Linking two great navigable water systems that reached deep into the center of North America, Chicago was well positioned to become a crossroad of the continent. To the east, the waters of the Great Lakes flowed out the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean. To the west and south, the Illinois River flowed into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. This strategic point was already an important Indian trading center when French voyageurs first arrived in the region in the seventeenth century. Connection between the two water systems was initially made by several short and portages over land from waterways draining into southern Lake Michigan to the Des Plaines River, which joined the Kankakee River to form the Illinois. The portage between the South Branch of the Chicago River, was only one of these portages, but claimed the greatest attention from early European explorers and settlers. Chicago's strategic position was solidified in 1848 when the new Illinois and Michigan Canal provided an all-water connection between the Chicago and the Illinois rivers.

 

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