The first transportation routes into the Midwest, aside from footpaths through forests, were lakes and rivers. Trains and roads would eventually replace reliance on natural waterways, but before that would happen, people created alternative waterways. The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, was an instant success—enough so that it encouraged a rush to build canals elsewhere in the U.S. By the end of the 1800s, there were more than 4,000 miles of canals.
In the Midwest, the objective was to get from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi—because canals connected waterways, rather than replacing them. That would be accomplished by the Illinois and Michigan, or I&M, Canal. The references to Illinois and Michigan were to the key bodies of water in the region, Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. The Illinois River fed into the Mississippi, and by connecting the river with the lake, the ninety-six mile long canal created dramatically improved shipping. It also created opportunities along the route of the canal.
Lockport, IL, was established in 1837 as headquarters for construction and administration of the canal. Then as now, the region’s focus was on agriculture. The canal not only made travel easier for settlers headed to the region, it also made it easier for farmers to ship their crops. Tons of corn, corn whiskey, and corn-fed pigs were carried along the canal. Today, the town of Lockport is home to the I&M Canal Museum, Will County Historical Society, and several handsome buildings that date to the heyday of canal transportation. The canal itself is somewhat diminished, and it is hard to imagine its importance from looking at the picturesque remains of this once vital transportation route. But it was of huge importance in the 1800s.
The Gaylord Building, on the right, was built in 1838, though it is named for the local merchant who bought it in 1878. It was part of the large warehouse complex that stored construction materials for building the canal. Today, it houses exhibits on the history of the canal. The part of the warehouse complex on the left was repurposed as well, and now houses the excellent Public Landing Restaurant.
Between old buildings, charming museum, and a couple of outstanding restaurants, Lockport is definitely worth a visit, should you find yourself in this part of Illinois.