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Illinois and Michigan Canal
(State of Illinois, U.S.A.)
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Canal History
Recent Updates
General Info
Pictures from the Canal
Canal Maps
Canal Access
Trip Reports
Water Quality Report
Fish Information


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Canal History

The I&M Canal. It's hard to imagine when you stand next to the little waterway what it has meant to Chicago. Sixty feet wide and seven feet deep in its heyday, the canal was one of the few American canals to earn a profit, carrying goods from the interior of the country to Chicago Harbor, and bringing goods back to the Midwest. Many canals were dug in the 1800's to transport bulk items, but they were also built for another reason; to pressure the railroads into lowering freight rates. The I&M did both.

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We all know that in 1673 Marquette and Jolliet traveled the portage. All of Jolliet's notes were lost as he was returning from the exploratory trip when he ran the rapids and swamped his canoe within sight of the end of his journey. Marquette stayed behind at St Ignace, however, and his notes made it back to the world in 1674. Marquette wrote that connecting Lake Michigan to the Illinois River (and thus, the Mississippi) would require digging a canal of "but half a league" (a league was roughly 3 miles). This statement caused much debate in the 1800's between historians. The Chicago Portage was much longer than half a league, even during very wet times, whereas the Calumet Portage was just about that length during normal weather. Many historians have debated which portage Marquette and Jolliet used, but they all agree on one thing, the portage was here in the Chicago area (Early maps show the portage river at the base of Lake Michigan, which is the location of the Calumet).

[I&M Mouth Map]


(Map of junction of South Branch and I&M. The area shown as Levee, Post and Water street would later become the current turning basin)

It would be over 150 years until work actually started on the canal, but the idea was not forgotten. In fact, the idea of a canal connecting the Atlantic to the Mississippi is the main reason that Chicago is not a city in southern Wisconsin.

The 1787 Northwest Ordinance set Illinois' northern border level with Ohio and Indiana, but bickering between other states building canals quickly led the government to change Illinois' border to make certain it would include all of the canal. In 1818, the Illinois Territory became a state. On January 17th, 1825, the I&M Canal Corporation was formed by the Illinois State Legislature.

There were many arguments over where to build the canal. Many in Washington wanted the canal built across the Calumet Sag, a shorter, easier route than the route chosen (History has shown that this is the preferred route even to this day). Gurdon Hubbard's autobiography points out that in an heated exchange in Washington, our State Representative (Mr Hubbard) pointed out to the other representatives there, that "wherever the canal was built, a great city would rise. If it was built at the Calumet, within but a few 100 yards from the Indiana border, that Indiana, as much as Illinois would benefit from the canal, but that Illinois would have to pay the entire bill to build it." Hubbard's argument won over the other representatives and when Canal Commissioner Colonel William B. Archer dug the first shovel of dirt on July 4th, 1836, that shovelful was in Chicago. (Archer Avenue, the road that traces the canals route, is named in the Colonel's honor.)

Construction of the canal occasionally stopped due to cash flow problems. After the digging had commenced and the money was running low, head canal engineer, William Gooding, discovered he didn't have enough money left to dig over a ridge of rock near summit. Digging through the rock was not feasible at the time, so the original plan for a totally gravity-fed canal were scrapped. This required a few modifications, including Lock 0 and a pumping station at Lock Street in Chicago to raise the barges above the ridge, and the addition of the Calumet Feeder canal to keep proper flow in the I&M canal. The canal opened in 1848 without the feeder and had many problems related to water level until the feeder was completed in 1851.

When the canal opened in April of 1848, it quickly drew some trade away from St. Louis to Chicago. Canal towns sprung up along the canal as it was being built and quickly afterwards. Towns named Rome, Athens, Romeo, Joliet, surged in population. In 1850, Athens (home of a canal rest stop called Cap Saugers Landing) changed its name to Lemont and soon after, Rome changed its name to Romeoville. Romeo and Joliet still exist, however, Romeo is basically an industrial area with most of the residents living in Romeoville.

While the canal helped make Chicago a much larger city, St. Louis was still the undisputed capitol of the midwest. Riverboats steamed up and down the Mississippi using St. Louis as port. But Chicago was the city in the right place at the right time. The Civil War broke out and the Union blockaded the south. Ships could no longer drop off goods to be sent to St Louis and St. Louis, because of its location and the width of the Mississippi at that point, didn't have many rail terminals. The end result was that Chicago became THE city of the midwest. In 1900, we would degrade St. Louis one step further by opening the Ship and Sanitary Canal and thus sending all our sewage their way.

The canal also was considered as a military asset. The treaty of Ghent limited the number of warships that the U.S. and England could have on the great lakes. Also, during the Civil War an incident known as the Trent Affair occurred. During the Trent Affair, with war with Great Britain looming, there was a need to move larger gunboats via protected waters (Monitors don't handle open seas well, in fact, the original Monitor floundered in stormy seas off the North Carolina coast, and is today a National Dive Park), and there was concerned that Britain might interfere with ships if they were sent via the oceans. Engineers scrambled to develop proposals for moving gunboats using buoys to add additional lift to get them through the shallow locks to counter the British should war have broken out. This would later help get congress to allocate funds for the "deep cut" of the canal (which helped eliminate Lock 0).

The Chicago River had become an open sewer and each time heavy rains pushed its water into Lake Michigan, there were outbreaks of cholera among the residents. Chicago needed the canal deepened to handle the sewage. Even though the threat of war with Britain was over, the federal government still wanted the canal deeper, so they would be able to move larger warships. This helped Chicago gain access to funding they might not have received. The deep cut project was completed in 1871. On April 30th, 1871, the canal was turned over to the state, debt free. (All the bonds that had been sold had been paid by tolls collected and there was $95,742.41 in the canal bank account.)

How important was a canal? As late as 1917, Indiana was still attempting to build its own canal, using the Kankakee River. Thousands of tons still travel the Ship and Sanitary Canal today.

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Updates

7/96 Heavy rain puts more than 16 inches of rain in the far northwest burbs. This water, rushes down the DuPage River, washing out the right side of the DuPage River dam in Channahon, draining the canal and the slackpool above the dam. (Exact date was thursday, 7/17 as I was camping with my scout troop that day and we got MUCH rain too.)

5/98 After 2 years of work, the canal reopens. Many volunteers worked on the canal during that time period (my scout troop included). Scout groups interested in earning the National Historic Trails award should know that the I&M Canal trail is on the approved list as the Shabbona Trail.

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General Info

When you think of the I&M Canal, think of slow moving brown water. An excellent place for canoe-camping trips, there are state parks at both ends of the canoeable portion and several rustic campsites along the canal in between (these sites have no water or toilet access). Between McKinley Access and Dresden Access, are the Kankakee bluffs. These bluffs overlook the confluence (Indian word for the place where the waters meet) of the Des Plaines, Kankakee and Illinois Rivers. The bluffs are called the Kankakee Bluffs because that is the direction in which they point and are most noticeable. Another neat feature of the canal are the Aqueducts. The Aqueducts carry the canal water over another stream. At Aux Sable and Gebhardt Woods, you can paddle across the Aqueducts. Farther down the canal, you can still bike over the Little Vermilion and Fox Rivers, even though the aqueducts there no longer carry water. If you start your trip at Channahon's Bridge Street Access area, you'll have one portage between there and Gebhardt Woods. Portage the Aux Sable Lock (located right after the aqueduct) on canal left (you'll see a sluice gate on canal right). Do not run over a lock or dam wall!

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Canal Access

Hand carry boat access at:

Other:

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Canal Pictures

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(The Lock at Channahon, taken before the 96 flood)
[dry150.jpg]
(How the canal looked dry, taken 9/96 at Gebhardt Woods)
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(How the canal looked on 5/10/98)
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(Sluice gates open for filling, 5/10/98)
[imup200.jpg]
(Green algae covered waters between Utica and LaSalle Illinois, 9/13/98)

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Canal Maps

[ime200.gif]
(Channahon to Seneca, 180k)
[imw200.gif]
(Seneca to Peru, 221k)

Boating information:

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Fish Information

Fish in the canal include:

Fish in the Gebhard Woods ponds include:
This pond is stocked with Trout and Trout fishing opens at Sunrise on April 6th.

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Reports

I paddled a six-mile section of the I&M Canal during Columbus Day weekend 1998. After picking up maps and such from the IDNR kiosk, we put in at Bridge Street in Channahon and paddled west to McKinley Woods. There is a sign at Channahon indicating the mileage to the next few access points on the canal. It took about an hour to paddle the 3 miles to McKinley at a leisurely pace. A fair number of people were walking/biking on the towpath trail that runs on the south side of the canal. On the canal itself, though, we passed only a few canoes and one other kayak. The takeout at McKinley is marked only by a small sign on a footbridge over the canal. The takeout is located on the north side of the canal; there is a small pier. If you pass the footbridge, you have gone too far. After a short break, we paddled on to the Dresden access, which is another 3 miles. However, this paddle takes longer. The bluffs on the north side of the canal were spectacular (the fall colors were just beginning to show). While most of the canal is clear, a few parts of it were choked with cattails, and it was a pain to paddle around them. By the time we reached the takeout at Dresden, the deck of my kayak was covered with various pieces of cattail and other aquatic plants. According to the IDNR map, the entire 15 miles of canal from Channahon and Gebhard Woods can be paddled, although we ended our paddle at Dresden.

However, we drove to Gebhard Woods to check it out. We made a few casts in the ponds, but the canal (which is actually very well hidden from the parking lot- it's up on an embankment there) was completely covered with various pondweeds. The only indication that there was water in there was that there were ripples when rocks were thrown in. A short distance east of the parking on the canal is the Nettle Creek Aqueduct, which is worth a look. Here, the canal actually flows over Nettle Creek. It's essentially a bridge over the creek, except that instead of supporting a road, the bridge supports the canal. Apparently there are several of these aqueducts along the length of the canal, but this is the only one I have seen.

grashopr1@aol.com

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Sluice gates open for filling (5/10/98)

As of 5/10/98, The canal seems to have between 1 to 3 feet of water in it just about everywhere it used to. Channahon, Aux Sable, Gebhardt Woods. The sandy beach near Bridge Street in Channahon has two large piles of sand on it apparently awaiting an IDNR crew to lay out the canoe landing area. I've been told the canal will be restocked with fish this fall.

jwn@ripco.com


The I&M Canal Fishing

Gebbhard Woods is one of my favorite places to fish. I like to go there with my wife, I set her up with a dough bait rig for carp in the first pond, and then take hikes along the canal casting for bass. There are some beauties in there (though I never seem to get them - you can see them cruising with polaroids). I have my best luck with unweighted berkley power bait six inch worms flipped in on four pound line. You must approach quietly to keep from spoking the fish. Small rapalas worked slowly on the surface can also be productive.

John Pyskaty


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Water Quality

Chicago River Water Quality Information (Illinois EPA)


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