A Corridor of History, from Chicago to LaSalle

By Selbert, Pamela | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), March 10, 2013 | Go to article overview

A Corridor of History, from Chicago to LaSalle


Selbert, Pamela, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Barges no longer ply the waters of the old Illinois and Michigan Canal; they haven't for nearly a century. So today, the venerable 96- mile ditch which stretches diagonally across Illinois from Lake Michigan at Chicago to the Illinois River at LaSalle is edged with thick stands of cattails. Where the cattails don't grow, the water is crusted lime green with duckweed though slanting rays of an early evening sun can lend it the appearance of shimmering mercury.

Now, a fine walking and biking trail has replaced a 61-mile span of the old towpath Rockdale to LaSalle where mules once slogged along pulling the canal boats. And the only sound, other than the rush of wind in the tall maples that shadow the water and the lusty chorus of insects, is the occasional lonely wail of a distant train whistle.

When the canal opened in 1848, it was a different story. The I&M known as the "canal that built Chicago" bustled with passenger traffic (during the canal's first 10 years alone the city grew by more than 600 percent). And other towns along the route, among them Lockport, Joliet, Seneca, Marseilles, Ottawa and LaSalle, grew and flourished.

In 1852 the Chicago and Alton Railroad was completed and quickly stole most of the canal's passengers. By rail you could travel from Chicago to LaSalle in six hours. By canal boat it took 24.

For the second half of the 19th century, then, the canal carried freight and eventually sewage and other waste out of Chicago (passengers could ride on the freight barges, but regular passenger service was no longer offered). For its last three decades until the Illinois Waterway opened in 1933 and the old I&M was decommissioned it was used only by pleasure boats and small steam barges. Mules last towed boats the canal's length in 1915, and today some stretches of it are as grassy as lawns.

Still, you can turn back the clock to the 19th century briefly and ride on a mule-drawn replica canal boat called "Volunteer," traveling as passengers did on this "Cadillac of a canal." The three- mile round trips begin at LaSalle, near the former west end of the canal, the only stretch of it still maintained (by the Army Corps of Engineers).

The 16-foot wide, 75-foot long Volunteer, an exact reproduction of earlier packets, was built in 2007. The 90-minute cruises are offered three times a day May through October.

The historic waterway, which was designated a National Heritage Corridor by Congress in 1984, is now owned and managed by the state of Illinois. Though not nearly as well known as the Erie Canal built just a few years earlier, the I&M shares a similar story. We wanted to learn more and thought a cruise on the packet boat would be a good start.

John Seamus Haley, interpreter on board the "Volunteer," is full of information about the canal, which he delivers in a lilting Irish brogue (we learned at the end of the trip that Haley is his "river name," borrowed from an Irish immigrant ancestor; he's really Dan Zorn of LaSalle).

Before the trip began, we met the two mules Larry, 20, and Moe, 30, teammates for the past 16 years who take turns towing the craft (two would provide too much power, Haley says). A goat named Curly keeps the mule-left-behind company for the duration.

Then as we rode gliding along the mirror-smooth water Haley talked about the I&M and answered questions. Here as elsewhere along the old canal, trees mostly block the modern landscape from view, providing a 19th century ambience. …

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