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Building the I&M Canal  


Slide show

Chief Engineer William Gooding, who had worked on the Welland Canal and canals in Ohio, was charged with engineering and constructing the I & M Canal. His plan divided it into three sections: the Summit segment (Chicago to Lockport), the Middle segment (Lockport to Seneca), and the Western segment (Seneca to LaSalle).

The Canal was 60 feet wide at water level, 36 feet wide at the bottom and six feet deep along the entire route of 96 miles. The Canal connected to Lake Michigan via 5.5 miles of the Chicago River. In the northeastern portion of the Canal, pumps were needed to keep it filled with water from the lake.

A total of 15 locks were built on the I & M. These were needed to lift and lower boats along the course of the Canal as water levels changed. Other construction along the Canal included aqueducts (which carried the Canal over rivers and streams), bridges, dams, lockkeepers' houses and the towpath along which mules pulled the motorless canal boats.

If we were to be transported back to the heyday of the I & M Canal, we would be astonished at its quiet character. The modern, harsh sounds of jet engines, trucks and trains would be replaced by the soft sounds of the mules' hooves on the towpath and the conversations of the boatmen.

The Canal and Its Impact

In April 1848, a cargo of sugar and other goods from New Orleans reached the docks of Buffalo. On the surface, this event was barely noteworthy, yet it had never happened before. It signaled a new era in the growth of the United States.

The trickle of commerce between east and west swelled into a continuous flow of people and goods. The Midwest's hub became Chicago and the city's population soared 600% in the decade after the opening fo the Canal.

The growing prosperity was not limited to Chicago; communities along the Canal route flourished. Illinois underwent a tremendous change in population and immigrants poured into the northern part of the state.

The intensed use of the Canal was not to last. By 1854, railroads offered faster travel, rendering passenger boats obsolete. Rail transportation of freight became increasingly competitive, and the I & M Canal responded by reducing tolls. Canal traffic and income declined; services also declined and the Canal began to deteriorate.

Increasingly, the Canal was used to carry wastes away from Chicago. In 1900, the larger Sanitary and Ship Canal went into operation, carrying both wastes and larger, more modern barges. Six short years later, the traffic on the I & M Canal consisted mostly of small, local barges and pleasure crafts. All use of the I & M Canal ended in 1933, with the opening of the Canal's modern successor - the Illinois Waterway.

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