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.