was used for the construction of the deck cabins.
All the canal boats were constructed using a plank
keelson (a wide oak plank laid down the center of the boat from which the
stern and bow posts were attached). From this plank keelson, the ribs were
attached allowing the construction of the bottom and sides of the hull.
Although the Morris canal boats were uniform in size, they exhibited great
variability in their method of construction. Each boat examined exhibited
a slightly different manner in constructing the bow, stern, and rib framing.
Some of this variability appears to be related to the date when the boats
were constructed. With the earlier boats, the bow post was fabricated by
using an adz and carving the post from a curved section of oak tree utilizing
the natural curvature of the tree to form the deadwood necessary to support
the vertical post. In contrast, the latter vessels were constructed of multiple
pieces of sawn lumber pinned together with large iron drift pins.
Another substantial difference in boat
construction techniques was noted in the manner in which the side frames
(or ribs) were attached to the floor frames. As with the bow and stern details,
each boat exhibited a different manner of joinery. All boats used dimensional,
sawn-oak lumber for the ribs and floor frames. The joint where these two
framing members met was strengthened with an additional piece of triangular
wood called a futtock. Some boats only had a single futtock lying on one
side of the frame, whereas others had two futtocks (one on each side of
the frame). Similarly, some boats utilized only nails to join the futtock
to the frame, while others used various combinations of bolts and nails.
These variations in framing techniques may be related
to idiosyncratic differences between craftsmen and/or the construction practices
utilized at the various boatyards along the Canal. Similarly, these variations
may also reflect functional and/or quality differences between the boats.
The boats that had multiple futtocks attached with multiple boats were much
better constructed vessels capable of holding up to rough use (and heavier
cargoes) than those that had a single futtock nailed on o the frames. Whether
these framing details reflect functional differences between grain boats
and stone boats, for example, is unknown at the present time. Evidence from
our investigations indicate that coal and stone were found in the hulls
of these boats.
Our investigations also have given us insights
into the interior layout of these large vessels. Harness hardware and bottles
(both glass and ceramic) were found in the bow section, suggesting the stabling
of horses and/or mules within the hold. Similarly, personal items, furniture
remains, and cooking utensils found in the stern section suggest that this
was the area inhabited by the "cannier family" and/or boat hands.
The archaeologists only excavated a small portion
of these boats, and the hulls remain protected within the Morris Wide Water.
This work, which was funded by the IDNR, was carried out by Fever River
Research under the direction of Floyd Mansberger. This brochure was designed
by Fever River Research.
Protection of Historic Sites
Almost a century ago, Congress passed the first
of many laws protecting archaeological sites, both historic and prehistoric,
on federal property. Today, in Illinois, these laws apply to all public
land and, in specific circumstances, to private land as well. The Illinois
Historic Preservation Agency is responsible for the administration of these
The Archaeological and Paleontological Resources
Protection Act. This law became effective
on January 1, 1989 and applies to all public lands in Illinois. The law
contains criminal sanctions for those who disturb burial mounds, human remains,
shipwrecks or other archaeological resources as well as fossils on public
lands. This law requires a permit for legitimate scientific study. Under
this act, objects found on public lands are sent to the Illinois State Museum,
Research and Collections Center in Springfield.
Human Grave Protection Act.
Effective August 11, 1989, this law forbids disturbance of human skeletal
remains and grave markers in unregistered cemeteries, including isolated
graves and burial mounds that are at least 100 years old. Younger graves
and registered cemeteries are protected by another law. It is the intent
of this law that "all human burials be accorded equal treatment and
respect for human dignity, without reference to ethnic origins, cultural
backgrounds or religious affiliations."
The Illinois State Agency Historic Resources
Protection Act. Agencies of Illinois government
are required to notify the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency of any
undertaking that may adversely affect an archaeological property (historic
or prehistoric). The Historic Preservation Agency may require survey and
testing of resource areas. This law became effective January 1, 1990.
National Historic Preservation Act of 1996,
as amended. This Federal stature authorizes
the National Register of Historic places, establishes the Advisory Council
on Historic Preservation, and, under Section 106, the Council's powers to
review Federal undertakings that affect historic properties.
Protecting Archaeological Sites
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources owns
and manages thousands of archaeological sites on land it oversees. These
sites and the artifacts contained within them are protected from looting
and vandalism by the Archaeological and Paleontological Resource Protection
Act. It is illegal for anyone to either collect or engage in digging into
an archaeological site on public lands. Although prohibited by law, the
looting of sites on both public and private lands is a serious problem.
If you notice illicit digging at an archaeological
site or witness someone collecting artifacts on a site at a state par, the
Department of Natural Resources asks you to contact either the DNR Cultural
Resource Coordinator at (217) 782-3715 or the local park superintendent
so measures can be taken to protect the site. If the site is not on park
land, please contact the Preservation Services Division, Illinois Historic
Preservation Agency at (217) 785-4999.
*Images courtesy of Floyd Mansberger