The Illinois and Michigan Canal, 1827–1911
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives


The use of local events to enhance the study of American history in the classroom has received considerable attention for the past several years. Teachers have recognized that their students often are not excited by traditional instruction in American history. Chief criticisms have been that textbook treatments consist of dry narratives of impersonal facts which have little relevance to students' immediate lives. And this has been the case despite the fact that one of the principal purposes of the discipline of history is to provide its students with a sense of continuity and perspective. The fifty document facsimiles provided in this teaching package are intended to provide direct glimpses of events surrounding the Illinois and Michigan Canal over the years 1827-1911. Each offers a picture of a particular circumstance at a particular time. And each picture asks provoking questions. All of the events described by these documents occurred in Illinois and should be of interest to those who now live there.

Subordinate objectives include teaching students how to read historical documents and exposing them to historical reasoning. Besides understanding the texts of documents, students should learn how to identify significant information. Such information will enable them to make specific statements about particular circumstances at particular times. By themselves such events may have little significance. By studying additional sources broader images can be produced and generalized statements can be made to explain isolated events. This process is designed to give meaning to historical interpretation and to broaden textbook narratives of consensus history.

State and local history offers an excellent opportunity to make the study of history in general more meaningful. A focus on a specific locality with which students associate will heighten their interest. It also offers them a sense of how their communities have evolved over time and thus gives historical perspective. But students of state and local history soon realize that the history of a locality cannot be treated as a separate entity because regional, national, and world events were of constant influence. It is hoped that this package will not only supplement the study of American history but also invigorate it. As well as providing information, primary source documents afford the opportunity to experience history on an emotive level because those documents were produced by the actual participants in history and describe events as those persons actually saw them at the time they occurred.


The primary objective of this teaching package is to introduce students to local history in a meaningful manner and thereby increase interest in history in general. Taken together, the fifty document reproductions offer a kaleidoscopic picture of the Illinois and Michigan Canal over 1827-1911. Individual documents describe very real historical occurrences, but each leaves unanswered questions which can be pursued by studying related documents in the packet, Illinois history in particular, and American history in general.

Use of Documents

The fifty documents in this packet were selected from the holdings of the Illinois State Archives. Most came from Record Group 491.000, Illinois and Michigan Canal. The canal's records largely were kept intact as they passed from canal commissioners to canal trustees (1845), back to canal commissioners (1871), to the Department of Public Works and Buildings (1917), to the Department of Purchases and Construction (1925), and back to the Department of Public Works and Buildings (1933). Four documents were taken from the Secretary of State's Index Division (Executive Section), Certificates of Purchase for State Land, Record Series 103.083. And one was selected from Governor Joseph Duncan's Correspondence, Record Series 101.006. Duncan was governor when canal construction began in 1836.

Because all of these documents concern the I and M Canal they all relate to one another at various levels. And because all of these documents are interrelated a student or combinations of students can produce syntheses. However, each document also stands alone as a statement of a particular circumstance in time. Research with additional sources, such as those found in the Selected Bibliography portion of this manual, often will help clarify a document and place it in perspective. In fact, most of the documents were intentionally selected because they create questions which cannot be answered from their internal content alone.

Exhibit A presents a map of the entire canal line. Exhibit B provides a plat of the City of Chicago showing blocks and lots as they originally were laid out. Both exhibits should be useful in explaining some of the contents of the various documents.

Any Illinois educational institution can obtain a complimentary hard copy edition of The Illinois and Michigan Canal, 1827-1911 teaching package by requesting the same on letterhead stationery. Please send requests: Illinois State Archives, Publications Unit, Margaret Cross Norton Building, Capitol Complex, Springfield, IL 62756.

Historical Background

Ancient Assyria, Egypt, and Rome all constructed elaborate but simply designed navigation canals built along single levels. China in the thirteenth century built the graduated Grand Canal with multiple heights. In Europe it is unclear as to whether the Dutch or the Italians first introduced locks when constructing canals. It has been established that in Italy two brothers Domenico of Viterbo designed a lock structure with gates at either end in 1481 and that Leonardo da Vinci in 1487 completed six locks which connected the canals of Milan. Led by Holland, France, Germany, Russia, and Sweden, sophisticated canal building became a European tradition which has lasted well into the twentieth century.

In this country over 1792-1796 the first canal was built with private funds around the South Hadley Falls on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. At first small scale private ventures were the norm. Then in 1817 the state-funded Erie Canal was begun. This massive undertaking was to connect Buffalo on Lake Erie with Albany on the Hudson River, a distance of 350 miles cutting across the length of New York State. With the Hudson flowing down to New York City and then out into the Atlantic Ocean, the possibilities were wondrous but the canal's estimated cost, some $7,000,000, was daunting. When the Erie was opened in 1825 it began collecting well over $1,000,000 in tolls annually and as a result the canal was soon paid for. Farmers were able to transport their goods from the hinterland to eastern population centers at a reasonable price. Consequently surplus agricultural products earned their growers cash money. The farmers in turn could afford to purchase manufactured goods produced in eastern U.S. and European cities and brought to inland markets by inexpensive canal transport.

The success of the Erie inspired publicly funded internal improvements elsewhere. In the Buckeye State the Ohio and Erie Canal, stretching from Portsmouth on the Ohio River in the south up to Cleveland on Lake Erie in the north, was opened to traffic in 1832. Over 1827-1834 the state of Pennsylvania connected Philadelphia on the Delaware River with Pittsburgh at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers at which point the Ohio River forms to the west. Although essentially a canal route, various portions of the system made use of other contrivances including a portage railroad largely propelled by stationary engines running over a thirty-seven mile section passing over the Allegheny Mountains.

In Illinois the possibility of connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and thus to the Gulf of Mexico by way of a canal joining the Chicago and Illinois Rivers had been articulated by the French explorer M. Louis Joliet as early as 1673 soon after his passage through the Chicago area. When Illinois had been admitted as a state in 1818 its border had been extended northward some sixty miles from the foot of Lake Michigan where the Northwest Ordinance earlier had prescribed it to be. This gave the new state the site of Chicago and a firm footing on the Great Lakes. At this time U.S. soldiers were stationed in Chicago at Fort Dearborn which had been reestablished in 1816 following the outpost's destruction in the War of 1812.

At the Illinois delegation's urging the U.S. Congress in 1822 authorized the state to construct a canal running from the mouth of the Chicago River to a point on the Illinois River. For this purpose the state was to receive the canal path itself and ninety feet of land extending out from each side of it where timber and other resources could be harvested. This grant of federal land was to be void if the route had not been surveyed in three years or if the contemplated canal had not been completed in twelve. In response the Illinois General Assembly approved an act appointing five canal commissioners to lay out the route and estimate costs. Civil engineers were hired to survey the pathway. Total construction costs were estimated to be $713,000. The state legislature then enacted a law which chartered a private corporation to undertake the project. Unable to raise the required capital, this entity surrendered its charter on January 12, 1826.

In 1827 at the behest of Daniel P. Cook, the lone Illinois delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives, Congress made a better offer. An act offered the state alternate sections of land extending five miles out from each side of the proposed canal. In all this amounted to some 284,000 acres of federal land. In Illinois the General Assembly passed an act in January of 1827 which provided for a board of canal commissioners who were to lay out the route, select the alternate sections donated, and commence land sales to raise the funds required to finance the undertaking. These measures were accomplished and public land sales were conducted in Springfield in April and in Chicago in September of 1830. Over 1830-1832 only $18,799 was raised from canal land sales while $14,704 was paid out for canal commissioner expenses. Clearly the project was floundering. As time passed proposals were put forward for a railroad connecting Lake Michigan and the Illinois River rather than a canal.

In England George Stephenson had built efficient locomotives for the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 and for the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1829. This pioneering engineering work largely was responsible for the English public's acceptance of the new steam powered transport. In the U.S. the South Carolina Railroad had first introduced American built steam locomotives for regular service in January of 1831. By 1833 this company had extended its line 136 miles from Charleston to Hamburg and for a short time it was the longest steam railroad in the world. But at the outset of U.S. railroad history short lines prevailed with various ones extending out from New York City, Boston, and Baltimore in the early 1830s.

Meanwhile the U.S. Congress on March 2, 1833 passed a law which allowed the state to use the lands the federal government had previously donated for canal purposes for either canal or railroad purposes, as the state legislature chose. After heated debate the General Assembly in 1835 determined to proceed with a state controlled canal to be financed by a $500,000 loan backed by the security of the federal land donation and anticipated tolls. Three new canal commissioners were appointed, among whom former Governor Edward Coles was made president. Coles found eastern U.S. and European capitalists unwilling to subscribe to the loan unless the state pledged its full credit in backing it. In a special session of the General Assembly an act to this effect was passed on January 9, 1836.

In ceremonies near Chicago the first ground of the I and M was broken on July 4, 1836. In the first year of construction poor weather and a lack of both manpower and equipment hampered progress. Most activity was devoted to building access roads, acquiring equipment, recruiting laborers, and putting up crude structures to house the work force.

Elsewhere in the state internal improvements were being promoted eagerly as well. The young nation was growing rapidly and improved transportation was viewed as the central means of attracting settlers and exploiting resources. If Illinois failed to implement improvements, many feared that the rest of the country would outpace it. The General Assembly of 1835-1836 chartered no fewer than sixteen railroad companies which promised to link virtually every significant settlement in the state. But by the end of 1836 almost all had failed to raise enough capital to begin construction. After much haggling in the state legislature "AN ACT to establish and maintain a General system of Internal Improvement" was approved on February 27, 1837. The state had committed itself to overseeing the construction and operation of 1,300 miles of railroads intersecting almost all of Illinois as well as the improvement of all of the larger rivers for navigation. This law pleased most because it was designed to connect every community of even modest size. Anticipated growth was counted on to make this plan workable. Bonds were to be issued on the state's credit to pay for this massive public works project which was to be carried out at the same time that the Illinois and Michigan Canal was being built.

The Panic of 1837 possibly was triggered by President Andrew Jackson's July 11, 1836 "Specie Circular" which required that all federal land purchased after August 15 be paid for in gold or silver. Jackson considered bank notes to be artificial contrivances designed to enrich those who issued them. This action sank land sales and sale prices and by the spring of 1837 the values of stocks and commodities had crashed as well. Worldwide credit had been overextended in a period of buoyant economic expectations and the resulting depression was hard-felt across the globe. Banks failed, factories closed, and unemployment surged. The panic took some time in reaching the robust West, of which Illinois was very much a part in 1837. But when it did make its way to this region the effects felt here were as severe as they were anywhere.

Canal construction continued into 1841 and other internal improvement projects progressed well into 1840 largely through creative financing. Funding mostly came from special bond sales at discounted rates. Finally the state issued scrip to contractors promising to pay face values plus interest whenever funds became available. By the end of 1841 almost all work had ceased as it became clear that the state was unable to meet its obligations. The problem was so severe that in 1842 the state treasury collected a total of $98,546 in taxes at a time when the interest charges on its debt amounted to nearly $800,000 for that year alone.

Illinois had defaulted on its interest payments on July 1, 1841 and subsequently the value of its bonds fell on the open market to fifteen cents on the dollar. Upon taking office in 1842 Governor Thomas Ford faced a state debt of $15,187,348. Although small by today's standards this sum was a tremendous burden to a frontier state of a little over a half million inhabitants at a time of severe economic depression. Ford was able to enact a modest property tax to fund interest payments due on the state's obligations. As to internal improvements, he dropped all but the canal. And for it he called for completion by way of a "shallow cut" plan which was estimated to cost $1,600,000, a figure nearly half of what the original projected "deep cut" would have required. The General Assembly agreed and passed enabling legislation on February 21, 1843. By this new plan the canal was to be governed by three trustees, one appointed by the state and a majority of two elected by subscribers to a $1,600,000 loan. The loan was fully subscribed to by American and European investors after an independent investigation pronounced the project sound and canal work resumed in late July 1845.

Throughout 1845 and 1846 construction was slowed by a shortage of labor and poor weather. And during the nearly four years of abandonment much of the completed work had fallen into disrepair. But by 1847 progress was rapid. The I and M was first opened to navigation on April 10, 1848 when the canal boat General Fry, towed by the propeller A. Rossiter, arrived in Chicago from Lockport amid much fanfare.

With La Salle and Chicago the canal's two terminuses the entire line covered ninety-six miles. Prominent towns along the way included Ottawa, Marseilles, Seneca, Morris, Channahon, Joliet, Lockport, and Lemont. As originally envisioned the I and M was to link the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and consequently southern and eastern U.S. markets. To some extent this was the case especially in the canal's earliest days when southern sugar was brought north to Chicago and then across the lakes and through the Erie Canal to the eastern U.S. seaboard. On the reverse route eastern manufactured goods reached Chicago and then many passed down the Illinois River into the Mississippi River and on down to southern markets. But a good many began to be offloaded at St. Louis from where they were shipped further west. At this same time Chicago itself was being transformed from a simple transshipper to a manufacturing center.

The Illinois River which connected the canal to the Mississippi never was a dependable avenue. Often for months on end portions of the Illinois from La Salle to Grafton were too shallow to permit navigation. And both the state and federal governments were reluctant to commit the funds required to make it otherwise.

When the I and M opened in April of 1848 Chicago had had no railroad, but by 1852 it had a connection to New York City, and by 1854 it was the railroad center of the West. The new railroad companies were private ventures with only some receiving government aid. With the railroad a direct threat to the I and M it came as a bitter irony in 1851 when the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad Company obtained a right-of-way along the canal line. Although the railroad originally was to have compensated the canal for the resulting loss of tolls on a quid pro quo basis a legal quirk negated that provision. This railway between Chicago on Lake Michigan and Rock Island on the Mississippi River became fully operational in the summer of 1854. Almost immediately passengers and small bulk goods shifted over to the railroad which was fast and cost effective. And unlike the canal, which froze over during the winter, the railroad operated year round.

In head to head competition the I and M concentrated on such bulk items as lumber, grain, coal, and stone. The canal and the railroad constantly changed their rates to undercut the other. The canal was able for awhile to lower tolls but increase revenue by raising the tonnage carried. As time progressed the I and M came to simply link the Illinois River valley and the Great Lakes basin. Points along that line were the system's principal places of exchange.

Toward the end of the Civil War Chicago began to address the pollution of its drinking water supply. The Chicago River was virtually stagnant and whenever hard rains fell its contents backed out into Lake Michigan where intake cribs had been built to siphon lake water for the city's use. Chicago contained 178,900 inhabitants in 1865 and their garbage and waste was dumped directly into the river which served as an open sewer. The proposed solution was to deepen the cut of the I and M so as to direct the river's flow south all the way to Lockport where the canal intersected with the Des Plaines River. Over the objections of downstate citizens who derived their drinking water from the Des Plaines and the upper Illinois Rivers, the General Assembly gave the city authority to proceed with a law approved in February of 1865. The project was constructed in stages, mostly during the winter months when the canal was closed to navigation. By the time work had been completed in 1871 Chicago had invested nearly $3,000,000 in this effort.

The year 1871 also was significant in the canal's history in that it was the point at which the I and M paid for itself. At the end of April the trustees issued their final report. It stated that except for $13,000 worth of bonds that had failed to be presented for payment, the entire debt had been liquidated. At the same time a cash balance of $95,742 was given over to the state. With the canal trustees dissolved, the governor subsequently appointed three commissioners to oversee the I and M. These commissioners had to be approved by a majority of the Illinois Senate. When the Great Fire of October 8 and 9, 1871 destroyed much of Chicago, the General Assembly responded on October 20 by making an emergency appropriation of $2,955,340 to the city as reimbursement for the canal's "deep cut."

By the early 1880s Chicago's health again was threatened by a contaminated water supply. The 1880 census counted 503,185 city residents. This expanded number was depositing a proportionate greater amount of waste into the Chicago River which in turn was polluting the lake. Even with the deeper cut the I and M was unable to handle the increase. The Chicago Sanitary District was created in 1889 and on September 3, 1892 it began construction of a mammoth twenty-eight mile Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal connecting the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers at Lockport. When this project was completed in January of 1900 the eastern portion of the I and M immediately became obsolete and soon thereafter it was closed to navigation permanently. From that point on canal traffic between Chicago and Joliet passed through the Sanitary and Ship Canal with the I and M maintaining land and water power lease concessions along this portion of its line but collecting no tolls. By the 1920s the canal line extending down from Bridgeport became a garbage dump.

During World War One the Joliet to La Salle part of the I and M was rejuvenated with federal dollars for then-perceived defense purposes. This was to be the last major outlay made to sustain the I and M as a working canal. The Illinois Waterway, connecting with the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal at Lockport and extending sixty miles down to Starved Rock State Park near Utica, opened in June of 1933. Official completion was observed on June 22 when a flotilla of Mississippi River barges arrived from New Orleans at Chicago. This achievement closed the entire length of the I and M to commercial traffic permanently. Soon thereafter the Civilian Conservation Corps of President Roosevelt's New Deal began restoring portions of the old I and M line in an attempt to make it over into a recreational and historical park. More recently this goal was bolstered when the U.S. Congress in 1984 designated the old canal route the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor.

Selected Bibliography

Illinois and Michigan Canal Commissioners' and Trustees' Reports to the General Assembly (Springfield: Illinois and Michigan Canal, 1846-1916), offer detailed accountings of activities and operations. Walter A. Howe of the Division of Waterways of the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings has compiled Documentary History of the Illinois and Michigan Canal: Legislation, Litigation and Titles (Springfield: Division of Waterways, 1956) "to report on problems which affect the proposed sale of Illinois and Michigan Canal lands." James William Putnam's The Illinois and Michigan Canal: A Study in Economic History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1918) studies its subject through 1915. John H. Krenkel's Illinois Internal Improvements, 1818-1848 (Cedar Rapids, Iowa: The Torch Press, 1958) makes a careful examination of statewide improvements up through the time of the canal's completion. Alfred T. Andreas's first two volumes of History of Chicago (Chicago: A.T. Andreas, 1884 and 1885) cover the canal's evolution from that city's perspective through 1884. Likewise Bessie Louise Pierce's first two volumes of A History of Chicago (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1937 and 1940) offer a similar but more scholarly treatment up through 1871. Theodore C. Pease's The Frontier State, 1818-1848 (Springfield: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1918) examines the canal through the time of its completion, mainly from a political standpoint. Finally Michael P. Conzen and Kay J. Carr have edited The Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor: A Guide to Its History and Sources (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1988).