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Summer History Ride

The I&M Canal National Heritage Area gives a peek into the Midwest’s past.


Back in 1848, the Illinois and Michigan (I&M) Canal changed the United States forever, by connecting the Illinois River and Lake Michigan, which linked New York to New Orleans for trade purposes. It also set the stage for Chicago to become a thriving metropolis.

Today, the canal isn’t a major trade route anymore—the Illinois Waterway replaced it for shipping purposes in 1933. But, since 1984, it is a designated National Heritage Corridor—the first place to earn the title in the United States. It’s also a beautiful, educational and fun place to visit.

“In the I&M Canal National Heritage Area, you can connect with Chicago’s natural and cultural past through [160 kilometers] of 19th century working and rural towns, all linked by scenic canal and river trails, open roads and original and restored prairies,” says Ana B. Koval, president and chief executive officer of the Canal Corridor Association, the nonprofit organization that preserves, protects and creates travel opportunities to the canal area.

 

Summertime adventures
Summertime visitors to the I&M canal corridor must check out the LaSalle Canal Boat, a mule-pulled, 70-passenger replica of an 1840’s canal boat, and the Lock 16 Center, a café and gift shop.

The original boats carried people along the canal. On the boat tours, passengers meet “period-dressed guides and a boat captain who regales visitors with exciting tales of canal life,” says Koval. The boat travels 1.5 kilometers up the canal to the Little Vermilion River aqueduct and back to the Lock 16 Center.

At the Lock 16 Center, which used to be a horse buggy maker’s home, visitors can sample seasonal cuisine, view exhibits, attend lectures and cultural programs and enjoy afternoon tea.

The downtown LaSalle area offers more attractions to visitors who want to linger. These include the Hegeler Carus Mansion, a National Historic Landmark which, at various times, served as home to zinc and chemical manufacturing giants as well as a center for discourse on religion, philosophy and publishing. Outdoorsy travelers can also traverse the I&M Canal State Trail from LaSalle to Rockdale. Part crushed limestone and part paved, the trail is about 100 kilometers long and easy to navigate. It features “breathtaking scenery, including rivers, lakes and sandstone bluffs,” says Koval. The towns along its path offer authentic rural American experiences, complete with quaint downtowns, restaurants and museums.

The LaSalle Canal Boat, Lock 16 Center and surrounding area are about a two-hour drive from downtown Chicago. Visitors who would prefer to experience the canal closer to Chicago need to drive just 48 kilometers to the city of Lockport, which canal commissioners selected to be their headquarters in 1830.

“Visitors to Lockport can still see the influence of that decision today,” says Koval. “The canal, the headquarters, a two-block-long public landing and the Gaylord and Norton buildings, flanking the public landing, still form the center of the community and offer visitors history, architecture and trails all within easy walking distance of each other.”

The Norton building houses the Illinois State Museum Lockport Gallery, while the Gaylord building has a museum featuring canal exhibits and a restaurant.

 

Travel and accommodation
Visitors need to use a car for a tour of the canal corridor. Rentals and car share options are available in Chicago. Once in the canal area, there are towns and attractions about every 15 kilometers.

“You can easily spend a weekend if you want to hike and go to the wineries and brew pubs, go horseback riding, play water sports and visit the towns and their markets. There’s lots of unique shopping,” says Koval.

A weekend stay, of course, requires accommodation, which visitors can find in lodges and cabins along the canal or at motels along the interstate expressway. Koval suggests booking rooms a week or two ahead of time, longer if there are scheduled festivals.

“It’s very unique to have this kind of experience just minutes from a large urban area like Chicago,” says Koval. “Numerous state parks, restored historical sites and an abundance of diverse wildlife can all be discovered on the storied banks of this unique outdoor museum.”

 

Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.