The I&M Canal, A Modern Marvel

4/6/2021 nlc

By Jacob K. Friefeld

With so many passengers in so confined a space, no wonder that on the following morning I should awake with a severe headache, the effect of the heated nauseous vapours which surrounded us. Not a window was permitted to be opened; I made various endeavors to break through this rule during the night, but every window within my reach was fastened down. This, however, may be considered but a wise precaution; for the malaria from the surrounding marshy land, and especially from Mud Lake, distant about fifteen miles from Chicago, which we passed within a very short distance, is very dangerous.

- Arthur Cunynghame, a British traveler on the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1850. From A Glimpse at the Great Western Republic.

Although it may not be evident in the quotes above, travel on the Illinois and Michigan Canal was actually a modern luxury. When it opened on April 10, 1848, the canal connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and changed travel and trade in the Midwest.

Nineteenth-century Americans lived in an emerging technological and industrial order. Many hoped this modernity would bring about a golden age for humanity that would lift burdens on the wings of prosperity. The Erie Canal that connected the Great Lakes to the East fit with this ideology, and those in Illinois saw the I&M Canal as the next logical step to boost access to the region.

Abraham Lincoln was one of these Illinoisans supportive of waterway improvements. He had spent part of his youth ferrying people and goods on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and as an adult he supported making river travel easier. His first political announcement advocated for the improvement of the Sangamon River. Later, as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, Lincoln supported internal improvements and, in 1835, voted for construction of the I&M Canal.

Canal construction began in 1836, but economic cycles of boom and bust slowed progress. When work was finally completed in 1848, it stood as a modern triumph. Boat traffic quickly packed the canal, helping to make Chicago the center of Midwestern trade.