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By Lynne Mickle Smaczny
Executive Director, Will County Historical Society

Along any major transportation route, people settle and form communities. From the earliest Native American paths to modern-day urban expressways, the need for people to travel from place to place creates the demand for stops along the way. Communities usually sprout up due to natural circumstances; a river provides a natural resource – water – as well as transport, for example. Others are created like the man-made route they follow, such as a railroad town. Many of the communities along the Illinois & Michigan Canal began this way.

From the beginning of the Canal’s construction, the Commissioners encouraged settlers to move to the area and form communities. In fact several of the towns along the Canal were actually laid out and developed by the Commissioners themselves. The earliest towns they surveyed were Chicago and Ottawa in 1830. Chicago was of obvious importance to the Canal Commissioners. It was the gateway to connecting the I&M Canal via the Chicago River at Bridgeport with Lake Michigan. This was significant in creating the trade route from the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico with the Great Lakes and beyond.

The Commissioners had originally planned for Ottawa to be the western terminus of the I&M Canal. Laid out where the Fox River meets the Illinois River, Ottawa thrived despite the decision to extend the Canal further west. As the LaSalle County seat, the community grew from a farm trade center to a major industrial power due in part to its location along the Canal.

Between 1830 and when construction on the Canal was started in 1836, speculators took advantage of knowing the waterway was coming and developed several other towns. Joliet (or Juliet as it was originally known) was created in 1833. Now the Will County seat, the City boasts its history as the “Crossroads of Mid-America” with a river, two Canals, several railroads, major roads, including Route 66, and current interstate highways crisscrossing through the area.

Founded by Lovell Kimball in 1834, Marseilles took advantage of the rapids on the Illinois River as it cut through the Marseilles moraine. The low-cost waterpower attracted industry early on including grist and flour mills, a paper mill, and other hydroelectric plants. Utica, which was originally platted as the town of Science on the Illinois River in 1836, eventually moved north in the 1850s by the lure of the Canal.

After 1836, several towns sprung up along the I&M Canal either for its construction or due to its success after its completion in 1848. In their first written annual report for 1836, the Commissioners stated “They have also laid out two important towns. One at the first locks, on Section twenty three, in Township thirty six north, and Range ten east, called Lockport; the other at the termination of the Canal, on Section fifteen, Township thirty three north, and Range one east of the third principal meridian. Believing that at each of those points, flourishing towns or cities will unquestioning grow up, . . .” In laying out these towns the Commissioners were able to fully maximize their ability to exploit the land grant through real estate sales.

Lockport became the headquarters for the Canal and stimulated the town’s economy with the construction of an office, warehouse, and two large houses for the commissioners. It did not truly reach its industrial potential until the 1870s when granaries, flour mills, paper mills, and quarries benefited from the improved water flow after the construction of a new feeder canal from the Chicago River in 1871. The Commissioners had particular hope for the town of LaSalle at the western end of the Canal. Since it was the link to the Illinois River, they assumed that it would thrive on the commerce created by the new trade route. Unfortunately, the railroads that soon followed thwarted any hopes of LaSalle becoming a vital hub by working independently and not using the Canal as a connection.

Towns like Seneca were a direct result of the effectiveness of the I&M Canal. James Crotty, a contractor who worked on the Canal, purchased property along the waterway after it opened in 1848. After convincing the railroad to create a stop there, Crotty Town was started in 1853. The community was renamed Seneca in 1865. It was a boom town during the heyday of the Canal, but like many of the towns along the Canal, has seen a decline in industrial activity since its closing in 1914. Morris, on the other hand, was created specifically as the Grundy County seat in the early 1840s. Its location near the Canal and eventually along the railway was influential in making the town a successful agricultural processing center.

Other towns tried and failed to prosper along the I&M Canal in the early years, but many were over speculated and did not survive. Even the town of DesPlaines, platted by the Commissioners at the termination of the Calumet Feeder, succumbed to the boom and bust era. The railroads ultimately determined the fate of many of the towns along the Canal, for by the 1850s they controlled a large portion of the transportation market in northeastern Illinois.

The prosperity of Chicago and the southwestern suburban landscape all started with the construction of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. It jump-started the reputation of Chicago as a major port and was the main reason for much of the growth thorough the southwest suburbs. Communities that lie along the Canal have a connection to a very significant part of Illinois history, one that makes this part of the state unique and interesting.

For Further Reading

A. T. Andreas. The Illinois and Michigan Canal (1884), Will County Historical Society Quarterly. Summer 1986 & Winter 1998.

John M. Lamb Collection. http://www.lewisu.edu/imcanal/JohnLamb/index.htm

Elmer Ott. The Illinois & Michigan Canal Story, Will County Historical Society Quarterly. Fall 1974, June 1976, and November 1979.

Elmer Ott. Will County Historical Society Illinois and Michigan Canal Museum: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary, Will County Historical Society. Quarterly Fall 1995.