The Illinois and Michigan Canal

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The Illinois and Michigan Canal

The Illinois and Michigan Canal is a mystery to many people. The canal, also known as the I and M Canal, structured the economy for Chicago, and many other cities during the 19th century. The canal also brought about more efficient ways of transportation and shipping. The canal stretching a full 96 miles linked Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, creating a continuous waterway stretching from New York to the Gulf of Mexico. Also the canal changed sanitation for Chicago making it a better city, but turning the canal into a dump.

In Illinois the possibility of connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and thus to the Gulf of Mexico by way of a canal joining the Chicago and Illinois Rivers had been  thought of by the French explorer M. Louis Joliet as early as 1673 soon after his passage through the Chicago area. When Illinois was admitted as a state in 1818 its border had been extended northward some sixty miles from the foot of Lake Michigan where the Northwest Ordinance earlier had prescribed it to be. This gave the new state the site of Chicago and a firm footing on the Great Lakes.

At the Illinois delegation’s urging the U.S. Congress in 1822 authorized the state to construct a canal running from the mouth of the Chicago River to a point on the Illinois River. The Illinois General Assembly approved an act appointing five canal commissioners to lay out the route and estimate costs. Civil engineers were hired to survey the pathway. Total construction costs were estimated to be $713,000. The state legislature then passed a law which had a private corporation to undertake the project. Unable to get the Assembly’s approval this entity surrendered its charter on January 12, 1826. After a while it was clear the project was floundering and proposals were put forward for a railroad connecting Lake Michigan and the Illinois River rather than a canal.  

The U.S. Congress on March 2, 1833 then passed a law which allowed the state to use the lands the federal government had previously donated for canal purposes for either canal or railroad purposes, as the state legislature chose. After a debate the General Assembly in 1835 determined to proceed with a state controlled canal to be financed by a $500,000 loan backed by the security of the federal land donation and anticipated tolls. Three new canal commissioners were appointed. In a special session of the General Assembly an act to this effect was passed on January 9, 1836.

In ceremonies near Chicago the first ground of the I and M was broken on July 4, 1836. In the first year of construction poor weather and a lack of labor and equipment slowed progress. Most activity was devoted to building access roads, acquiring equipment, getting laborers, and putting up structures to house the work force.

Most of the work on the I and M canal was done by hand during 1837 and 1848. While canal workers included Native Americans, African Americans, Germans, English, and French Canadians, but most were Irish immigrants. Hundreds of Irish immigrated to America because of the huge potato famine in Ireland. They journeyed to the region for the hard, vigorous, low-wage work. Their poverty, foreignness, and catholic religion isolated them and it made it hard for them to find jobs. Today, there are many Irish residents in Chicago because of all the Irish immigrants who were canal workers in the 1830s to 1850s.

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Meantime state internal improvements were being promoted eagerly as well. The General Assembly of 1835-1836 chartered no fewer than sixteen railroad companies which promised to link virtually every significant settlement in the state. But by the end of 1836 almost all had failed to raise enough money to begin construction. After much haggling in the state legislature "An act to establish and maintain a General system of Internal Improvement" was approved on February 27, 1837. The state had committed to overseeing the construction and operation of 1,300 miles of railroads intersecting almost all of Illinois as well as the improvement ...

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