The first link: How a canal spanned a continent and built Chicago

June 30, 2011

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(WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)
Canal Corridors Association has recreated a passenger canalboat, seen here at a lock leading to the Illinois River.
(WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)
This canal horn belonged to Jerry Adelman’s grandfather.
(WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)
Jerry Adelman is a scholar of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, seen here in Lockport near the historic canal headquarters.
(WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)
Sections of the Illinois and Michigan Canal still hold water, like this one in Morris.
(WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)
The replica canalboat is pulled by a mule, as the historic boats were. This mule, named Moe, nibbled on Spitzer’s microphone.
(WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)
A museum in Lockport displays this model of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in its heyday.

Back in 1900, engineers famously reversed the Chicago River, linking the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River. Almost everybody knows that. What you may not know is that Chicago actually first reversed the river 30 years earlier, diverting the water from the Lake to a canal. That first link between America’s two great waterways left an enduring mark on Chicago, and the country.

WBEZ’s Gabriel Spitzer has a profile of the canal, and a man dedicated to preserving its heritage.

Intro:

 

Our series Front and Center has been bringing you in-depth reporting on issues affecting the Great Lakes.

 

Back in 1900, engineers famously reversed the Chicago River, linking the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River.

 

Almost everybody knows that.

 

What you may not know is that Chicago actually first reversed the river 30 years earlier, diverting the water from the Lake to a canal.

 

That first link between America’s two great waterways left an enduring mark on Chicago, and the country.

 

WBEZ’s Gabriel Spitzer has a profile of the canal, and a man dedicated to preserving its heritage.

 

 

(ambi up)

 

Here in Lockport, the Illinois-and-Michigan Canal is pretty humble.

 

It’s about the width of a two-lane road – basically a drainage ditch. 

 

Lockport up to here 3s

The canal would have come up right to here …. (fade under)

 

Jerry Adelman stands on a footbridge above its sluggish water.

 

He’s president of the conservation group Openlands, and a historian of the canal.

 

Or really, historian isn’t the right word: the man is a canal encyclopedia.

 

He spearheaded creation of the canal’s National Heritage Corridor … he owns a home built by the canal’s chief contractor.

 

(Little Adelman monologue up in clear for 2s, then back under)

 

It’s kind of hard to see what there is to get so excited about.

 

But this largely forgotten waterway was once the linchpin of a network that spanned the continent, and set the stage for Chicago’s rise.

 

Adelman says the idea dates back to the first European settlers.

 

Lockport early settlers 14s

They recognized that the waters of the great Lakes and the Mississippi were very close to each other, and if you could dig a canal to connect those drainages then you could have continuous water travel possible from the Atlantic seaboard to the Gulf of Mexico.

 

By 1848, the hand-dug channel stretched west from Bridgeport for 96 miles.

 

A couple decades later they dredged it deeper, effectively reversing the Chicago River for the first time.

 

Lockport effluent 8s

The problem though was that the volume of sewage and waste was so great that it would clog up and still back up into the Lake.

 

His connection to the canal goes back generations.

 

The museum here in Lockport contains his family’s memorabilia.

 

Lockport horn 10s

Here’s the only canal horn that we know of, it was my grandfather’s. When you approached the locks, you would blow the horn to alert the locktender that you were coming.

 

His roots here date back to when Chicago was nothing more than a handful of buildings and an army fort on the river.

 

He says Chicago’s transformation into the leading Midwestern city is tied directly to this waterway.

 

The city itself was mapped by the canal commissioners … its legacy written in every right-angled intersection.

 

And the canal opened up rich farmland in central Illinois, making it the nation’s breadbasket.

 

Ottawa grain 21s

The year the canal opened, the Board of Trade opened in Chicago. Also, the first grain elevators in the world were established. So really, everything from that skyscraper on LaSalle Street to the right-angled grid of Chicago to the silos on Illinois farms all date their origins to the Illinois-and-Michigan Canal. That’s largely true.

 

And the influence goes even deeper.

 

If not for this canal, Chicago might be in Wisconsin.

 

No joke: the original boundary line between the states ran south of the city.

 

But to keep the canal all in one state, Congress nudged the border north, placing Chicago comfortably within the Prairie State.

 

(ambi car passing)

 

LaSalle intro 5s

So we’re in downtown LaSalle, and this is the terminus of the Illinois-Michigan Canal.

 

Jerry Adelman is standing next to the canal visitors center.

 

Down below tourists can ride aboard a recreated passenger canalboat.

 

Those original canalboats had a short reign.

 

The canal was quickly eclipsed in the popular imagination by trains and covered wagons.

 

But Adelman says this was a brief but crucial chapter for the American heartland.

 

LaSalle character 18s

When we think of going west we think of wagon trains, and so forth, all of which is true. But the rivers were our original arteries. It’s the canal that really gave shape and character to this whole central part of the United States, and really positioned Chicago at its terminus to become this great metropolis.

 

The Illinois-and-Michigan Canal is fragmented now.

 

Much of it is dry, forming a sloppy dotted line from the South Side to Starved Rock.

 

But modern Chicago still bears the signature of that first link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.

 

For Front and Center, I’m Gabriel Spitzer.