Illinois and Michigan Canal

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The location and course of the Illinois and Michigan Canal.

The Illinois and Michigan Canal ran 97 miles (155 km) from the Bridgeport neighborhood in Chicago on the Chicago River to Peru, Illinois on the Illinois River. It was finished in 1848 and allowed boat transportation from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The canal helped establish Chicago as the transportation hub of the United States, opening before railroads were laid in the area.

Construction on the canal began in 1836, although it was stopped for several years due to an Illinois state fiscal crisis. The Canal Commission had a grant of 284,000 acres (1,149 km²) of federal land which it sold at $1.25 per acre (309 $/km²) to finance the construction. Still, money had to be borrowed from eastern U.S. and British investors to finish the canal.

Most of the canal work was done by Irish immigrants who previously worked on the Erie Canal. The work was considered dangerous and in 1838 alone nearly 1,000 immigrant workers died during the work. The Irish immigrants who toiled to build the canal were often derided as a sub-class and were treated very poorly by other citizens of the city. The canal was finished in 1848, having cost a total of $6,170,226. Pumps were used to draw water to fill the canal near Chicago, soon supplemented by Sonet Creek through the Calumet Feeder Canal and the DuPage River supplied water further south. In 1865 the canal was deepened to speed up the current and to improve sewage disposal.

The canal was 60 feet (20 m) wide and six feet (2 m) deep, with paths constructed along each edge to permit mules to be harnessed to tow barges along the canal. Towns were planned out along the path of the canal spaced at intervals corresponding to the length that the mules could haul the barges. It had fifteen locks and one aqueduct to cover the 140 foot (45 m) height difference between the Illinois and Chicago Rivers. From 1848 to 1854 the canal was a popular passenger route but this ended with the opening of a railroad in 1854 that ran parallel to the canal. The canal had its peak shipping year in 1882 and remained in use until after World War I. It was replaced by the larger Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1900 which remains in use. The canal ceased all operation in 1933.

In 1871, the direction of part of the Chicago River was reversed by the Army Corps of Engineers with the result that the river and much of Chicago's sewage flowed into the canal instead of into Lake Michigan. The complete reversal of the river's flow was accomplished when the Sanitary and Ship Canal was opened in 1900.

Today much of the canal is a long, thin park with canoeing and a 61 mile (100 km) hiking and biking trail (constructed on the alignment of the mule tow paths). It also includes museums and historical canal buildings. It was designated the first National Heritage Corridor by US Congress in 1984.

From East to West the towns along the path of the canal include:

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