Caring For The I&M Canal
Why Honoree Dan Bell Is Someone You Should Know!
One summer in the 1990’s, my husband and I stood in shade at the edge of the water along a portion of the I&M Canal. Trees and unkempt grasses beside visible remnants of a rugged foot path made me wonder if mule tenders walked in shade at least part of their workday, along that 96 mile towpath.
To the west, the deep growl of an engine startled me. When I turned, I saw a midsize yellow dredger sitting in the middle of the canal bed. I also saw how shallow the water was. It couldn’t have been more than six inches above the base of the machine’s track.
A few years later, as interest developed up and down the canal, the water was deeper and the path easy to follow. Long stretches for the full length of the canal were revitalized, covered in crushed stone and groomed for easy walking, running and bicycle riding.
Offering active fun and easy access; beautiful vistas, curious structures, camping, sporting adventures, parks and lovely towns became pleasant stopping points for the curious.
In contrast, although much has been made smooth, “For the most part, the trail is not paved and is a difficult piece of the world to maintain,” said Ana B. Koval, President/CEO of the Canal Corridor Association.
“Some communities need to use the canal for flood control. Storms take out structures and parts of the path. And budgets and staff get cut. Yet, Dan Bell, Superintendent of the I&M Canal State Trail, keeps it going.” Koval said.
“Through thick and thin he still does his best to keep everything open to the public and protect the canal. He is really dedicated!” she added.
How did he develop his strong interest?
“I have a long history with the canal,” Bell said. “My family, from my grandparents on, grew up along the canal in Morris. We lived and farmed near it.”
In college he earned a Bachelor of Science in history. While in school, during the summers of 1985 and ’86, he worked as a conservation worker at Gebhard Woods State Park in Morris.
“After college, in June of 1988, I was hired full time as Historic Lead Worker for the I&M Canal,” Bell said. “In 1992, I became Assistant Superintendent of the I&M Canal State Trail, then I became Superintendent on July 1st of 1993. I’ve just started my 29th year as Superintendent now, and my 34th year with the park.”
As superintendent, Bell is in charge of the day to day planning, restoration, building and maintenance of 62 liner miles of the canal corridor from Channahon to its juncture with the Illinois River in LaSalle.
He is also responsible for other parks including Channahon State Park in Channahon – the official trailhead for the Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail, William G. Stratton State Park in Morris and its boat access to the Illinois River, Gebhard Woods State Park in Morris, and Buffalo Rock State Park in Ottawa, he said.
In addition, Bell works with communities, non-profit groups, volunteers and large corporations up and down the full 96 mile length of the canal, as well as state and other agencies with which he needs to coordinate.
“We’re very open to cooperative agreements with various entities,” he said.
Noting that he has a dedicated staff, he said they work hard and he is proud of the many projects they accomplish each year.
They still constantly repair, replace, and restore sections of the historic trail, locks, bridges, bays and other canal features. Plus, even with his current small staff, they groom the trail and clean-up after storms as best they can, and provide restrooms, picnic and camping areas.
“We also just finished some dredging maintenance between Utica and La Salle,” Bell said. “We worked with Ottawa in their water reintroduction project as they restored and refilled their portion of the canal. And currently we are putting in a fourth bay and raising a saddle dam in the DuPage River spillway near Channahon.”
“He is one those people who make things happen and who are usually unnoticed by the rest of us, because they work behind the scenes,” Koval said. “He has gone above and beyond what anyone would expect.”
By Nancy Uznanski