Skip to main content

LEW logo I & M Canal Photographs, 1859-1948 (Lewis University)

About this collection


Browse all items in the collection

canal boats

Illinois and Michigan Canal Historic Photographs is a collection that includes 314 images--that of the Illinois and Michigan Canal (I&M Canal), which in 1848 upon completion ran 96 miles from the Bridgeport neighborhood in Chicago on the Chicago River to LaSalle-Peru, Illinois; plus that of adjacent and feeder waterways. The primary adjacent waterways are the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Illinois Waterway, and notable feeder waterways include the Chicago River, Cal-Sag Channel, Lateral Canal, Hennepin Canal, and Fox River. The photographs range in date from 1859 to 1948, and covers locks, aqueducts, bridges, commercial structures, construction sites, boats, and people associated with these waterways.

This image collection is invaluable learning resource for students and the general public, as well as for historians of the Chicago region, Illinois, and water transportation in the United States.

The I&M Canal was begun in 1836 and finished in 1848, which opened up boat transportation from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The canal enabled navigation across the Chicago Portage and helped establish Chicago emerge as a transportation hub of the United States before the construction of railroads in the area. The canal, finished in 1848 with a total cost of $6,170,226, was 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep, with paths constructed along each edge to permit mules to be harnessed to tow barges along the canal. To cover the 140-foot height difference between Lake Michigan the Illinois River, the canal was built with seventeen locks and four aqueducts.

Towns were planned out along the path of the canal spaced at intervals corresponding to the distances the mules could haul the boats and barges. The canal had its peak shipping year in 1882 and remained in use until 1933. After 1900, the remaining transportation function of the I&M Canal was largely replaced with the construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which ran from the South Branch of the Chicago River to Lockport, a distance of 28 miles. Work began in 1892 on the easternmost section of the canal and completed in January of 1900.

The Illinois Waterway is a water transportation system of canals, rivers, and lakes 336 miles long that begins at the Calumet River and ends at the mouth of the Illinois River at Grafton, Illinois. It was begun in the 1920s and completed in 1933 to provide a deeper and wider water passage for larger ships to travel through the northern Illinois region.

Today much of the I&M Canal is a long, thin park with canoeing and a 62.5-mile hiking and biking trail (constructed along the original mule tow paths). It also includes museums and historical canal buildings. A portion of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which included a collection of eight engineering structures and segments of the canal between Lockport and LaSalle-Peru, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964. Much of the canal has been preserved as part of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, established by the U. S. Congress in 1984.

History and Scope of the Collection

The Illinois and Michigan Canal Historic Photographs collection was originally created by historian John Lamb, who in 1964 began collecting I&M Canal-related photographs and other materials relating to the history and development of the canal and surrounding communities. In 1983, he donated to Lewis University the I&M Canal photos, which made up a considerable part of a vast donation of materials relating to the I&M Canal. The donation became a part of the Lewis Canal and Regional History Collection, which was renamed the Howard and Lois Adelmann Regional History Collection in 2009.

The date range of the online image collection runs from 1859 to 1948, and generally relate to the history of the I&M Canal and adjacent and feeder waterways, their construction, and their locks, bridges, aqueducts, and boats.

The largest number of photos in the collection is devoted to locks, particularly those in Lockport, but also those at Channahon, Marseilles, and Aux Sable. There is a considerable collection of photographs of the bridges notably in Lockport covering the 9th Stone Bridge, 16th Street Bridge, and 135th Street Swing Bridge, but also bridges in Chicago, Channahon, and Lemont.

The collection is particularly rich in vintage photographs of boats and barges on the various waterways, notably a number of photos of an old canal boat, the City of Pekin. In addition, the collection includes many early photographs of mills, warehouses, grain elevators, and businesses that served the shipping trade along the various waterways in this collection.

Questions about this collection? Contact: or 1-815-836-5306

Select the collections to add or remove from your search