"Voyageur" paddle songs!
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connecting the Great Lakes to the Illinois River, the Illinois
and Michigan Canal provided a link between the East Coast and
mid-America. The waterway is also a link between the past and
the world of today.
The earliest recorded inhabitants of this region were the Native
Americans. In 1673, they met the first Europeans to venture into
the area, Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette. These two
explorers and their company were returning to Canada from their
explorations down the Mississippi River.
Marquette and Jolliet traveled north from the Mississippi via
the Illinois and Des Plaines rivers. At what we now call the Chicago
Portage, the party encountered a low divide that separated them
from the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.
Jolliet saw an opportunity to connect the Chicago and Des Plaines
rivers, providing an uninterrupted route to the sea. He wrote that
if a short canal of but "half a league of prairie" were dug through
the portage, one could travel from Lake Michigan to the Gulf of
Mexico entirely by boat.
Washington Park and the Reddick Mansion, Ottawa
Marquette and Jolliet's party portaged over the divide and returned
to French Canada. The French retained control of our region until
their defeat by the British in the French and Indian War. The British,
like the French, were primarily concerned with the fur trade, and
the construction of a canal seemed a frivolous expense.
When the Americans won the region after the American Revolution,
priorities changed. The American government wanted to establish
military control over the region. They started by negotiating a
treaty with the Potawatomi tribe, in which the Potawatomi ceded
six square miles of land at the mouth of the Chicago River. Fort
Dearborn was built at this site.
Voyageur Rendezvous at the Isle a la Cache Museum, Romeoville
Trade rapidly increased after the erection of Fort Dearborn, but
the idea of a canal did not re-emerge until 1810, when a New York
Congressman told Congress "...the most inconsiderable expense would
open a canal between the waters of the lake and the Illinois River."
In a treaty six years later, the Potawatomi ceded land ten miles
on either side of the Des Plaines and Illinois rivers from Lake
Michigan to the Fox River. In 1823, Illinois created a Canal Commission,
but enthusiasm for the canal was limited by financial resources.
No money meant no construction, and the Commission was dissolved.
By the 1830s, settlement in the region was slowly increasing and
land speculation grew. A new Canal Commission was formed in 1835
and, unlike the first, it was empowered to raise money.
Historic Gaylord Building, Lockport
The Commission had a federal grant of 284,000 acres of land along
the proposed canal route, which it tried to sell for $1.25 an acre.
The Commission found selling land in the absence of canal construction
difficult, but enough funds from land sales were raised to start
canal construction on Independence Day, 1836.
After its dazzling start, construction quickly became an on-again,
off-again matter. Money problems plagued the Commission, and the
"Panic of 1837" created shortages which eventually led to the halt
of all canal construction in 1841.
After a four year shortage, new funding was secured from English
and eastern investors, and construction resumed. Amid cheering and
speeches, the Illinois and Michigan Canal officially opened its
locks in 1848.
* Audio courtesy of Cliff Long, Forest Preserve
District of Will County