I&M Canal: A National Heritage Trail
I&M Canal Trail: Present Day
The I&M Canal Trail is a 100-mile-long trail system in Illinois that takes you through quaint and historically significant towns along its length. Running from LaSalle-Peru in the west to the Chicago city limits in the east, this canal was once a major shipping and transportation hub. Nowadays, thanks to the efforts of citizens who formed the Canal Corridor Association, this trail system is used by many for a wide range of activities and was designated in 1984 as a National Heritage Area, the first of its kind. This distinction makes it a part of the National Parks System, although it is not managed by the federal government. As the first National Heritage Area to be designated, it set a precedent, and now there are 49 sites across the U.S. that also share this title.
The Canal's History
In the 1830's immigrant workers digging by hand transformed a once-swampy system of waterways and rivers into a network used for traveling and trade, linking Lake Michigan in Chicago to the Illinois River in LaSalle County. As more immigrants traveled to work on the canal, industrial centers also grew along the waterway, which gave birth to the many small towns still existing today along the length of the canal.
Traveling down the canal significantly shortened the trip from Chicago to LaSalle. A trip that once took two weeks, by canoe and (in the shallower parts) on foot, only took one day when the canal was finished. This rapid transit time opened up better opportunities for trade and for goods coming from the East Coast. Things once too expensive to ship could now be shipped easily and in bigger bundles. Raw materials such as lumber, coal and stone came down the canal as well as other goods such as grains, sugar, furniture and clothing.
The canal was used most actively between 1848 and 1900, transporting not just goods but passenger ships taking people to St. Louis (by way of the Illinois River to the Mississippi River) all the way down. When the railroads became more commonplace, passenger transport along the canal stopped, but trade continued. It wasn't until 1933 that the canal was replaced with a bigger shipping waterway and the canal went mostly unused and was allowed to be taken back over by nature.
When I-55 came along in the 1950's, a large portion of the canal in Chicago was buried, but from outside the city limits to LaSalle County it still lives on.
Activities Along the Canal Trail
The entire trail system is used in the following ways:
- Cross-country skiing
Canal Towns Along the Trail
Here are the major hubs once a part of the hustle and bustle of trade along the canal and still actively connected by the trail system (from west to east):
- LaSalle/Peru (LaSalle County)
- Utica (LaSalle County)
- Ottawa (LaSalle County)
- Marseilles (LaSalle County)
- Seneca (LaSalle and Grundy Counties)
- Morris (Grundy County)
- Channahon (Will County)
- Joliet (Will County)
- Lockport (Will County)
- Lemont (Cook County)
- Willow Springs (Cook County)
I will highlight a few of these towns below.
Distances Between I&M Canal Trail Access Points
1. Western Starting Point: LaSalle, IL
The I&M Canal Trail in LaSalle
LaSalle is a quaint town on the Illinois River and the starting point for our journey eastward down the canal trail. This section of the trail spans 15 miles to Ottawa. The trail is paved in some parts and is crushed limestone in other parts. It is flat and easily walked or biked.
Here you can ride a full-sized working replica canal boat (seating 70 people) being towed down the tow path by two locally famous mules, Moe and Joe. The canal trail is a popular place for fishing and is one of the places the Illinois Department of Natural Resources stocks with catchable trout in both spring and fall.
About five miles east of LaSalle is Utica, IL, which has one of the coolest state parks, Starved Rock State Park on the Illinois River. There are many upland and lowland trails you can hike and several canyons you can explore, most of which have waterfalls. You can also check out the Heritage Corridor History Museum, which has lots of facts and displays about the canal and local history.
I&M Canal LaSalle IL Western Starting Point
I&M Canal at Morris, IL
I&M Canal at Morris IL
Morris, IL, is a town that has retained most of its historic buildings and appeal. The canal trail sits at the south end of its historic downtown section and frequently hosts festivals and farmer's markets along its banks in the summer months. Take a stroll down Liberty Street and visit a mile-long stretch of antique shops, boutique stores and lots of little places to eat and drink.
I&M Canal, Downtown Morris
Aux Sable, IL Lock Access
Au Sable Lock Tender's House
Further east along the trail is the Aux Sable lock, which connects to Aux Sable Creek. This site has a still-standing lock tender's house. This is one of the better spots for fishing in the canal, as other stretches (i.e. Gebhard Woods in Morris, just west of the downtown canal area) have become too shallow or even gone dry due to rerouting or dewatering via aqueducts. Seneca, Marseilles, and portions of Ottawa also have canal sections that have been dewatered or rerouted underground.
I&M Canal Aux Sable Lock Access
I&M Canal at Channahon
I&M Canal at Channahon
East of the Aux Sable access point is the town of Channahon, with several scenic woods that connect to the trail. The canal passes McKinley Woods on the north side of the trail, and on the south side of the trail is the confluence of the Kankakee and DePlaines rivers, with several overlooks along the river. Here you will see commercial barges as well as pleasure craft speeding by on nice days, and several homes on the south side of the river. East of McKinley Woods is the I&M Canal Trail State Park near Route 6, which connects the canal to the DuPage River system and is another spot that is a popular place to fish.
I&M Canal McKinley Woods Channahon Access
I&M Canal State Park, Channahon
I&M Canal at Joliet
I&M Canal Lower Rock Run in Joliet
Six miles east of the I&M Canal State Park in Channahon along Route 6, the trail links up to the Lower Rock Run Greenway Trail in Joliet and then connects further east to the Joliet Junction Trail. This section of the trail connects to several Joliet preserves and to the Iron Works site on the east side of Joliet; these trail connections total about 16 miles. The Iron Works site consists of huge brick blast furnaces that were in use in the 1800's and early 1900's. This historic site and features a trail system that takes you 11 miles along the canal to Lockport.
I&M Canal: Lockport to Willow Springs
Lockport, IL, to Willow Springs
The final leg of this journey takes you through historic downtown Lockport (Public Enemies with Johnny Depp was filmed there) and connects up to the Centennial Trail system in Romeoville near the Isle a la Cache park and museum. It then winds eastward through Lemont and then hooks up with the John Huser I&M Canal trail at Route 83 and Illinois 171, to about LaGrange Road.
Lockport is another town whose main thoroughfare has been historically salvaged and maintained. Along the canal trail are storyboards and a museum. At this point of the canal you will notice it is just a small stream compared to the other areas further west. During dry spells, the stream completely dries up.
Once you get to the eastern half of Lemont, the canal is a bit deeper and mostly fishable. Also at Lemont you also have several quarries that offer angling opportunities; the largest quarry, on the far northeastern edge, you can also boat on.
Past the Route 83 bridge, the canal is varied with low spots and higher spots all the way to Willow Springs. At Willow Springs Road, just north of Route 171, you can access both the canal and a section of the DesPlaines River at Columbia Woods.
Lemont, IL I&M Canal Trail and Quarries
A Historic Treasure
As you can see, there are lots of opportunities to get outside and walk this historic trail system. The canal offers pleasing views of flora and fauna, a wide variety of wildlife and some fishing spots. You never know what you are going to see when walking the trail. I hope you enjoyed this little tour of the canal and hope you come visit when in the area!