This I&M Canal provided the first complete water route from the east coast to the Gulf of Mexico by connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River by way of the Illinois River. French explorers Joliet and Marquette recognized the value of this water route for navigation in the 1600s. It was used heavily by Native Americans and traders from this time until 1823 when Illinois created a Canal Commission to oversee design and construction of the I&M Canal. The canal was completed in 1848, at a cost of $6.5 million. It begins at the south branch of the Chicago River at Bridgeport and extends 96 miles to the Illinois River at LaSalle. Originally 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep, the canal’s 15 locks accommodate differences in elevation. Commercial traffic began immediately, with barges pulled by mules or horses walking on the towpaths. In 1933, the Illinois Waterway was completed and the I&M Canal was closed to navigation. Since then, the canal has been developed for recreation, with the addition of shelters and picnic areas and renovation of the tow path for hiking and bicycling. Interpretive programs and information centers are located at key locations along the trail.
State Parks along Canal
Channahon State Park is located in Channahon in Will County. The park is the site of two locks and a restored locktender's house. The park provides opportunities for picnicking, tent camping, fishing and canoeing. For interpretive programs or more information, visit the Channahon State Park webpage
Aux Sable access area, 8 miles from Channahon, has an aqueduct, lock and locktender's house. William G. Stratton State Park is located in Morris and provides public boat access to the Illinois River. Fishing is popular here, as well as picnicking.
Gebhard Woods State Park, located in Morris and bordered on the south by the canal, is 30 acres of slightly rolling terrain dotted with many stately shade trees. Spring brings a profusion of wildflowers, to the delight of park visitors. Songbirds, mallards, wood ducks, green herons and great blue herons can be observed as they feed or nest in the park and along the canal banks. Beaver, muskrat, mink, raccoon and deer also call Gebhard Woods home. The restored Nettle Creek aqueduct adds to the park's beauty. A visitor center, located in the park is a source for additional information on the area.
Buffalo Rock State Park is located 5 miles from the Fox River Aqueduct on the north bank of the Illinois River. Stand atop the sandstone bluff at the summit of Buffalo Rock and look upon a sweeping view of the Illinois River. Take advantage of one of several picnic areas popular for providing a shady respite from the sun, or visit a shelter with a fireplace on cool days. Visitors will feel a kinship with the Illinois Native Americans, former residents of the area, as they hike through the magnificent stands of oak, cedar and pine. Two American bison call Buffalo Rock home.
Historic and Unique Sites
The historic city of Lockport is located along the Chicago to Rockdale portion of the canal. Here visitors can tour the renovated Gaylord Building, constructed of native dolomite limestone, which served as a supply depot during the canal construction period. Today the building houses displays of the canal and a restaurant.
The restored Nettle Creek Aqueduct is located in Gebhard Wood State Park. In this picturesque area, visitors can relax among stone and wooden structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s.
Located in Ottawa is the Fox River Aqueduct, the largest aqueduct on the I&M Canal.
One of the largest earth sculptures ever built, the Effigy Tumuli, is located near Buffalo Rock State Park. This reclaimed mine site has turned a barren wasteland into an area filled with recreational opportunities and interesting landscapes. It contains five large, earthen figures (effigies) of native aquatic animals represented in geometric form - a water strider, frog, catfish, turtle and snake. Marvel at the artwork formed with aid of heavy construction equipment.
The M.J. Hogan Grain Elevator in Seneca has gone through an extensive refurbishing. This elevator, formerly known as the Seneca Grain Elevator, is the only remaining historic grain elevator along the canal that was in operation during the canal's early days.
To tour the elevator, call the Gebhard Woods office at 815-942-0796.