Welcome to the I&M Canal National Heritage Area

Discover the legacy of those who have traveled this passageway for centuries. Native Americans once canoed the rivers and walked trails that are roads today. Pioneers transformed tall grass prairies into farms and towns. In the 1830s, immigrant workers used picks and shovels to dig a canal that replaced the marshy rivers for travel and trade. More immigrants followed to work in the industries that grew along this water highway.


The I&M Canal – A Midwestern Revolution

The Illinois and Michigan Canal looks tiny by modern standards, but it forever changed the nation when it linked the Illinois River and Lake Michigan in 1848. Instantly, New York and New Orleans were connected, and Chicago’s future as a major city was secured.

In 1848, water, not rails or roads, was the primary means of transport, and the 96-mile canal enabled people and goods to travel from the Hudson River and Erie Canal to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Thanks to the canal, travel between Chicago and LaSalle took a single day – a journey that once took weeks by canoe and on foot, and days by wagon and stagecoach.

The canal meant that for the first time, Illinois families could receive furniture, clothing, and other finished goods from the East Coast, and sugar, molasses and oranges from the South. Grain, lumber, coal and stone from the Midwest could now be transported to eastern markets by the ton, not the wagonload.

Irish, Germans, Poles, Swedes, Italians and many others rushed to the canal passage. They plowed the tough prairie grasses and tilled the fertile soil. They processed tons of corn and wheat in canal-side grain elevators. In Chicago’s gigantic lumberyards, they loaded canal boats with enormous boards, and sent them west to build homes on the prairies.

Workers from across the globe mined coal, quarried stone and forged steel in canal-side blast furnaces. Some worked on the canal itself, as boat builders, captains, locktenders, toll collectors, and mule drivers.

The result of their efforts was the I&M Canal National Heritage Area, America’s first such designation. Created in 1984, it is not a national park managed by the federal government, but an affiliated unit of the National Park System. With this new status, the attention of federal, state and local governments, other organizations and groups became focused on the preservation, interpretation and economic survival of the Canal Corridor. The work of all of these partners is coordinated by the non-profit Canal Corridor Association.

This partnership model became so compelling to people around the country striving to preserve the unique background and culture of their regions that other National Heritage Areas were soon created. Today there are now 49 such areas throughout the continental United States, reshaping our nation’s public-private efforts to preserve and conserve historic, natural and cultural resources.

A water highway

From 1848 to 1900, the canal bustled with commerce. In the first years, thousands of people boarded crowded packet boats on their way to transact business in the canal towns, St. Louis and New Orleans, or settle the west. Later, when railroads replaced the canal for passengers, canal boats continued to transport thousands of tons of freight.

Canal towns, each with their own character

Nowhere was the canal’s effect more dramatic than Chicago. Its population skyrocketed, and it soon attracted railroads and became the nation’s busiest inland port. Other towns also boomed as the canal drew settlers and created markets. As you travel through these towns, admire the architecture, notice how the downtowns grew around the canal, and imagine the streets filled with farmers, merchants and canal boat captains.

In 1933, the canal was replaced by the Illinois Waterway – still used today for shipping from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. In the 1950s, the canal in Chicago was buried under the Stevenson Expressway, but outside the city, the canal towpath enjoys new life as a trail.

A vital link to the past

The canal’s importance to both the region’s and the nation’s history was first officially recognized in 1964 when it was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1975, after the State of Illinois created the I&M Canal State Trail along the original towpath, a coalition formed to look beyond those initial designations. Seeking to protect the canal’s remnants and highlight its enormous impact on the towns created as ports along the way and on the natural streams manipulated to provide its water, the coalition began its work.

Ronald Reagan signing