Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Illinois and Michigan Canal
Nature Bulletin No. 168-A  November 7, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor

Chicago is and always has been the key to the Middle West. The Potawatomi, Chippewa and Ottawa Indians were but the last of a long succession of Indian tribes to hold this region because of its strategic importance. Louis Joliet, returning with Father Marquette from a voyage of discovery in 1673-74, reported to the governor in Montreal that, in order to travel by boat from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, it would be necessary to make but ". . . one canal intersecting only half a league of prairie in order to enter from the foot of the lake of the Illinois (Lake Michigan) into the river of St Louis (Illinois River). .

By 1803, the fur trade in the Northwest Territory had become so important that Fort Dearborn was established The war of 1812 emphasized the necessity of a route over which military and naval forces and supplies could be readily transported to the northern frontier. In 1816, an Indian treaty granted to the United States a strip of land 20 miles wide along the route of a proposed waterway from the mouth of the Chicago River down the DesPlaines and Illinois river valleys. The bill for the admission of Illinois as a state was amended to shove its boundary, from an east and west line drawn thru the southerly bend of Lake Michigan, north to its present location -- solely because, then, the proposed canal might be entirely within and constructed by the new state -- thus serving, with the Erie Canal then building, to link the Atlantic Ocean with the Mississippi valley.

In 1822, Daniel P. Cook and Jesse B. Thomas, respectively congressman and senator from Illinois, obtained from the federal government a grant of the public domain consisting of a strip of land for the proposed canal and 90 feet on each side of it. In 1829, Cook (for whom the County of Cook was named) was also instrumental in obtaining passage of an act by which the federal government donated to Illinois, for the purpose of financing the construction of the canal, alternate sections of land for a distance of five miles on each side of it.

A canal commission was appointed, consisting of Gen. William F. Thornton, Col. Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard and Col. William B. Archer, and in 1829 the towns of Ottawa and Chicago were laid out. On July 4, 1836, with a great celebration at Canal Port, the first spadeful of dirt was dug and the job begun. Due to floods, labor scarcity and the panic of 1837, little progress was made before work was abandoned in 1842. Resumed in 1845, the canal, 96 miles long from Bridgeport (just east of Ashland Ave. at about 28th St.) to Peru-LaSalle, was completed and opened for traffic in 1848. The first boat to pass thru the entire length of the canal was the "General Thornton" of LaSalle, with a cargo of sugar.

Immediately the canal became a tremendous factor in the development of Chicago and northern Illinois. The produce of the Illinois valley, formerly shipped to St. Louis, began to pour into Chicago. Merchandise from the east, via the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes, poured down the canal to the river towns and from them to the settlements rapidly being extended northward and westward. In 1830 there were only 1310 people in that part of Illinois north of Peoria. By 1850 there were 125,708, largely concentrated in Chicago and along the waterway.

Now, in 1964, the bed and the right-of-way of that canal have been occupied by the Southwest Expressway (US 66 and Interstate 55) from Chicago as far as Summit. From there to Lemont, in Cook County, it may become a forest preserve. From Lemont to LaSalle, parts of it have been and all of it should be developed as a state park.

That little old canal has made mighty contributions to the growth of Chicago.

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