The Illinois and Michigan Canal
As this great work has always been a matter of especial interest to the people living upon the borders of the Illinois River, a short chapter is devoted to that subject.|
The project of a ship canal to connect the waters of Lake Michigan with the navigable waters of the Illinois River was first suggested during the war of 1812 by a writer in Niles' Register. The war had demonstrated the immense advantages of such a work in time of peace, as well as war. It was one of the compensations of that war, to the West, that it was the means of directing attention to this portion of the great Western country. In 1816, the title to a strip of country twenty miles wide was obtained from the Indians for the purpose of securing a route for this work. In 1821, an appropriation of $10,000 was made by Congress for a preliminary survey of the canal and for a survey of the twenty-mile strip. Shadrach Bond, first Governor of Illinois, in his first message, called attention to the importance and feasibility of the work. A survey was made, in accordance with the law of Congress, and the project pronounced feasible and highly important.
In 1826, Congress donated to the State, for the purpose of constructing the canal, every alternate section of land within a strip ten miles wide along the route from Chicago to La Salle-a magnificent domain of 300,000 acres. In 1829, the General Assembly of the State passed an act, creating a Board of Canal Commissioners, and authorized them-not to enter upon the work of building a canal, but to sell the lands and give to settlers pre-emptions on the same, by which many old settlers obtained their homes. Fortunately, the folly of this course was soon discovered and the act repealed. At the session of 1834-35, another act was passed, creating a new Canal Board, and authorizing the Governor to negotiate bonds for construction, and pledging the canal lands for their redemption. At that time, however, the immense value of these lands was not appreciated by the capitalists who had money to loan, and it was not until at a special session of the Legislature, in 1835, through the great exertions of Col. J. M. Strode, of Galena, (who then represented the entire region north of Peoria in the State Senate), the act was so amended as to pledge the faith of the State for their redemption, that the bonds could be negotiated. The bonds were negotiated by Gov. Duncan in 1836, and in the same year preparations were made for active work.
William B. Archer, Gurdon S. Hubbard and William F. Thornton, all Colonels-as most men were in those days-were the first Commissioners, and they fortunately chose William Gooding as Chief Engineer. Subsequent changes brought James B. Fry-another Colonel-into the Board. The first ground was broken at Bridgeport on the 4th of July, 1836, and the event was celebrated in grand style, with an address from Dr. Egan. The work was begun on the "deep-cut" plan, by which the canal was to be fed from the waters of the lake, through the Chicago River, as is now done.
At the time of letting the first contracts, the speculative mania was at its height, and labor and supplies were at a high figure-laborers getting from $20 to $30 per month, with board; pork, $20 to $30 per barrel; flour, $9 to $12 per barrel, and other things in proportion-and the contracts were predicated upon these high prices. To facilitate the transportation of supplies, what is called the "Archer Road" was built from Chicago to Lockport, at an expense of $40,000, which created some scandal, on account of Mr. Archer being the proprietor of an addition to Lockport. The work was continued by means of the money raised upon the bonds, canal lands and lots in Chicago, Lockport, Ottawa and La Salle, until the year 1842, when after an outlay of over $5,000,000, the work was suspended.
The enterprise was begun when everything had to be done in the most expensive way, and when the country was on the eve of a financial crash, yet the State could have gone through with it, and maintained her credit, if other wild projects had not been connected with it.
The central and southern portions of the State, jealous of their own immediate interests, looked upon the canal as a northern project, got up for its exclusive benefit, and so they formed a syndicate, as it were, and insisted that, as the price of their votes for further appropriations to the canal, the balance of the State should have all the railroads that were called for by the syndicate-and, in the year 1837, and act was passed, which ultimately ruined the credit of the State and ended in financial disaster. By this act, a loan of $8,000,000 was authorized, on the faith of the State, for the purpose of gridironing the State with railroads, and a $4,000,000 loan for the further prosecution of the canal. The sum of $200,000, out of the eight-million loan, was to be given out to the few counties that got no promise of a railroad, for the ostensible purpose of constructing roads and bridges.
Absurd as this scheme was, at that time, loans were readily obtained to the extent of nearly $6,000,000, for the purpose of carrying it out. As a result of all this outlay, the only railroad ever built under this stupendous scheme of folly, was a short line of railroad from Springfield to the Illinois River at Meredosia, fifty-five miles of road, with strap iron for rails, nine miles of which were completed in the year 1838, and over which the writer of this had his first ride upon the first trip of this first railroad built in Illinois in the Mississippi Valley. Much work was done on other roads, but before any other one was completed, the collapse came, and the work on the roads was suspended-never to be resumed.
The financial and commercial prostration that struck the East in 1837, was held in check for a time by the enormous expenditures of money upon our public works, and the work was continued under difficulties on the canal, by the help of canal scrip, and other devices, until the year 1842, when the work was stopped entirely for want of means to continue it. By great exertion, the interest on the canal debt was paid for the year 1841, but no provision could by made for anything more.
In the latter part of the year 1840, a debt of $14,237,348 had been contracted to be paid by a population of 478,929-nearly thirty dollars per capita for each and every man, woman and child in the State. The canal debt was over five millions, at the time the work ceased, and the contractors abandoned their jobs, and claimed heavy damages, and things began to look pretty blue for the State. An act was afterward passed providing for a settlement with them and limiting the amount to $230,000.
The canal could not, of course, be allowed to remain long in this condition-for the bondholders were equally interested with us in devising some means for its early completion-it being too important and too costly an enterprise to be abandoned. At the session of the Legislature, 1842-43, an act was passed which accomplished the purpose. By the provisions of this act, the canal itself and all the unsold lots and lands were transferred to a Board of three Trustees-two to be chosen by the bondholders and one by the Governor of the State. The bondholders agreed to advance the further sum of $1,600,000 to complete the canal on the cheaper plan of a high level. The Trustees were to prosecute the work and retain possession of the canal and its revenues until the debt and further cost of completing the same, with the interest thereon, should be fully paid by the tolls and moneys derived from sale of lands and lots. The Board was organized and the work resumed in 1845, and prosecuted to completion in 1848. The canal debt, interest and cost of construction, were paid in full from these resources, in the year 1871, and the canal was surrendered to the State with a balance on hand of $95,742.
In the year 1865, an arrangement was entered into by the Canal Trustees, with the Board of Public Works of Chicago, by which the canal was completed on the original deep-cut plan in the year 1871-thus letting the pure waters of Lake Michigan flow through the canal into the Illinois River and thence down to the Gulf of Mexico, and also opening the way for the beautiful lake perch and other fishes to run down into the Illinois, sport with the croppy, listen to the catfish sing, and assist in getting up fish-fries.