Building The I&M Canal
The Good, The Bad, And The Whiskey
Hello, everyone, and welcome to another edition of Canal Stories, a series brought to you by the Canal Corridor Association to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Illinois & Michigan Canal and the communities that were shaped by its legacy. Today, we’re traveling back to the 1830s and 1840s, to take a closer look at the construction of the I&M Canal and the people who made this crucial piece of water highway a reality, as written by Ronald Scott Vasile.
The I&M Canal brought people and prosperity to Chicago and the entire Midwest. It revolutionized the transportation system of Illinois and helped establish Chicago as a passageway for goods and people traveling throughout the continent. Today, Illinois is still a major hub of transportation, but few realize that it all started with the I&M Canal.
Throughout history, water has been the best way to get people and supplies from one location to another. From 1673 on, explorers, politicians, investors, travelers, and farmers alike saw the advantages of building a canal near Chicago that would link the waters of Lake Michigan with those of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, thus providing a water passage all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1825, when the Erie Canal opened as a link between the Great Lakes and Eastern seaboard, the proposed Illinois canal gained traction as its construction would provide a continuous water highway stretching from New York to New Orleans.
After years of planning, the Canal Commissioners began building the I&M Canal in 1836, but faced numerous hurdles right from the start, including a shortage of workers, and a national financial panic in 1837. Immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Sweden, and other countries were attracted by the promise of abundant jobs, and they flocked to Illinois to begin the arduous work of digging the canal by hand.
The workers lived in crude shanties, and were constantly facing the threat of deadly diseases, including cholera, dysentery, and during the summer months, malaria. On one occasion, workers demanded that they be supplied with whiskey before they ventured into the water to fabricate the canal's foundation, arguing that the whiskey would protect them from the disease. The hard-pressed contractor relented. In many cases, canal workers were paid a dollar and a gill of whiskey per day.
The economic crisis of the late 1830s and early 1840s resulted in wage reductions for canal workers, and violence erupted on several occasions. For several years, nearly all work on the canal was halted. By the early 1840s, the state of Illinois was virtually bankrupt. Although unfinished, the completion of the I&M Canal was the one tangible hope for a brighter future. Fortunately, loans from European and American investors allowed the project to carry on, and the canal was completed in 1848.
That concludes today’s Canal Story. Thank you so much for joining us as we continue our journey through the history of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, pass it along to your family and friends, and we’ll see you again very soon.
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