First broached by Louis Jolliet in 1673, the idea of a canal at the base of Lake Michigan did not materialize until 1836-1848, when the Illinois & Michigan Canal was built. Its vital function was to unite the waters of the Great Lakes with those of the Mississippi Basin. The canal was the crucial catalyst for the early growth of Chicago, after which railroads confirmed the city's centrality within the nation. The federal land grant to help build the canal with the proceeds of land sales (the first such aid in the nation) stimulated farm settlement in northeastern Illinois, while the canal itself spurred town growth along its route. Twice as many towns were founded by overzealous promoters as could ultimately survive, so half remained mere "paper towns." Water power and minerals added industry to the commercial base of many of the canal towns, and all benefited from the steady stream of farm produce, lumber, and other necessities moved on the canal in the early 1850s. Despite losing much traffic to the railroads after 1855, the canal remained important for bulk movements until the end of the century. The only major American canal to pay off its construction debts and make a profit, it was succeeded by a modern replacement, the Illinois Waterway.
Author: Michael P. Conzen (Research assistance: John T. Monckton)
Source: Newberry Library