Illinois and Michigan Canal

State: Illinois

Lat/Long: 41.6667, -87.9833

Even before the founding of Chicago, people had been suggesting the construction of a canal between Lake Michigan and the Illinois River to connect the Great Lakes with the Gulf of Mexico. Using the Chicago, Calumet, and Des Plaines Rivers, early explorers were able to navigate from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River with only short portages, which were even shorter when the water level was high. Connecting the bodies of water permanently seemed like an easy task until much later, when qualified engineers surveyed the ground and realized that shallow bedrock and elevation differences would cause the project to be much more complex and expensive.

The U.S. Congress first approved the idea of the canal in 1822, granting to the state a 90-foot strip on either side of the proposed route. In 1823 the Illinois General Assembly first authorized the construction of the canal and appointed a Board of Commissioners to administer its financing, construction, and operation. This Board of Commissioners controlled the canal fund, which was composed of money from loans, premium payments on sales of stock, canal land sales, and revenue from the canal once it was in operation. Over the next decade, the state passed a succession of laws providing for the financing and construction of the canal, but progress was slow to start. Finding capital to support the endeavor proved difficult: canal commissioners sold lots in Chicago and Ottawa, hoping to generate funds through land sales, but the lots sold slowly. After a Congressional appropriation that improved the Chicago harbor in 1834, water traffic increased at Chicago and renewed interest in a canal connecting the city with the Mississippi River. Construction finally began in 1836 but progress remained slow due to the high cost of labor and materials. Much of the route lay through marshy ground in sparsely settled areas, which meant that material and laborers had to be transported on-site and housed. The Panic of 1837 slowed progress further, and in 1842 the state halted construction on the canal entirely.

In 1845, the state negotiated a new loan to complete construction on the canal, partially funded by a direct state tax. The Illinois and Michigan Canal eventually took $6.5 million dollars and twelve years to complete. It opened in 1848, spurring the development of the northern half of Illinois in the brief interval before the arrival of railroads. Although the canal carried some passenger traffic, it was primarily a commercial waterway, importing merchandise from the east coast and connecting agricultural producers in Illinois to markets in New Orleans and New York.

In 1853, Abraham Lincoln, as a lawyer, represented the canal company in its efforts to oppose a bill in the Illinois General Assembly, which would have diverted water from the Des Plaines River at Joliet and threatened the canal.

History of La Salle County, Illinois (Chicago: Inter-State, 1886), 431-36; "An Act to Provide for the Improvement of the Internal Navigation of this State," 14 February 1823, Laws Passed by the Third General Assembly of the State of Illinois (1823), 151-53; John H. Krenkel, Illinois Internal Improvements, 1818-1848 (Cedar Rapids, IA: Torch Press, 1958), 28-45, 110-124; Carter Goodrich, ed., Canals and American Economic Development (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 194-95, 198, 249; Robert P. Howard, Illinois: A History of the Prairie State (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1972), 194-96, 228-30, 238-41; J. W. Putnam, "An Economic History of the Illinois and Michigan Canal," in Journal of Political Economy 17 (May 1909): 272-95; An Act for the Construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal; Lincoln Represented Illinois & Michigan Canal before Legislature, Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis et al., eds., The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, 2d edition (Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 2009), http://www.lawpracticeofabrahamlincoln.org/Details.aspx?case=141731.