The Rise Of The Midwest
And The Golden Age Of I&M Canal Operations
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’ll be looking back at the canal’s days of operation and its impact on the Midwestern economy, as written by Ronald Scott Vasile.
Even before it opened, the I&M Canal attracted people to the Midwest. As a result, land values along the canal and in Chicago skyrocketed. Indeed, it was one of the most frenzied periods of real-estate speculation ever. Chicago's incredible growth stemmed largely from the I&M Canal, and by 1848, the city’s population was around 20,000 people. This figure is modest by today's standards, but it represented a 500 percent increase in just 10 years.
1848 was a pivotal year in northern Illinois. The opening of the I&M Canal in April brought prosperity to the region by opening new trade markets and making passenger travel quicker. In January, the first telegraph message was received in Chicago, bringing the region into communication with the rest of the country. Construction on the first railroad in Chicago began that same year. The Chicago Board of Trade was founded in March 1848, in anticipation of the increase in grain trade brought by the l&M Canal, and the first steam-powered grain elevator also opened in 1848, which would soon become a prominent feature in Chicago's skyline. After the Mexican War dramatically increased the size of the nation, Chicago and northern Illinois were transformed from a frontier into a metropolis, linking both halves of the country.
In its first few years, the canal exceeded the expectations of even its most ardent supporters. Corn and wheat flowed into Chicago in huge quantities, as did lumber cut from the hardwood forests of Michigan and Wisconsin, making Chicago the lumber capital of the world. Beef, pork, stone, coal, sugar, and salt were among the commodities shipped on the canal.
The canal contained 17 locks, plus two near Chicago, four aqueducts, and a pumping station at Bridgeport. It covered 96 miles, from Chicago to LaSalle, and the water supply came via the Chicago, Des Plaines, Little Calumet, Kankakee, and Fox rivers. The canal was 60- feet wide at the top, 36- feet wide on the bottom, and six- feet deep. Bridges, dams, locktenders' houses, and the towpath for the mules that pulled the boats were also constructed along the canal.
The I&M Canal carried on a lively passenger trade between 1848-1852, with packet boats carrying thousands of people back and forth between Chicago and LaSalle. Within five years, however, the completion of railroads that paralleled the canal route ended passenger traffic, but the l&M Canal had established Chicago as a transportation hub. Trains, cars, trucks, and airplanes all followed in its wake.
The canal had an immediate and lasting impact on the Midwestern economy. First and foremost, it opened the region to development. Before the canal, northern Illinois had no paved roads or railroads, which meant farmers and other merchants found it difficult to ship goods to market. Without reliable transportation, many farmers only grew enough to supply themselves or their local community with food. During rainy seasons, the few trails turned into rivers of mud, and in the summer, clouds of dust choked horses and people alike. With the canal open, a journey that took fur traders three weeks in 1818, and took farmers days on muddy roads in the 1830s, took only 24 hours on a canal boat. Suddenly people, corn, wheat, stone, and other products poured into Chicago, and finished goods from the East Coast streamed into the West.
The I&M Canal was the last great American waterway built during the canal era. In the 1850s and 1860s, the nation increasingly shifted to rail transport and thousands of miles of railroad were built. Railroads had many advantages over canals: they could run all year long, while canals were closed during the winter when the water froze; they were faster and more flexible than canals; they could be built anywhere and could build spurs to existing industries. Despite these advantages, the I&M Canal remained profitable until 1866, and shipped a record tonnage in 1882. The canal could best compete with the railroads by shipping heavy bulk items, such as limestone, coal, and salt, and this competition kept railroad rates lower, giving Chicago an advantage over other Midwestern cities, like St. Louis.
After 1900, use of the canal declined dramatically. There was a brief resurgence during World War I, but after this, the canal fell into disrepair and was dubbed a "tadpole ditch." The opening of the Illinois Waterway in 1933 ended the shipping history of the canal, and saw the beginning of its transition to recreational use.
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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