The I&M Canal had significant implications not only for Illinois, but for the entire nation. In 1827, the Federal Government gave the state of Illinois nearly 300,000 acres of prime farmland, the sale of which would finance construction of a canal. The I&M Canal shares with the Wabash Canal in neighboring Indiana the distinction of being the first American canal to receive a federal land grant toward its financing. This precedent is of great historical importance, as it later served as the model for the first federal land grant to support a railroad—the Illinois Central Railroad.
Map by Tom Willcockson, © Canal Corridor Association
During the years of the California Gold Rush (1848-1856), the population of California increased by 300,000 people. Many of the individuals migrating to California traveled part of their journey on the Illinois & Michigan Canal. In the midst of the California Gold Rush, a nationwide cholera epidemic erupted in 1849. The epidemic came to Chicago on the “John Drew,” an Illinois & Michigan Canal boat.
The canal story is also one with international implications. In 1845, with construction of the I&M Canal stalled due to the state of Illinois’s near bankruptcy, investors from New York, England, and France put up $1.6 million to complete the canal. The investors were not disappointed in their returns, and the I&M Canal is one of the few American canals to have more than paid for its construction and operation.