Chicago, Ill.—the Opening of the New Canal (1871)

Nineteenth-Century illustrated magazines, such and Harper’s, Leslie’s, and The Illustrated London News commonly celebrated the completion of major public works projects (<internal link to Metropolitan line illustration>). This scene commemorates the opening ceremonies of the renovated Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1871. Financial problems beset the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in the 1830s, and it did not open until 1848. Despite competition from railroads, the canal’s usefulness for shipping heavy commodities grew steadily into the 1880s. The image conveys the hope that the newly deepened canal would allow larger and heavier freight to pass through. Despite competition from Chicago’s railroads canal traffic reached its height in the next decade. The image’s caption refers to the expectation that the deepened channel would also reverse the flow of the Chicago River and its tributaries, so that the sewage it carried would flow away from Lake Michigan, Chicago’s fresh water supply, and down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. The Illinois and Michigan Canal proved inadequate for the removal of sewage. This problem was addressed more effectively by the construction of two new and deeper canals—the Sanitary and Ship Canal, which ran parallel to the Illinois and Michigan Canal) and the Cal Sag Canal linking Lake Calumet to the Illinois waterway. Their completion in the first decade of the twentieth century effectively ended the usefulness of the Illinois and Michigan Canal as carrier of most freight by the 1920s.

See also: Chicago's Harbors



Conzen, Michael P. and Kathleen A. Brosnan. “The Geographical Vision and Reality of the Illinois & Michigan Canal.” Bulletin of the Illinois Geographical Society 42 no. 2 ( 2000): 5-19.

Monckton, John T. “Traffic on the Illinois & Michigan Canal, 1848-1860: An Overview.” Bulletin of the Illinois Geographical Society 42, no. 2 (2000): 20-26.

Conzen, Michael P. and Kay J. Carr, eds. The Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor: A Guide to Its History and Sources. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1988.

Lamb, John and Dennis H. Cremin, eds. A Corridor in Time. Romeoville, IL: Lewis University, 2008.

Howe, Walter A., ed. Documentary History of the Illinois and Michigan Canal Legislation, Litigation and Titles. [Springfield]: Department of Public Works and Buildings, 1956.

Putnam, James. The Illinois and Michigan Canal: A Study in Economic History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1918.

"Chicago, Ill.—the Opening of the New Canal—Inauguration of the Deep Cut which establishes a back current from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River—from a Photograph by Shaw,” in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (August 26, 1871). The Newberry Library, oversize A5.34