The Quest To Restore The Canal
Honoring the Ottawa Canal Association and City of Ottawa
Remember playing in the water as kids? From puddles on sidewalks to water rushing in the nearest creek, it seems children love to play in water. As a child, Ottawa’s former Mayor Bob Eschbach was one of them.
He said, “My dad said he had boated in a section of the Illinois and Michigan (I&M) Canal on the west side of town when he was a child. When I was a kid, there wasn’t much water in it, so I would hike the canal and play along the towpath.”
Memories from those days kindled his interest in rewatering the section of the I&M Canal that runs through Ottawa.
“With the city’s significant history, after the canal was closed, it seemed a shame to have a dry ditch for about 80 years or so, and call it a canal,” he said. “It didn’t seem right. It seemed, instead of cutting grass there, it could be appreciated and enjoyed by the community if it had water again.”
He learned others also wanted to refill Ottawa’s section of that narrow 96 mile long ribbon of water that had connected Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. When he ran for office he made it part of his official platform. In 1999 when he became mayor he included the idea as a goal in his first State of the City speech.
Eschbach said that he stated, “You know a canal without water is like a ham sandwich without the ham.” He added, he has been ribbed about that statement since.
A year later, rewatering the canal became part of Ottawa’s first comprehensive plan.
Then in 2008, a group created the Ottawa Canal Association (OCA), a 501 (c)(3) independent not-for-profit organization to preserve, restore and protect the canal, said Arnie Bandstra, Assistant City Engineer at the time and current OCA president.
“The first thing we did was open the Ottawa toll house, which we refurnished in period style,” Bandstra said. “It is the only toll house still in existence along the canal and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had restored it.”
The canal itself, was a little more tricky. Bandstra worked with a construction engineer who donated his time, developed a plan and got permission from the DNR, which owns the property, to get a permit to do the work. “Then we raised about eight hundred thousand dollars in conjunction with the city toward the cost,” he said.
“It took a long time, because there are so many agencies that needed to be part of it,” Eschbach said.
It was about 12 years when in April 2021, under Ottawa Mayor Dan Aussem, water again flowed in the canal for close to eight blocks through the city. Creating a haven for water play, the toll house divided the length almost equally, Eschbach said.
Then June 27, 2021, Bandstra paddled his kayak past the toll house and cut a red ribbon strung across the canal for the dedication ceremony.
“The community was excited!” Eschbach declared. “For about two months we had kids out there wading and adults in kayaks and canoes. We had a woman on a paddle board. There was even a young kid about eight years old playing with a motorized boat who said, “This canal is glorious!”
“Then, after all that work, a leak was found and the water had to be drained,” he said.
But current Ottawa City Engineer Tom Duttlinger said it is looking good now and expects work to be completed and water back in the canal by mid to late summer 2022.
Although Eschbach and Bandstra were no longer in office by the time the canal was rewatered, they both said they felt privileged to have been a part of the project and were amazed and inspired by the many volunteers that have helped throughout the years.
“It’s a wonderful asset and I think those who experienced that brief period when it had water really appreciated it,” Eschbach said. “It will soon be a place to unwind, recreate and enjoy, in summer for the water and in winter for ice skating.”
“I think once the water is back in we will have accomplished what we were trying to do,” he said.
The Ottawa Canal Association and the City of Ottawa are being honored for their tenacity in working to get the downtown section of the I&M Canal restored with water and open for recreation,” said Ana B. Koval, President CEO of the Canal Corridor Association.
By Nancy Uznanski