Illinois & Michigan Canal, Built 1836-1848; Closed 1933

Built during the latter part of the First Canal Era, this canal completed the link between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan, running 96 miles from the Chicago River to the Illinois River. The link opened up the Midwest’s agriculture, and later its industry, to the Atlantic Ocean via the Great Lakes. At first, towpaths paralleling the canal allowed horses to tow the long slender canal boats, first transporting passengers, then produce, coal, and iron. Then steam engines performed the work of the horses faster and more efficiently. The canal employed 15 locks; only one restored lock exists today, shown in this video. The elevation change from beginning to end was approximately 110 feet.

The Canal closed in 1930 with the completion of the Illinois Waterway after drainage projects financed by the federal government eliminated the swampy lands of northern Illinois which made the land impassible even by canal ways. The railroad brought faster and more efficient means of transportation of passengers, coal, timber, and other goods. Soon after the Civil War ended, railway transportation supplanted slower inland waterways in moving the nation’s commerce. Chicago quickly became the largest city in the Midwest, its major transportation hub, and a major center for the meat packing industry.

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