I & M Canal History PDF Print E-mail


Project ideas for the Illinois & Michigan Canal

The Canal Corridor Association is excited that you are considering a History Fair project related to the history of the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor. Below are several categories which fit this year’s National History Day theme: "Exploration,Encounter, Exchange in History." They are not meant to be a comprehensive or preferred set of choices, but to serve to spark an idea or topic into a successful project. With each example is a series of guiding questions to encourage specific historical focus and fact finding as you develop your own project.

The Canal Corridor Association offers a monetary prize at the Illinois History Day for both junior and senior divisions.

For an overview of the canal's history, read the I & M Canal National Heritage Center's Roadmap Part 2: The Story of the Illinois & Michigan Canal to learn more about the I & M Canal.

illinois and michigan canal

French and Native American Exploration, Encounter, & Exchange

  • French Explorations. What is the story of Joliet & Marquette? Robert La Salleand Henry Tonti? What motivated the French Jesuits and Fur Traders (Coureursdu bois) to explore the Great Lakes and Mississippi regions?
  • French Encounter with Native Americans, especially the Illini nation. What did both sides think of early encounters with the other? How did the Iroquois(Haudenosaunee) figure into these encounters?
  • Exchange between the French and the Native Americans. What goods, services,relationships, and ideas did they end up exchanging with each other?
Exploring the Land & Surveying the Canal
  • Exploring where to locate the canal. Why did Joliet recommend the Canal be two leagues long? What were La Salle’s and Gurdon Hubbard’s objections to traveling the Illinois valley down to the Fox River? What were the merits of different surveys for the Canal’s location? How did speculators and the canal commission choose the best locations for towns? What were some obstacles in the canal’s path?
  • Encountering resistance to the location of a canal. Why did some favor a railroad instead of a canal? How did the canal proponents argue for it? Why did La Sallefavor the Kankakee portage? Why did Gurdon Hubbard oppose the Calumetoption? How did towns compete for the western terminus? What were the merits of a deep cut versus shallow cut? How did the grid contribute to the land grant system?
  • Exchange of ideas that eventually led to the canal’s final construction? What debates were had about the location and details of the Canal’s construction?

Exploring the Dream of the Canal

  • How did Illinois characters and communities explore the idea of a canal? What did Joliet hope a canal crossing the Chicago Portage would accomplish? Why did Nathaniel Pope and Ninian Edwards want a Canal? What did Gurdon Hubbard hope a canal crossing the Chicago Portage would accomplish? What did communities along Illinois’ waterways hope to accomplish with a canal?
  • Encountering the Future of Illinois. How was the canal involved in the creation of Illinois as a state? What was the debate about a canal versus a railroad? How did the navigation on the Illinois River affect the use of the canal? How did Chicago’s rise compete with St. Louis?
  • Exchanging ideas. How did communities prosper or fail as transportation modes changed in the region?


Financing the Canal: Exploration, Encounter, & Exchange

  • Exploring different ways of financing the canal. What were the merits of different proposed financing mechanisms, including land grants, taxes, printing money, and investors?
  • Encountering difficulties and opportunities. What were some problems with financing the canal, including low land values, economic recessions, and over printing canal scrip? How were canal laborers treated? How did canal labor fare during the construction? How did the canal fare in its later years (profit/loss)? What were the best years for the canal and why?
  • Exchange that occurred. Did the canal improve land values? Did the canal enrich investors? How did the canal benefit riverboat traffic? Was the canal worth while to the state of Illinois? Did a deep-cut canal help Chicago’s sanitation system?(Recommended Resource: “the Illinois and Michigan Canal: a Study in Economic History,” by James Putnam)


Exploring New Markets: Immigration and Trade on the Canal

  • Exploring new markets. How did the I&M Canal rearrange Illinois’ relationship with the South and the North? What cities and towns grew or were bypassed by the Canal? Why did immigrants settle in the region? How was agriculture affected by the completion of the Canal? How did entrepreneurs introduce new products and services to frontier Illinois?
  • New ideas changed the way we encounter the world. What new ideas, products,and services were created to deal with Illinois’ challenges? How did farmers regard the unfamiliar prairie terrain? What new industries grew up around the canal? Why was the Chicago Board of Trade founded? How did Chicago’s rapid growth lead to the skyscraper? How did recent immigrants from many different languages and nations interact with each other? How do all of those ideas relate to the Canal?
  • What goods, services, populations, relationships, and ideas were exchanged using the Canal? Which places, products, and services created on and around the canal or existed in the canal years became icons of local industrial and ethnic history?


The I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor Exploring the Past

  • Exploring the Past. How did columns and articles in the Chicago Tribune change the way Chicago looked at the canal in its history? How did modern research into canal history create new excitement about the canal?
  • Encountering the Past. What strategies formed on how to interpret the history of the I&M Canal? Why was the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor created rather than another National Park? How did ideas of recreation and economic development fit into the idea of the IMCNHC? What museums, interpretive parks,archaeological digs, and exhibits were created to help individuals encounter the history of the canal and its corridor?
  • How has the IMCNHC caused an exchange between the past to the present? What ideas from the past can inform students on how to approach modern projects and problems? How well do the many museums, parks, and sites in the I&M National Heritage Area link the past with the present? Who and what benefits from any attention and study of the past?



Resources for Researching the I & M Canal

I & M Canal Bibliography of Resources

Canal Information/Research Locations

Canal Corridor Association
754 First Street
LaSalle, IL 61301

Places to Visit

Gaylord Building
200 W. 8th Street
Lockport, IL 60441

Grundy County Historical Society
510 W. Illinois Ave.
Morris, IL 60450
Illinois Waterway Visitor Center

RR #1
Ottawa, IL 61350
LaSalle County Historical Society
101 E. Canal Street
P.O. Box 278
Utica, IL 61373
LaSalle Canal Boat
754 First Street
LaSalle, IL 61301
Lewis University
Contact Person: Mary Ann Atkins
815-838-0500 ext. 5665
One University Parkway
Romeoville, IL 60446
I & M Canal Toll House
Open by appointment only.
815-434-2737 (Ottawa Visitor Center)
1221 Columbus St
Ottawa, IL, 61350

Will County Historical Society
803 S. State Street
Lockport, IL 60441

I & M Canal National Heritage Area

Seneca Grain Elevator
Open by appointment only.
124 W Williams
Seneca, Illinois 61360

Compiled by Erin Maze, Project Coordinator at the Canal Corridor Association and Heather Wickens, Project Coordinator at the Canal Corridor Association


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