Illinois Waterway History – Quimby's Cruising Guide

Illinois Waterway History

Running the width of the state bearing its name, the Illinois Waterway is a system of channels with its beginnings just off Lake Michigan. It consists of eight locks and ends 336 miles to the southwest when it joins with the Mississippi River at Grafton, Ill.

French Canadian explorer Louis Joliet was the first to suggest connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River in the late 1600s by cutting through a low ridge that separated the Chicago River from the Des Plaines River. But the Des Plaines River was too low during most of the year to carry much cargo, even in canoes, and a canal was never dug. 

Travelers continued to portage the route, however, and it remained the principal thoroughfare between the Midwest and Canada until the Sioux gained control of the area in the early 1700s. When the Sioux were defeated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, they ceded the tract of land containing the Chicago portage. The U.S. built a fort in 1803 to protect this vital link and named it Fort Dearborn.

The transport of raw materials renewed interest in building a canal, which prompted land grants and surveys, culminating with the commissioning of a group to sell lots as a means of financing the project. The canal would connect the Chicago River to the Illinois River, bypassing the Des Plaines. Chicago, at the time, was a village of less than a dozen homes. In 1822, Congress passed the first of several acts enabling the start of construction of the canal, and the transformation of Chicago from a hamlet to a major river transportation center began.

The Illinois & Michigan (I&M) Canal was completed in 1848, connecting Lake Michigan and the Illinois River at LaSalle. This canal, along with the mule-drawn barges that plied it, served for years as the first connecting link. Its history is preserved in the I&M Canal Museum in Lockport. In addition, the Illinois Department of Conservation has developed a 61-mile Illinois-Michigan Canal State Trail between Morris and Channahon for both hiking and cycling.

To provide a navigable channel to LaSalle, the state of Illinois completed locks and dams at Henry and Copperas in 1871. Then, by 1893, the federal government constructed locks at Kampsville and LaGrange, providing a 7-foot slack-water system to LaSalle. The locks were 75 feet wide by 350 feet long.

In the meantime, the growth of Chicago created a sewage problem that was solved in 1871 by deepening a cut of the canal between Chicago and Lockport, allowing Lake Michigan to flow into the Chicago River, reversing its flow away from the lake. Over time, however, the deepened canal proved incapable of handling Chicago’s sewage. In 1892, the city formed a metropolitan sewage district and began digging another canal to increase the flow of water in the Des Plaines below Lockport, and in the Illinois.

The Chicago Ship & Sanitary Canal, the largest canal built in the 19th century, is 12 feet deep and runs from Chicago to Lockport. Finished in 1900, it was improved as a shipping artery seven years later when the Sanitary District dug yet another canal, this time from the Calumet River to the Sanitary Canal, which cut the old I&M Canal in half and ended its usefulness between Lockport and Chicago. 

A navigation channel from Lockport to Utica was funded by a $20 million bond issue enacted in 1908, and in 1927 Congress finally authorized a 9-foot-deep, 200-foot-wide channel from Utica to Grafton. The Corps completed the project in 1933, opening the Illinois Waterway to navigation. The locks and dams at Peoria and LaGrange were constructed during the years 1936 through 1939.

The Thomas J. O’Brien Lock was constructed as part of the Calumet-Saganashkee (Cal-Sag) Navigation Project and was completed in 1960 on the Calumet River south of Chicago. This lock, and the Chicago Harbor Lock, prevents reversals of flow into Lake Michigan and permits the control of water levels landward of the locks.