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By Dennis H. Cremin, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, History Department, Lewis University

The Illinois and Michigan National Heritage Corridor provides both local residents and visitors with great opportunities to explore the past through recreational and educational experiences. Often going unrecognized, volunteers and employees working on behalf of local, regional, state, and federal organizations have exerted considerable effort and a long-term commitment to increasing our understanding of this historical landscape and creating the sites that people visit today.

Local organizations have risen up in grass root ways to preserve their history. In many cases volunteers have made incredible differences. For example, in the late 1960s a group of local residents created the Will County Historical Society. Housed in the former canal headquarters in Lockport, they opened a museum and preserved arguably the most historically significant building in Will County. In the process of saving other historic structures, they also transformed the north end of the canal’s public landing in Lockport into a verdant park setting.

Regional efforts to preserve the historical landscape and make sites available for educational and recreational activities have been augmented by local not-for-profit organizations such as the Canal Corridor Association, which as its predecessor organization advocated for the creation of the nation’s first National Heritage Corridor. Other regional organizations such as the Forest Preserve District of Will County, have taken significant roles in preserving aspects of regional history. The Forest Preserve District operates the Isle a la Cache and the Joliet Iron Works Site which provide keen insights into the past. Other groups, such as the La Salle County Historical Society, have done similar work interpreting this historic landscape. In each case, full and part time employees have partnered with other organizations and volunteers to bring meaning to these sites.

The State of Illinois is the steward of most of the remnants of the I&M Canal. Today, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) works with a number of parties to maintain the Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail that runs along the old canal. In addition to the state trail, IDNR operates a number of parks that provide glimpses into the canal’s past such as one of the most scenic sections of the canal at Channahon State Park.

Groups interested in preserving and caring for the remains of the Illinois and Michigan Canal utilized a number of federal agencies and programs. In the depth of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps worked diligently to transform the canal into a recreational resource. The federal program gave jobs and hope of a better life to hundreds of young men who lived and worked in camps under military supervision. Today, over a million visitors a year visit Starved Rock State Park and enjoy the lodge and fireplace, testaments to the work of the “CCC Boys.”

In the 1970s, a team from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) set to work documenting the Canal Corridor. HABS, a federal program that documents the architecture, engineering, and design in the United States and its territories, is administered by the National Park Service, the Library of Congress, and the private sector. This project resulted in a number of photographs and site descriptions, which provide a baseline for the study of these communities.

The United States Congress designated the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Corridor in 1984. This designation provided an important infusion of time, talent, and resources for the canal which provided unified signage and additional resources for the corridor. It also served as the point of departure for thirty-seven congressionally designated heritage areas across the United States. This number is growing rapidly with more requests generated every year. Today, the not-for-profit Canal Corridor Association (CCA) is the administrative partner for the I&M Canal NHC. In addition, the National Trust for Historic Preservation selected CCA as a co-steward to operate the Gaylord Building Historic Site, Lockport, IL.

The Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor is noted for its preservation, education, and recreational opportunities. Visitors can ride bikes along the canal and make stops at Gaylord Building Historic Site or at state parks along the way. If you are making your first stops along the canal’s route, what you see is often the result of the hard work of a great number of people from the local to the national level. Enjoy your canal adventures!


For Further Reading:

Conzen, Michael P. and Kay J. Carr, eds. The Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor: A Guide to Its History and Sources. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois Press, 1988.

Cremin, Dennis H. "From Heartland to Nation: The National Heritage Area Movement at
Twenty." History News 59: 2 (Spring 2004).

Grossman, James R., Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff, eds. The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Lamb, John M. “I&M Canal: A Corridor in Time, 1836-1986.” Romeoville, IL: Lewis University, in cooperation with the Illinois Department of Commerce & Community Affairs, 1987

Ranney, Edward. Prairie Passage: the Illinois and Michigan Canal Corridor, prologue by Tony Hiss, essays by Emily J. Harris, epilogue by William Least Heat-Moon. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Pres, 1998.