During the brief heyday of the I&M Canal packet boat, from 1848 to 1852, thousands of people rode the canal between Chicago and LaSalle. Often their canal sojourn was just one part of a larger trip. Easterners on their way to California gold fields, farmers looking forward to the opportunities presented by the vast prairies of the Great Plains, and businessmen heading to St. Louis and New Orleans all took advantage of the new transportation corridor known as the I&M Canal.
To Americans of the fast-paced 21st century, packets seem to have moved at a snail’s pace, but in the 1840s and early 1850s they offered the best and fastest transportation in undeveloped territory. While conditions on board were at times far from ideal, the canal packet was a decided improvement compared to the stagecoach, which jarred and jolted passengers over rutted roads and through muddy swamps.
A sojourn on a canal packet had a certain inglorious aspect. The eastern canal terminus, at Bridgeport, was four miles from downtown Chicago, so the packets and other boats were towed to the mouth of the Chicago River at Lake Michigan by steam tugs. One tug was described as a nondescript, “asthmatic” little boat, “a cross between a hippopotamus and a propeller, with a little ‘dash in’ of the wind mill.” The two engines generated a deafening noise, but they struggled in vain to keep the boat from rolling “like a broken winged duck.” The tugs gave the narrow river “a lively appearance” as they threaded their way through lake schooners and other canal boats on the 25 minute trip.
Few packet boat passengers chose to willingly spend extra time in Bridgeport. In 1848 Bridgeport was a thriving commercial village, home to hundreds of former canal diggers. The working class origins of the neighborhood are captured by the following quote: “There were saloons, boardinghouses, grocery stores and stables, and they took care of the wants of brawny men, teamsters, barge men, tug boat crews and freight handlers.” This noisy brawling village, full of transients of a rough and tumble disposition, contained the three story Canal House inn, as well as stables to accommodate up to 400 mules and horses. Boats left Bridgeport at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.
From Bridgeport the team of three horses walked down the towpath, laboring to pull the heavy boat. One early trip reflected some of the difficulties inherent to travel on the “raging canal,” a voyage that took anywhere from 17-24 hours. Cabins were quite small, about 50 feet long, 9 feet wide and 7 feet high. Despite having as many as 120 people crowded into this cramped small cabin, conditions during the day were often quite pleasant.
Atop the cabin the baggage and steamer trunks were secured and covered with canvass, and sun worshippers and others chose to sit above, keeping an eye out for low bridges. Others stayed in the cabin, passing the time in a variety of ways. Some read the latest newspapers from St. Louis or Chicago; others composed letters, wrote in diaries or drew. For entertainment you could play cards or backgammon, and the lively sound of music was often heard on board, as some boats were equipped with piano. Troubadours strummed their guitars and led group sings. Laughing! Children scampered about willy-nilly. The grown ups conducted many a lively discussion on a variety of subjects, especially politics and religion, leading no doubt to some heated exchanges.
As one canal historian put it, “On a canal boat everybody was continually in the company of almost everybody else.” Every cough, sneeze and snore was audible to all. “The innocuous routine of life on board suited people of calm and adjustable temperament, but vexed those who preferred more animation, less enforced togetherness. . . On deck at night an imaginative traveler could en! joy the quiet charm of darkness twinkling with fireflies, the bow lantern casting a yellow glow ahead, the clop of hooves on the towpath, the soft swish of the towline dipping in the water, the muted songs, gay and plaintive, of the lonesome steersman.”
Every square inch of the packet was put to use, it was a miniature craft but scrupulously clean. People commented on the neatness and comfort of the packets, leading one observer to conclude that a “can be very well endured.” As night fell the passengers had to stand around while shelves were put up for their sleeping accommodation. A double tier of hammocks three deep were fashioned from the shelves and people drew their bunk assignments based on their ticket number, although strangers were often given first choice. One English traveler noted that this courtesy had been extended to him, but he complained that “the selection was difficult indeed, where all appeared equally uncomfortable.”
We tend to forget how things smelled “in the good old days,” especially in confined spaces like canal packet boats. Men smoked cigars and cigarettes; the privy was a seat with a hole in it and a bucket beneath. People didn’t wear deodorant and bathed infrequently, making body odor a serious issue. The stench emanating from the cabin was palpable, and no wonders that many awoke with a headache or worse.
Adults snored, babies cried, mosquitoes and flies bit, and the boat rocked back and forth going through locks. Windows had to stay closed, for fear of bad air that could cause malaria and other diseases. There was no private place to wash up in the morning, with only a single bucket and a comb attached to a string for all to use. (Throughout much of the 19th century the ritual of getting washed up, dressed, and ready to face the world, was referred to as performing ones toilet.)
Clearly, the sleeping arrangements aboard packets left a great deal to be desired. Women seemed to dislike packet travel more than men. Sarah Norris took a trip from LaSalle to Chicago that took 22 and a half hours, after which she said “I can’t tell you how pleased I was to leave the canal boat, a little, low, crowded place, moving along at a snail’s pace in comparison with steamboats.” Thus, we can conclude that travel on packet boats was something of a Jekyll and Hyde experience: pleasant during the day, much less so at night.
Due to the length of the canal passage meals were served. In addition to staples such as beef and ham, the menu might have been supplemented by local game including prairie chickens, deer, or lake trout. Indeed, boat captains and others shot buck deer from the decks of slow-moving boats. Tea was served, and a stocked bar helped the more bibulous pass the time.
Passengers heard the steady clop - clop of the horses plodding along the towpath, as well as the canal boat horn sounding as the boat approached each lock, alerting the locktender that he needed to begin opening the massive lock gates. The boats made stops at the various towns along the canal, picking up and dropping off passengers. Those seeking exercise could walk along the towpath for a stretch, getting off at a lock and walking for a few miles.
On the deck many of the men and boys carried rifles or pistols, and they made quite a racket banging away at snakes that lay on the limestone rocks. The less discriminating also fired at ducks, dogs, deer and most any other animal they spotted. Of course guns go off accidentally as well, and in one incident in 1852 killed a prominent Chicago businessman. There was other excitement as well. On one trip a federal Marshall tussled with and captured a counterfeiter. Boats occasionally banged into locks, giving everyone a jolt. Sometimes boat captains competing to get to the lock first engaged in fisticuffs to settle the question, putting reluctant locktenders in the middle.
For the easternmost 30 miles the canal was cut through the dolomitic limestone that underlies most of northeastern Illinois. The countryside outside Chicago was not very inviting, with wet prairies and wetlands predominant amidst a few scattered houses or small farms. The Canal diverges from the Des Plaines River at Summit, and then passes through level, dry prairie. As you reached the “Sag” near present day Lemont one could still see the hovels, shanties and shacks that had been used to house the men who dug the canal. The Calumet feeder canal near here opened in 1849 and is a navigable waterway, connecting the canal with the town of Blue Island.
Near Lockport the rolling contours of the Des Plaines River become very evident. Immense masses of stone are piled high on both sides of the canal, whose banks are lined with limestone. Lockport has the makings of a thriving little village, with a widewater through downtown, the canal now 120 feet wide, twice the normal width. The first “official” lock on the canal is here, although there were two earlier locks at Bridgeport and what is now Romeoville. There are five locks between Lockport and Joliet as the land slopes down some 40 feet, and we now begin to see farms lining the canal. As one proceeds further southwest piles of coal replace the piles of limestone.
As you continue to travel southwest you come to Joliet, the seat of Will
County and already in the packet era on its way to becoming a city. As at
Lockport the canal locks here provide water power. Channahon is next, and
here the canal crosses the DuPage River, and for many then and now the scenery
at this point is the most beautiful and charming of anywhere along the entire
line of the canal. The Kankakee feeder is also navigable, bringing Wilmington
into the economic sphere of the canal.
The western terminus of the canal is at LaSalle/Peru. Here lies the edge of a great coal field, and rich deposits are found near downtown LaSalle. The twin cities have become rivals, seeking to reap the benefits of the transportation nexus created by the canal and the river. LaSalle is a great transfer point, with Chicagoans moving from canal packet to river steamboat packet, and denizens of the South leaving the relative comfort of the steamboats for the more Spartan accommodations of a canal boat. LaSalle eventually attracted industry, including the largest zinc plant in the U. S.
To be sure, the canal countryside offered plenty of stunning vistas: the majesty of the sandstone cliffs of Starved Rock and Buffalo Rock, the fertile prairies and dense forested areas along the Illinois River, the rapids at Marseilles, fast growing little farm towns, the rising city of Chicago. The changes wrought by the canal were many-it brought Chicago into a closer relationship with the South as well as the East; it brought people and money to a sleepy backwater at Ft. Dearborn, creating towns and cities such as Chicago, Ottawa, Morris, Lockport, and LaSalle; it jump started new extractive industries in coal, limestone, hydraulic cement and sand and gravel, which in turn resulted in the creation of iron, steel, zinc and other manufacturing plants; the canal encouraged farmers to cultivate more acreage, so wetlands were drained and the endless prairies quickly were converted to farms. Last but not least, for five brief years, from 1848-1852 the canal was simply the latest innovation in the evolution of transportation systems, one that was about to give way to a radically different technology, the railroads.
For Further Reading
Conzen , Michael P., and Kay J. Carr, eds., The Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor: A Guide to Its History and Sources (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1988), 337 pp. [Contains essays and a very useful bibliography]
Conzen, Michael P., Douglas Knox, and Dennis H. Cremin, 1848-Turning Point for Chicago, Turning Point for the Region (Chicago: The Newberry Library, 1998), 63 pp. [For Chicago and the Midwest, the year 1848 is significant for many reasons. Seminal events include the first railroad out of Chicago, the coming of the telegraph, the founding of the Chicago Board of Trade, and the opening of the I&M Canal. The canal connected Chicago to both the east coast and to the southern states]
Fleming, George J., Canal at Chicago: A Study in Political and Social History (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1950), 374 pp. [More comprehensive than Putnam but only available through University Microfilms]
Howe, Walter A., comp., Documentary History of the Illinois and Michigan Canal: Legislation, Litigation and Titles (Springfield, Ill.: Department of Public Works and Buildings, Division of Waterways, 1956), 174 pp.
Lamb, John M. "Early Days on the Illinois and Michigan Canal," Chicago History, new series, vol. 3, no. 3 (Winter 1974-75), pp. 168-76. [One of his best articles on the I&M Canal]
Putnam, James W., The Illinois and Michigan Canal: A Study in Economic History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1918), 213 pp. [Still the single best source on the I&M Canal, although the focus in squarely on economics]
Vasile, Ronald S., “The I&M Canal: A Short Historiography and Booklist, quote Bulletin of the Illinois Geographical Society, Fall 2000, vol. XLII, number 2, pp. 66-76. [Looks at how historians have viewed the I&M Canal relative to the growth of Chicago]
Vasile, Ronald S., “Cholera, Counterfeiters, and the California Gold Rush: Passenger Travel on the I&M Canal, 1848-1852,” Journal of Illinois History, vol. 7, Summer 2004, pp. 125-150. [Emphasis on the social history of the canal and how the I&M helped transform Chicago]