Chicago’s Fourth of July celebration in 1836 wasn’t the biggest party the city would ever see, but it wasn’t bad. The day was beautiful, and the local residents flocked to the site of the festivities. “Never a brighter day beamed on the world,” wrote one early Chicagoan. “The sun shone down brightly, and it was just cool enough for linen jackets. Early in the morning cannon and music roused the town, and Chicago, small as it was, swarmed with anxious people.”

It wasn’t their country’s 60 glorious years that infused the citizens with such good cheer, for they had their thoughts firmly fixed on the future: they were about to dig a ditch that would change the course of history, the Illinois and Michigan Canal. “The ceremony of throwing out the first shovel full of earth was to be performed at Bridgeport,” continued the chronicler, “and speeches were expected on the occasion; hence, from an early breakfast hour, the hearts of the citizens were set on an excursion.”

Even the mischievous boys who filled the ceremonial wheelbarrow with mud before the scandalized eyes of their elders knew the significance of the proposed Illinois and Michigan Canal: it would connect Lake Michigan with the Illinois River, almost 100 miles to the west, thereby linking the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River for navigation. It would bring forth a crop of thriving towns from the prairie soil. It would make Chicago the greatest city in the west.

As they made their way up the Chicago River to Bridgeport in vessels of various shapes and sizes, some of the older residents must have remembered how unattainable this day had seemed just a few years before. In 1830, only 100 people lived in Chicago; at an early land sale intended to finance the canal, lots sold for a paltry average of $34 apiece. In 1832, the Black Hawk war and a cholera epidemic reduced immigration to a standstill.

By 1836, though, the Indians had been banished west of the Mississippi, and a federally financed breakwater created a safe harbor in the lake at the mouth of the Chicago River. In 1835, small lots of city land were selling for $15,000 and more. Newcomers from the east snapped up lots at constantly inflating prices, even though the canal was not yet begun. Digging a 100-mile ditch couldn’t take long, speculators figured, not in a can-do state like Illinois.

So the Fourth of July celebration was dominated by a giddy optimism that seems quaint today, even though we know now that it was justified. Speeches were given, the steamer Chicago ran aground in the river, someone poured whiskey into a spring, and the day ended with a rousing brawl between homeward-bound revelers and a party of Irishmen who had been refused passage on one of the riverboats. The canal was off to a great start.

Soon, claimed one proponent, the canal’s waters would flow “like the benevolent impulses of the heart to embrace a continent, and to mingle in the warm gulf stream of an ever-circling beneficence. Yet uninviting as Chicago is, to the tourist, and with few exceptions to the resident, it is and will be a place of business, the thoroughfare of emigration, the entrepot of western commerce. This will make it wealthy, prosperous, and great.” A contemporary gazetteer reported, “The face of the globe may in vain be examined to find any other spot, except the sources of Orinoco and the Rio Negro, in South America, where natural facility to internal communication by water is equal to that we have this moment surveyed. If we glance an eye over the immense regions thus connected; if we regard the fertility of soil, the multiplicity of product which characterize these regions; and if we combine these advantages afforded by nature with the moral energy of the free and active people which are spreading their increasing millions over its surface, what a vista through the darkness of future time opens! The view is indeed almost too much for the faculties of man. We see art, science, industry, virtue, and social happiness, already increasing in those countries beyond what the most inflated fancy would have dared to have hoped thirty or forty years ago.” By 1848, when the digging was done, no less than six cities had been founded on one 14-mile stretch of the canal.

On an early summer day 151 years later, I’m sitting in my aged Chevette at the place the canal began, where the south fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River veers south into Bridgeport. There’s no shouting, no celebrating, only the roar of traffic on the Stevenson Expressway and on Ashland Avenue just to the west. A gravel parking lot has replaced Levee Street, which paralleled the lock leading into the canal. Here a pumping station lifted water from the river into the canal. Now there are only a few ramshackle businesses, selling diesel fuel and fast food, and cars and trucks scattered about. One truck has on its side a huge painting of a pile of watermelons, surmounted by a black man. On the cab’s door is a watermelon globe, the dark green whorls forming the continents of North and South America, as in a satellite photo.

I recheck the map to make sure I’ve found the right spot, wondering if this is an auspicious way to begin a trip along the Chicagoans’ dream canal. I’ve spoken to a few canal authorities, but I’m counting largely on chance to show me the changes the years have wrought; here, it seems, time has wiped out just about every trace of the old Illinois and Michigan.

A middle-aged man walks up to the car; he says nothing, but obviously wonders just what I’m doing in this part of town.

“I’m looking for the place where the old Illinois and Michigan Canal started. It was right around here.”

“Oh.” And he walks away.

I get out of the car and walk to what was once the east end of Levee Street at the south fork. The scrub grows thick here, and the bank is steep, so I can’t get down to the river. All I can see, through the twigs, are floating beer cans and styrofoam bits pushed by the fresh lake breeze into an inlet–all that remains of the mouth of the canal. I hop back into the car and drive southwest, hoping to find a place where the canalscape is more readable, where history has not been wiped out so completely.

The canal no longer exists anywhere within Chicago city limits. Back in the 1950s, when the expressways were being built, sometimes through thriving neighborhoods, the by-then derelict canal offered a perfect route to the southwest. So the muddy ditch was filled in, and the Stevenson Expressway was built over it.

The I&M Canal provided the commerce that made a major city of Chicago. The canal opened a vast new market to Illinois farmers, who normally sold their goods in Saint Louis. Suddenly they could ship their produce east, via Chicago, and sell it at much higher prices. The first steamships to reach Chicago had gone back east with sand as ballast, because it had been too difficult to carry agricultural products from the prairies to Chicago for return shipment. A traveler in the Illinois valley in the 1840s had noted, “The crops are so abundant that all I heard the good people complain of was having more than they knew what to do with. This is indeed a lamentable state of things.”

That all changed in 1848. In that year, the canal opened to great festivities, and soon farmers were shipping their corn, wheat, pork, and beef to Chicago, where the goods were loaded onto ships.

Mail-order and wholesale businesses started up. The city’s first stockyards opened in 1848. By snatching away much of the trade that would otherwise have gone down the Illinois River to Saint Louis, Chicago became in a few crucial years the chief metropolis of the midwest. That first year the canal earned over $86,000 in tolls.

The area between what we now call Kedzie and Harlem avenues was a long, straggling marsh, inundated in spring, a plain of mud in summer. To avoid old Mud Lake, as they called it, the canal builders laid out a road along a ridge that had served as an Indian trail and named it after William B. Archer, an early canal commissioner. A central portion of the old marsh is now occupied by the Stickney waste treatment plant, “the largest sewage treatment plant in the world,” according to the Sanitary District.

Indian canoeists and explorers in boats passed through Mud Lake and a sluggish stream called Portage Creek to the Des Plaines River. There’s a small forest preserve there today, just west of Harlem and north of the canal, something of an emerald green oasis in a wilderness of industry.

I drive from the expressway to the forest preserve and walk to the creek through which Indians, voyageurs, and settlers passed. The water is muddy, but I can hear a few birds singing, and the trees shut out most of the industrial noise. To the northwest, a Santa Fe train of piggyback trailers crawls along. Someone has stolen the commemorative plaque from the boulder overlooking the creek.

The Stevenson veers west in Summit, and the Illinois and Michigan finally appears, tucked somewhere between the Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Illinois Central tracks. The Sanitary and Ship Canal was begun in 1889 by the newly formed Metropolitan Sanitary District to replace the obsolete I&M, and to change the flow of the sewage-laden Chicago River away from the lake. Here, in Summit, the I&M is a wide, muddy ditch, its surface often broken by rocks and debris, and it’s hard to get to. To celebrate its centennial, the Sanitary District is establishing a trail system; in two years, a 25-mile trail should parallel the old canal from the forest preserve at Harlem Avenue all the way to Lockport.

The Sanitary District, which owns the lion’s share of canal frontage from Summit to Lockport, has other, bigger plans ahead. One, says Sanitary District commissioner Gloria Majewski, will be opening the pumping station in Hodgkins to visitors: “The [trail] system will go through our mainstream pumping station, and that station will be open for them to come through and look at the pumps and go down into the shaft, which is about 350 feet into the ground, and they can look at all the engineering and technological exhibits that we have there.” Additional parking facilities and increased access to the canal will complement ambitious plans for an I&M historical museum near Willow Springs.

Such improvement plans have been cropping up all along the I&M since a 120-mile-long, 300,000-acre area along the canal was declared a National Heritage Corridor in 1984. This designation came about largely through the efforts of Lockport native Gerald Adelmann, a preservationist who is the executive director of the Upper Illinois Valley Association, a nonprofit group that promotes redevelopment and conservation along the old canal route. During a conversation in his office in the Monadnock Building, he explained that his group’s efforts have a threefold thrust: to improve recreational opportunities and conserve the corridor’s rich natural resources; to restore buildings and other relics of the region’s history; and to improve the area’s economy. Designation as a National Heritage Corridor–the first in the country–has raised the level of awareness of the area’s resources, and “also has created a framework for cooperation between various levels of government and [the] private sector that did not exist before. There’s some shared vision and goals that people could kind of buy into.”

Adelmann argues very persuasively for the power of shared goals. In the 1970s, much of the canal corridor had fallen on hard times, and its role in the making of Illinois and Chicago had been forgotten. Yet in the midst of industrial decay and unemployment, Adelmann found pristine natural sites and historic buildings. And he’s been very successful at linking them–not under a single governmental authority, but with a vision that recognizes the area’s diversity as its greatest strength. “The National Heritage Corridor, then, is this urban cultural park, it’s this whole landscape, there are five counties involved, it begins at Navy Pier and extends down to La Salle/Peru, and then it continues out to Lake Michigan . . . It’s not just the little I&M Canal itself, that’s the spine or the historical feature that provides the dominant theme and sort of holds it together; but it’s portions of 19 Chicago neighborhoods [and] 40 other communities through a five-county area; it includes extensive existing forest preserves and local parks, eight major state conservation areas and parks . . . the agricultural land, the industrial sites, the whole landscape.”

A well-defined, clearly marked trail will be one improvement, since it’s hard to get to the canal in southwest Cook County. At Willow Springs I have to go down a street marked “Dead End” to find it: a little farther on, at Henry de Tonty Woods, I have to ignore a “Private Property: No Trespassing” sign, then wait for a train of tank cars to move, before I reach the muddy canal, paralleled by its gravel trail.

Somewhere near Willow Springs I cross over what was once the Illinois-Wisconsin line. When a bill admitting Illinois as the 21st state was introduced in Congress in 1818, the proposed state boundaries were those laid out in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. According to that document, Illinois’ northern border was to extend straight west from the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Recognizing that a canal contained in one state would be built more readily than one that had to cater to the interests of both Illinois and Wisconsin, Illinois territorial delegate Nathaniel Pope pushed through an amendment establishing the state line at its present location, much to the distress of Wisconsin’s tiny population. By giving Illinois a port on Lake Michigan, Pope also helped give the state a northern bent. Had the line not been shifted, some historians have argued, most Illinois commerce would have been directed down the Mississippi, and Illinois would have been essentially a southern state. What effect did Pope’s amendment have on the nation’s history? If Illinois had been part of the Confederacy, who would have won the Civil War?

South of Willow Springs Archer Avenue becomes a fantastically pretty road, twisting through a tunnel of trees under a wooded bluff that’s a sharp contrast to the flat Chicago plain. The road goes through the largest forest preserve in Cook County for some four miles here, ending at a cemetery entrance where the road intersects route 83. From the elaborate gate a steep road leads up to the Saint James of the Sag Church, a simple but elegant structure that has crowned this hilltop for some 150 years. From the church you look down over green terraces dotted with headstones–the Saint James cemetery. Beyond, wooded bluffs drop steeply to the valley floor.

About 10,000 years ago, the view would have been even more dramatic. To the north, where the Des Plaines River is now, and to the south, where barges traverse the straight Calumet-Sag Channel, one would have seen large rivers carrying the outflow from glacier-fed Lake Chicago, Lake Michigan’s larger, higher predecessor. The two streams joined just below where the church is now, and continued down the valleys of the Illinois and the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

As the Ice Age ended, the lake waters receded and began to flow north through the other Great Lakes to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The great streams below Saint James’s hilltop shrank to become mere tributaries of the Illinois. When white men began the task of reconnecting Lake Michigan and the Illinois in 1836, most of the workers were Irish, immigrants straight off the boat who had been brought to the wilds of the northwest with the promise of unlimited hard work and a dollar a day. When the backbreaking labor, poor sanitation, and disease became too much for them, the men were buried in the rolling terraces around Saint James–the first church in the area, built of the very limestone the workers had dug through in the valley below. They rest in beautiful cemetery plots with sweeping views of the canal they helped to build.

The canal builders had a hard time in the lowlands near the church. John Lamb, a professor of history at Lewis University in Romeoville, told me they were actually working in a swamp, and had to move the Des Plaines River in an effort to drain the waters. A bigger problem was the hot, humid, insect-ridden climate. Cholera, typhoid, and what was generically called “canal fever” carried off so many workers that canal digging became known as a highly dangerous job. Still, during the 12-year construction period, contractors were usually able to attract the number of workers they needed, up to 7,000 yearly in the last years before completion. Not many of the laborers stayed for more than a season, says Lamb. “There was nothing here to hold them, and once the construction season was over–they weren’t farmers–there was nothing here. The big problem, really, and the thing that makes it unique in the construction, is that it was built in a land where it was virtually unsettled. There was no population here at all, hardly, and in fact I suspect that the biggest influx of population was these workers who came in to build it in the latter stages. When it was built it wasn’t to connect anything that was economically viable to connect.”

Workers were willing to risk disease and work in an empty land, though; what really bothered them was not getting paid. Dogged by financial problems, the Canal Commission, an agency set up by the state, resorted to paying contractors and workers in scrip, which, says John Lamb, “when it came right down to it, wasn’t accepted.” Workers rioted when this happened, and many must just have walked away. Some used scrip to buy cheap land along the canal, land that became valuable only when the I&M was completed.

Lemont Road sweeps into the Des Plaines River valley from the bluffs to the north and crosses the triple waterway–river, Sanitary and Ship Canal, and I&M Canal–on a mammoth modern bridge. From the heights of the north bluffs, the town of Lemont is attractive, almost old-worldly; it sprawls against the south bluff, its spires and old stone buildings intermingled with tall shade trees. Against this backdrop, the new bridge, the electric pylons, and the huge oil tanks in the valley are jarring, an intrusion of the 20th century.

The bridge passes right over Main Street, the hub of the old business district, which is also pierced by the I&M and the railroad. Amtrak trains with ear-splitting whistles still use the tracks, but the canal has grown quiet. Not only quiet, but also rundown, for its rock walls are crumbling, and plastic oil containers, beer cans, and antifreeze jugs bob about on the water’s surface.

Along the west bank of the canal is National Park Drive, an ironic name, I think, for a badly pitted gravel road that holds together just long enough to get me to the ramshackle houses at the south end of town. Beyond, the road turns into a rutted trail.

Lemont is laid out simply, with its main streets parallel to the canal and the railroad, each street higher up the bluff than the next. The old downtown is clustered around the railroad tracks, while the newer industries have set up along the Sanitary and Ship Canal southwest of town.

In the residential areas just south of downtown, older frame houses give way to brick bungalows as I climb the bluff, crossing Porter Street, McCarthy Street, and then streets with names like Sobieski, Ledochowski, and Czacki. Beyond the bungalows are new suburban-style homes. Near the top of the bluff, many command splendid views of the Des Plaines valley; splendid especially because most signs of industry and of Lemont’s downtown are hidden by the wooded slopes. Across the road workmen are laying the foundations for a new subdivision. The people who move in will probably commute straight to Chicago or Du Page County across the new bridge, and will never have to pass through the old downtown.

I walk back to the old residential district and ask Carolyn Swanson about the waterfront. She’s looking through the archives of the Lemont Area Historical Society in a building known as the Old Stone Church, constructed of local waste stone by parishioners in 1861. She’s searching for pictures of the I&M, but having little success. “There used to be a nice trail by the canal,” she says. Are there plans to restore it? “Oh, there’s no plans anymore in this little town.”

She seems resigned to accepting Lemont as a forgotten town, perhaps because she’s old enough to remember, personally or through family stories, Lemont’s glory days. That was back when Lemont was a quarry town, shipping stone that was used to build Chicago’s Water Tower, among other things.

“Lemont was a wild and woolly town back in those days, with a saloon on every corner,” she says. Her father’s father was a quarry worker. Her mother’s father was killed in an accident while helping to build the Sanitary and Ship Canal. Her father used to take the Chicago & Joliet interurban train to work in the Argo corn products plant on the I&M in Bedford Park.

“Poor Lemont,” she says. “The downtown is dead and now they’ve built this new bridge, and you just zoom over the business district.” Still, the old bridge was “getting so bad you were afraid to drive over it, were afraid it would cave in. That’s one good thing we got, the high-rise bridge; we love it.”

Lemont’s main street passes under the new bridge and takes me southwest, out of town and into an industrial no-man’s land that straddles the road and the Cook-Will county line. Like the quarries, the steel mills and oil refineries were drawn here by good transportation links–the I&M and the successors that would put it out of business, the Sanitary and Ship Canal and the railroads. The first locomotive began running in Chicago the same year the I&M opened; in 1852 the Rock Island line reached La Salle, and passenger traffic on the canal dropped to nothing almost immediately. Still, bulk freight could be transported cheaply on the canal, and the value of tolls collected didn’t peak until 1866. The I&M died when the Sanitary and Ship Canal was completed in 1900; the new channel could handle ships far larger than the canal boats.

From the steel mills I cross the I&M and its successor on a narrow lift bridge. The road takes me past acres of coal at Commonwealth Edison’s Will County station and leads to a small island in the Des Plaines River. There I find the Isle de la Cache Museum, which the Will County Forest Preserve District set up a few years ago to honor the voyageurs, the French explorers and fur traders who used to come this way. I walk into a large room where two birchbark canoes are on display, and am corralled there by one of the volunteers; he seems eager to escape the 15 young Girl Scouts who are giggling in the next room. Short and portly, he wears a T-shirt with a logo: “The” Battleship. He was in the Navy, he explains, as he leads me into another room.

“I’m the volunteer cutler here,” he says, grabbing a sizable knife from the sheath on his belt. “But if I earn a buck or two now and then, that’s OK. I spend a lot of time here.” He shows me how to moisten a flat stone with grease (“The voyageurs used animal fat or maybe even leftover soup”) and how to sharpen the blade by drawing it across the stone. He laughs when he says “voyeurs” instead of “voyageurs.”

Soon the knife is passably sharp (“Feel that blade”) and we return to the first room, which has exhibits showing how Indians and voyageurs lived. “Everyone has this image of the Indians as a stern people,” he says, “but that’s really not true.” With that he picks up two yard-long sticks and two leather balls connected by a supple leather strap and insists that I play a game of “mooseball.”

This turns out to be an Indian game like lacrosse. We stand at opposite ends of the parking lot and fling the balls back and forth with the sticks. We keep score, and end up tied. “After the first 400 innings,” says my host, “the rest of the moose fell off, and they were glad, since it couldn’t fall on them anymore.”

After our game I try to walk around the Isle de la Cache–named, it is said, for its use by voyageurs as a hiding place (cache) for their furs–but high water has made much of the ground impassable. These were exactly the sort of conditions the voyageurs liked. When the water in the Des Plaines and the Chicago was high, the portage between the two rivers was short. In summer or fall, when the Des Plaines was just a series of stagnant pools, they must have had a terrible time dragging their canoes and bateaux, laden with furs to ornament the courts of Europe, through the ooze.

A few miles downstream I try to get a picture of the landscape the Indians and voyageurs knew: near Stateville Correctional Center, I turn off route 53 and take Division Street down the bluff into the valley to the Lockport Prairie. This small 120-acre preserve is an unusual type of shallow-soil prairie that has virtually been eliminated from the area; among other things, it supports leafy purple prairie clover, the nearest other samples of which are to be found in Tennessee.

The river roars among the tree trunks by the bridge. Over in a marsh ducks are swimming about, while a white egret is bobbing and dipping elaborately, occasionally darting its beak into the shallow water. In 1850 an English traveler reported bagging “40 couple snipe” here on a three-hour hunting expedition.

Walking along the road, I see occasional bits of litter glinting in the water. A turtle lies by the edge of the road; I think it’s dead, until I touch it and it starts. It begins moving, very slowly, off the road. The prairie plants look unremarkable to my untrained eye; dead stalks are everywhere. Unseen animals rustle under the cover. To the west, on the bluff, traffic rumbles by on route 53; to the north I can see grain elevators and the great bridge that spans the river at Lockport. It’s difficult to imagine what the scene would be like without the traffic, the industrial buildings; still, it’s a start. The truly rural stretches of the canal are all farther west.

Driving from the prairie into town, I can see that Lockport is paying more attention to its history than Lemont. As traffic slows, the I&M appears to my right. A well-groomed gravel trail parallels it through its woodsy setting. To my left are about a dozen old-looking buildings–structures, I discover, that were gathered from all over Will County by the local historical society and transplanted here.

I turn left off route 7, drive up State Street one block, and park between the Aristocat Feline Clinic, which has an old-time wagon on its roof, and the I&M Canal Museum, in the white frame building that housed various canal commissioners over about a century. Inside the museum, volunteers are giving tours. Pauline Pinn says the building was “the second most important in Illinois, after the state capitol in Vandalia.” The town was blessed with an abundance of water power, and for a time was northern Illinois’ largest mill town. Boats coming from Bridgeport passed through the canal’s Lock One here, she explains. Also, “Lockport was where tolls were collected. When the boats tied up, the crews went on land to look for refreshments, whether food or liquid. Lockport just boomed.”

Sure of its impending wealth and power, Lockport built, in 1838, the first industrial building along the canal. It served initially as a mule barn and later as a warehouse and factory; an addition housed a store. Today, the Gaylord Building is one of Gerald Adelmann’s favorites. After standing decrepit for years, the building has just been restored as the result of private initiative (and funding) that began with the National Heritage Corridor designation. The developer “did not want to get involved,” says Adelmann, “unless he felt this fit into a system. . . . that it served a meaningful purpose in Lockport as an anchor for redevelopment of the downtown.”

And after a lot of private funding and tax credits, the Gaylord does look superb, a dream in creamy yellow limestone, fronting the canal as it did 125 years ago. As I visit, a restaurant is being set up on the ground floor; it features traditional American fare, of course. The old store section on the east end has been turned into a visitor center and museum. Adelmann sees the complex as a mere precursor to the extensive redevelopment that he hopes will soon be going on throughout the canal corridor.

A couple blocks south I find Arduino Besi talking on his mobile telephone behind the red-brick Hotel President, which is over 100 years old. Besi, whose family runs the Hotel President in Asiago, Italy, bought the hotel in Lockport at the end of last year and is now trying to turn it into a luxurious establishment with the aid of his son, his daughter-in-law, and a staff of six. He ushers me into what is to be the restaurant. To me it’s just a large, gutted space, but Besi can see doorways, a stage, and dining space taking shape. In a thick Italian accent, he points out the details-to-be: “We going to have dropped ceilings here, wall lights, then chandeliers, mirrors, plants, over here.”

We walk around a corner. “We going to have the entrance here, right where it used to be.” We take the elevator upstairs, and Besi explains that he and his wife looked at the building two years ago at the suggestion of a relative in Lockport. At that time it was a rooming house, in great disrepair: “Our first impulse was to walk away.” But after a gastronomic tour of the area, they decided that a quality Italian restaurant would do well in Lockport. “We decided to give it a try, and now we’re working like mad.”

After the restaurant’s grand opening this fall, Besi will begin the renovation of the rooms upstairs, a job that is slated to take three years. “It’s a hard job, because it’s a big building and it’s very old. It’s a very complicated job, because whatever you touch falls apart.”

He points out a carved wooden bannister from which, he says, his workers stripped six coats of paint. In the hotel rooms, getting past the false ceilings and paneling to the original dimensions is a big problem. The antique plumbing, Besi says, is also a major headache, since no one knows exactly which pipes go where.

Wherever possible his men are retaining the fine old architectural details, the doorways and windows. “We haven’t got the old plans, but we trying to do things in the old style.” The crowning touch will come in three years, when Besi plans to rebuild the original cornice, removed years ago.

Later, in his small apartment behind the hotel, Besi goes on about the restaurant. It will have “luxurious food, personal service, and reasonable prices. Americans appreciate good service.” He thinks it’s appropriate to have an Italian restaurant in an old American building: “We Italians are used to repairing the past.” The mix of history and commerce that is catching on in Lockport, he notes, is something Europeans have been good at for a long time.

He tells me that his wife and daughter will come to Lockport later in the year to help run the hotel. Soon, he says, Lockport will be a boomtown. “We think it’s a terrific opportunity, especially for the kids. In Italy, the government is always changing, the taxes are always changing. So we hope to stay here forever.”

A few miles south of Lockport, on the north side of Joliet, the I&M joins the Des Plaines River for a few miles. In 1869, the Union Coal, Iron and Transportation Company hauled some native Joliet limestone to the junction and began building what became a mammoth steel mill. It was outfitted with Bessemer converters–among the first in the U.S.–and, blessed with good transportation facilities, was incorporated into U.S. Steel and expanded virtually continuously. Joliet, which had been known as Stone City because of its quarries, became Steel City.

By 1983 most of the plant’s 170 acres were derelict. Only 200 workers were employed there, down from about 5,000 during World War II. Gerald Adelmann was one of the few who recognized, or hoped, that the outmoded works could still serve a valuable purpose in the community. “There’s an incredibly rich history–labor history, social history, economic history–tied to that, and it was so much the identity of the town, too, and here it was derelict, abandoned, in large part. Our feeling was–and it turned out to be that of the community too–if that could be turned around, that would be a major victory, not only in terms of the jobs and things that could be generated by revitalizing the site, but by building on the heritage and turning what has now become blight and a negative thing in the community into a positive force.”

It’s a testimonial to Adelmann’s salesmanship and vision that he was able to persuade USR Realty, the steel firm’s development division, not to sell the land, but instead to help develop what has been dubbed the “Heritage Business Park.” With the help of community groups and preservationists, a plan was developed to convert the site into a model office and light industrial park featuring historical and recreational amenities. Industrial archaeologists, so goes the vision, will interpret old plant buildings and techniques, while new industries will fill restored or newly erected buildings, and joggers will plod by on a canalside trail.

It’s too early to see results. I stop in to see John Zaborske, USR’s midwest project manager, at the firm’s office near the plant entrance. The USR office is in the basement of a graceful old limestone building, and Zaborske’s tall frame seems just barely to fit into the low-ceilinged space.

“Funds are short,” he says, explaining that USR is glad to help restore the site, but does expect some sort of return on its investment. The main problem so far has been attracting interested companies. Still, he claims that the spirit of cooperation that Adelmann described is present. “The city and county,” says Zaborske, “have been very helpful in finding potential sources of income and activity.”

The park is very much a long-term project. In the meantime, there are signs that life is returning to Joliet. Its unemployment rate, the worst in the nation in 1983 at 26.5 percent, has been halved to 13.1 percent, and several new firms have located in the area. Joyce Schenk, of the Joliet/Will County Center for Economic Development, says, “We’re making the transition from heavy manufacturing industry to a more balanced, diversified economy.”

Still, the city of Joliet was harder hit by unemployment than the surrounding region, and there are few overt indicators of economic health in the blocks south of the old steel mill. Houses are shabby, businesses boarded up. Even the IHOP, I notice, has closed down. On a Saturday morning, I park in front of the Vagabond Restaurant and visit the local historical society. The place is still closed, so I walk around downtown Joliet, feeling as though I’m waiting for the entire city to open. There are a few people on the streets, but hardly any stores. The emptiness is all the more eerie because it’s obvious that a lot of money has been poured into restoring the beautiful old limestone buildings and creating a mall, complete with benches and flowering trees, along Chicago Street, in the center of town.

Soon I’m the only visitor in the historical society’s two-room museum. “I can remember,” says the young woman tending shop, who can’t be much past her 20s, “coming into town on a Saturday and it would be so jammed you couldn’t move. Now it’s like a ghost town.” There are lots of people with money in town, she says, but they live on the outskirts, and “go to Orland Park, Fox Valley, or Lincoln Mall to do their shopping.”

A century and a half ago the I&M Canal helped make the midwest a market and dramatically raised the standard of living in prairie towns like Joliet. When pioneer farmers became able to sell their goods in the east, at relatively high prices, they began converting their wheat and corn into shoes, clothing, machinery, and such luxuries as sugar, molasses, and fruit. Suddenly household implements no longer needed to be handmade; they could be shipped from Chicago. Wood for houses and fences no longer had to be scrounged from the barren prairie; it could be imported from Michigan. In 1848, the year the canal opened, the price of lumber in Peoria fell by half. Even migration became easier. Passage from Chicago could be booked on a “packet boat” that charged $3 fare and was far more comfortable than a crammed stagecoach.

The canal helped Chicago and its ancillary cities get on their feet, and gave birth to the Des Plaines valley’s heavy industries. After several decades of decline, the towns are making a comeback, but it’s a slow, difficult process. As I leave the museum I feel I’ve seen enough of these old industrial towns. What has happened, I wonder, to the smaller canal towns farther out–to those rural settlements where industry never came, where the silence was punctuated only by the clip-clop of horses’ hooves and the slow lapping of waves? I cross one of Joliet’s elegant green lift bridges and head southwest.

“Planned Progress, Pleasant Living” reads the sign outside the low municipal building on route 6 in Channahon, about ten miles southwest of Joliet. The phrase goes through my head like a mantra as I drive around aimlessly, looking for downtown. After 15 minutes or so I conclude that downtown is the small grid of streets just east of the Du Page River, lined with unpretentious, one-story frame houses. I stop at a fast-food place at the quiet corner of route 6 and Canal Street and order a poor boy. The guy sitting next to me at a plastic outdoor table points to an olive green frame house on the opposite corner.

“If I lived there, I’d sure put the bedroom on the side away from the road.”

“It must be sort of noisy.”

“Oh yeah. I couldn’t stand it. All that traffic going by.”

Outside the central grid of streets, a few scattered subdivisions bud out in cul-de-sacs lined with bold, large suburban houses. Channahon is about as far from Chicago as regular commuters are willing to live, and there’s lots of open space.

Here, where the suburbs give way to country, the I&M Canal State Trail begins where the canal used to cross the Du Page River. Barges descended through one lock to the river and crossed to another lock that lowered them further, matching the descent of the riverbed. The lockkeeper lived beside the upper lock, in a two-story frame house that was recently restored and painted pristine white.

After lunch I head down to the lower lock, admiring its construction of massive stone blocks that still butt together tightly after 150 years. The wooden lock gates, though, which the lockkeeper opened and closed by hand to let boats in and out, are long gone. Leaving the welter of giant cottonwoods by the parking lot, I set off on the trail, heading south along the old towpath between the canal and the river. With its gentle current and weedy banks, the canal actually looks like a river here. To my right, across the canal, is a grassy slope that runs up to some woods; to my left, fishermen try out spots on the forested riverbank.

The trail turns southwest as the Du Page joins the Des Plaines. A few miles further on there’s a sharper bend to the northwest where the Des Plaines joins the Kankakee River to form the Illinois. I sit down by the bank under a small wooden shelter. It’s an arresting scene: the two streams meet before the dome and red-and-white striped chimneys of Com Ed’s Dresden station, the oldest commercial nuclear power plant in the country; it seems to emit a slight hum. Just in front of me, surprisingly near, a towboat pushes a string of 15 barges, heaped with coal, downstream in rows of three; the long procession takes forever to go by. The throbbing of the tow’s engines is pierced by the whine of speedboats, which dart about like water striders. Just under me, waves from the confused wakes slap against the rock-and-mud shore.

A little further along the trail I stop to read one of the occasional interpretive signs; it tells me that a house, barn, and cemetery across the canal mark the site of the stillborn town of Dresden. As I read, a family of three comes cycling along the trail, a mother, father, and teenage son. They, too, stop to read, but they must’ve been here before, for they’re well versed on canal history.

“Those canal boats must have been a great way to travel,” says the father. “No noise, no ruffling, just very smooth.”

“I’m sure they were a lot better than the stagecoaches,” says the son. “On those, passengers had to shift to one side, then the other side if they tipped.”

“It was probably pretty hot sometimes,” says the father, “but if they could sit out on deck it would be nice, fresh air, a little breeze . . .”

“Well,” says the mother, “they didn’t have air conditioning in those days, so they didn’t know what they were missing.”

But the throbbing of engines still cuts through the air, and the trio leaves to go look at the Dresden Island Lock and Dam, where three sets of barges are stacked up, waiting to “lock through” and head downstream.

Canal travel probably was idyllic at times. Passenger packets, the fastest boats on the canal, were drawn by horses at the leisurely pace of five miles an hour. It must have been pleasant to while away the time on deck, watching the pastoral landscape go by. Energetic passengers could walk along the towpath, behind the horses and beside the boat, while those who remained on deck had to duck whenever the boat passed under low bridges.

Below deck, though, conditions were different. The cabin of such a boat was just slightly larger than a CTA bus. Up to 90 passengers shared this space for lounging, eating, and sleeping. By most accounts, the cramped quarters made for great sociability; foreign visitors especially were treated with great respect. Meals were served communally, “the never-failing beef-steak being as tough as usual,” according to Arthur Cunynghame, a British officer who traveled through Illinois in 1850.

Sleeping arrangements were practical and cozy. Charles Dickens traveled through Pennsylvania in a canal boat in 1842: “When going below,” he wrote, “I found suspended on either side of the cabin, three long tiers of hanging book-shelves, designed apparently for volumes of the small octavo size. Looking with greater attention at these contrivances (wondering to find such literary preparations in such a place), I descried on each shelf a sort of microscopic sheet and blanket; then I began dimply to comprehend that the passengers were the library, and that they were to be arranged, edgewise, on these shelves, till morning.”

Female passengers, of course, were decorously separated from the men by a curtain.

Imagine spending a night on a CTA bus with 90 of even your closest friends, and you’ll see why many canal boat passengers, Cunynghame among them, slept poorly. “With so many passengers in so confined a space, no wonder that on the following morning I should awake with a severe headache, the effect of the heated, nauseous vapours which surrounded us. Not a window was permitted to be opened; I made various endeavours to break through this rule during the night, but every window within my reach was fastened down. This however may be considered but a wise precaution; for the malaria from the surrounding marshy land, and especially from Mud Lake, distant about fifteen miles from Chicago, which we passed within a very short distance, is very dangerous.”

From Dresden I walk back to Channahon and the car, and take a quiet, curving road–Old Route 6–into Morris. On the west side of town the canal and towpath cross Nettle Creek on an aqueduct and pass by Gebhard Woods State Park, the headquarters of the I&M State Trail. David Carr, who supervises the 61-mile trail, has his office there. He hopes to have the entire distance from Channahon to La Salle surfaced and completed in three years. The canal contains water for about half that distance, and on those stretches hikers and bicyclists will be joined by canoeists. Business, says Carr, is “picking up a lot”; the number of visitors increases every year.

Carr is not the first to be charged with the beautification of the I&M corridor. When the final segment of the I&M closed in 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps began turning the right-of-way into a linear park. Trails and picnic shelters were built, but maintenance proved lacking, and by the 1950s the corridor was forgotten. Ironically, it was the paving over of the 13-mile Chicago segment of the canal that galvanized grass-roots opposition to state plans to sell other parts of the canal–opposition that finally resulted in the National Heritage Corridor designation.

A lot of the visitors to the Gebhard Woods segment of the trail walk the mile to what is billed as “the largest tree in Illinois,” a storm-split cottonwood 120 feet high that looks out over the canal as it did when packets passed by daily. As I wonder who went all over Illinois measuring trees, I watch fish rise and make strange sucking noises at patches of scum on the surface of the canal.

The canal builders banked the canal up higher than the surrounding countryside here, so walkers on the towpath look down into the canal on one side, down into the woods on the other. Between the rounded banks the canal is sluggish, but wide and deep looking, less marked by floating debris or mud banks than the sections I’ve seen before. It’s the first place where the canal has the imposing presence one expects of a once-vital artery.

Route 6 is the highway that most closely parallels the canal from Joliet to Peru. The auto-touring brochure put out by the Upper Illinois Valley Association suggests taking other, even smaller roads much of the way, but route 6 never veers more than a few miles from the canal, and it is the sort of uncrowded two-lane road that is much loved by recreational motorists. West of Morris the road leaves the Illinois River Valley and heads across the prairie, becoming a part of the rectangular grid of arrow-straight roads that overlies much of Illinois. The narrow two-lane road is bumpy at times, but there’s little traffic, and it doesn’t take long to get to Seneca and from there to Marseilles. Here route 6 drops into the valley again, and whisks motorists along its curves about halfway down the bluff. Soon the woods part to reveal Ottawa, one of the biggest towns along the canal.

I stop in Ottawa, where route 6 enters town beside the canal. The I&M crossed the Fox River here on an aqueduct, the longest in its 96 miles. “What a wonderful view in passing through!” wrote a Dutchman who came through the aqueduct on a canal boat in 1849. “First our artificial canal with towpath, then beneath a broad streaming river, further on numerous waterfalls pouring over and among the rocks . . .”

The river is still there today, but I can’t spot any waterfalls. The aqueduct is still there too, but it is dry, and high enough that it will probably never again hold water. I walk along it, but it’s nothing more than a dry steel basin, its walls covered with graffiti.

From the aqueduct I go down a curved stair of great stone blocks to street level. As I hop off the last block I run into a tanned, elderly man taking his granddaughter for a walk. “Yes, it’s amazing what they did back in those days,” he says, when he sees that I’ve been taking pictures of the aqueduct. Everything grew up along the waterways. Then all the railroads came through, and now it’s just trucks. There’s a lot of guys making a living now driving trucks.”

We’re standing on a sharp curve behind the abutment of the aqueduct, and have to keep an eye out for traffic. The man tells me he’s glad to see the Department of Conservation putting some money and energy into sprucing up the canal and towpath, noting that Michigan and Wisconsin, in the past, promoted tourism more than Illinois. “There’s good roadside restaurants in Wisconsin and Michigan,” he says, “but if you’re headed up to Chicago, you can stop in Morris, but there’s nothing else. West of here, there’s Princeton and Lay Salle, but then nothing clear to the state line. But the Department of Tourism’s pushing Illinoise now.” He’s from southern Illinois, and that’s how he pronounces it.

Above us, the canal bed continues west through Ottawa, raised above street level. While the canal was still in operation the townspeople of Ottawa sat on their porches and watched canal boats glide by above them. There were more active amusements, too, as Edmund Thornton tells me; his grandfather founded Ottawa Silica Company in 1900. He tells me how “as young people, when the water was there, we swam in the canal, played in it, and it was always there.”

As the president of Ottawa Silica’s foundation, Thornton has been heavily involved in redevelopment projects around Ottawa. Mining is a messy business, and 86 years of silica and coal mining near Ottawa left a good deal of desolate land. Vast sand pits west of Ottawa have slowly turned into marshes; from the company’s Overlook Park, they make a rather impressive panorama, glinting in the sun against the backdrop of a modern factory building.

At a nearby coal strip-mining site, though, Ottawa Silica has gone out of its way to reclaim the denuded land in an unusual manner. The company commissioned artist Michael Heizer to construct a set of five huge earth sculptures on the 200-acre site. Heizer, best known for his earthworks in remote parts of the Nevada desert, modeled the structures after native animals and collectively named them Effigy Tumuli, in reference to the area’s Indian burial sites. When the project is completed (planting and construction of signs and walkways is still under way), it will perhaps communicate a sense of monumentality, of the vast size of the midwest and the human labors needed to tame it.

Thornton, who was instrumental in organizing the project, sees it as just one element in the resurgence of interest in area history. “Ottawa is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year, so they’re focusing a great deal of attention now on recreational opportunities [and] the early historical importance of what this canal meant to Ottawa, laid out by the I&M Canal Commission in the same year as Chicago was. So there’s a great deal of local interest. . . . There have been a number of individual efforts, by store owners, particularly, who take some pride in the sesquicentennial, doing some sprucing up in a historically accurate way.”

From the company headquarters I head west again through the hamlet of Naplate, really a suburb of Ottawa. On the weedy outskirts of town I spot Ottawa Silica’s Mill C complex, a remarkable structure that dates from the early years of the company’s history at the turn of the century. The lower three stories form a cube, atop which rests a five-story pyramid dotted with gabled windows; the structure towers over the valley landscape.

It’s a landmark, but the old building is pretty derelict, and no one knows what could possibly be done with it. “Unfortunately,” says Edmund Thornton, “the size of the structure and its location really precluded any viable economic use, that was the problem; it’s not that close to a large urban center that we can probably generate enough volume of traffic.” No one knows just how much tourist traffic the corridor can support, how many historical museums can be staffed and funded. So Ottawa will probably lose its mill.

From the mill Dee Bennett Road heads west between the canal and the river, passing Buffalo Rock State Park and then winding through groves of trees, the perfect smooth and curving blacktop of automobile-commercial dreams. Forest and river unwind as easily as in an auto-racing video game, and then, all too soon, I reach the Starved Rock Lock and Dam.

I stop in to see how the I&M’s descendant–the Illinois Waterway, which is made up of the Illinois and Des Plaines rivers and the Sanitary and Ship Canal–functions. I’m lucky: as I get there, the towboat Mallard is just entering the lock, shoving two barges filled with 4,600 tons of cement. She’s bound for Summit from Hannibal, Missouri, and I smile, recalling one of its sons, Mark Twain, that supreme authority on river travel and the American yearning for freedom in the west.

The great lock gates close behind the Mallard, and the water in the lock begins to rise. Scott Ford, a young employee with a heavy five-o’clock shadow, tells me that up to 15 barges lock through daily, at any hour of the day or night. “That, I think, is our third today,” he says of the Mallard. “We work three-hour shifts in the lock house. And it’s paid for by the federal government, so it’s open to all boaters.”

Indeed, a cabin cruiser from Florida is also in the lock, dwarfed by the barges, though the Mallard is pushing a light load: the heaviest, like the one I saw near Channahon, consist of 15 barges and 22,500 tons. Back in the I&M days the canal boats could manage up to 6,000 bushels of grain.

After ten minutes or so the water in the lock chamber has risen to the upstream level. The upper lock gates open and the cabin cruiser darts out into the broad reach of the Illinois. The brown water in the lock chamber blossoms into froth as the Mallard’s twin engines strain to push 4,600 tons of cement into the current. The captain gives a farewell toot of the horn, on which sits an immaculately carved mallard decoy.

A mile or two west I drive across the high Illinois River bridge at Utica, to Starved Rock State Park. It’s almost evening as I walk from the empty parking lot through the woods to Starved Rock proper; imposing by Illinois standards, the sandstone monolith commands a superb view of the river. The bluff is topped by a sprawling wooden deck intended to protect the soft, fragile rock from the erosion caused by thousands of tourist feet. The French explorer Rene-Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle and his lieutenant, Henri de Tonti, established an outpost here in 1682, part of a chain of forts meant to confine the English to the east. Illinois Indians, friendly to the French, soon camped in the area by the thousands; they came both to seek protection from their enemies, the Iroquois, and to trade furs.

Early chroniclers generally describe the Illinois as a peaceable tribe. Nonetheless, one of their number assassinated Ottawa Indian leader Pontiac in 1770, and in revenge the Ottawa and their allies the Potawatomies declared war on the Illinois. Outnumbered after a series of losing battles, the Illinois took refuge on Starved Rock. The Potawatomies surrounded the base of the rock, and the cornered Illinois began to starve. These events were recorded in 1847 by one Charles Lanman, who claimed to have heard the story “from the lips of a venerable Indian trader”:

“The Illinois were about to give up all for lost, when, in their frenzy, they gave a defying shout, and retreated to the rocky bluff. From this, it was an easy matter to keep back their enemies, but alas! from that moment they were to endure unthought-of suffering, to the delight of their baffled, yet victorious enemies.”

Some reports say the Illinois ventured forth to one last battle in an effort to avoid starvation, but not Lanman, who attributes the site’s name to fact: “Day followed day, and those helpless captives sat in silence, and gazed imploringly upon their broad beautiful lands, while hunger was gnawing into their very vitals. . . . Day followed day, and the last lingering hope was utterly abandoned. Their destiny was sealed, and no change for good could possibly take place, for the human blood-hounds who watched their prey, were utterly without mercy. The feeble, white-haired chief crept into a thicket and there breathed his last. The recently strong-bodied warrior, uttering a protracted but feeble yell of exultation, hurled his tomahawk upon some fiend below, and then yielded himself up to the pains of his condition. The lithe form of the soft-eyed youth parted with its strength, and was compelled to totter, fall upon the earth and die. Ten weary, weary days passed on, and the strongest man and last of his race was numbered with the dead:–and a glorious banquet was presented to the eagle and the raven.”

I lean against the wooden railing that encircles the deck, sipping a beer and wondering idly if eagles still haunt the skies over the river. The calm Illinois flows into the dam on this side of the lock and is churned into foamy whorls that look like clouds in satellite weather photographs; a towboat locks through, headed downstream, taking its time. Suddenly thumps on the deck announce new arrivals. Three women approach; they look about 18. One is skinny; two are very fat and make the deck shake as they walk. All three are wearing short shorts.

“You have to walk all the way up here, and then there’s nothing to eat–that’s why they call it Starved Rock,” laughs the skinny woman.

The first fat woman, taller than the second, finds a historical marker. “Oh look,” she says, “they use Vs for Us in this marker! ‘Below this ovtpost, symbol of French protection to the Indian tribes of the Illinois, developed Indian villages possibly nvmbering 20,000 sovls.’ That’s neat! I love it!”

The shorter woman has just poured the last of her Old Style over the edge of the bluff and looks out at the river. The tall one joins her. “Where’s that boat going?” she asks, pointing at the barges in the lock on the far side of the river.

“Through the lock.”

“You mean it’s not coming through here?” asks the taller woman, pointing at the dam directly below the bluff.

“No, it’s going through there.”

“Well, then I don’t care. I wanted to see this thing come up,” meaning the dam gates.

“I don’t think it does. It’s just a dam.”

“This does not look like the Illinois Waterway.”

They stomp off, and I soon follow, but take a different route, slipping through drifts of the Saint Peter’s sandstone that makes up the bluff. The trail leads me through the lodge area, where deserted log cabins await summer visitors. Each bears the name of a different Indian tribe–Potawatomie, Illinois, Iroquois–and each has an air conditioner protruding from a window.

Beyond Starved Rock, it’s not much farther to the end of the canal. The route recommended in the auto-touring brochure goes through woods south of the Illinois, crosses the steep valley of the Vermilion River, and then swings across the Illinois into La Salle’s business district. I turn left onto Canal Street and go west for a few miles into Peru, the terminus of the I&M. The road takes me by a maze of railroad tracks and the usual waterfront industries: lumber, chemical, scrap metal. Soon I find myself on Water Street, where steamboats once picked up canal boat passengers to take them down the Illinois to Saint Louis.

Back in 1847, an enterprising Bostonian named J.H. Buckingham traveled through much of Illinois, and found Peru “next to Lisbon, in St. Lawrence County, New York, the most uninviting place I ever saw. It is destined to become a great and growing village, the head and centre of a great trade. It is at the head of the navigation of the river, and already there are a number of stores, grog-shops, a barber’s shop, and two taverns. In the early days of the history of the Canal, it was built up with log huts and mud cabins, to accommodate the Irish mud-diggers, and they remain in all their primitive ugliness, and with increased nastiness, the larger part of the village–certainly the most peopled, if we count the dirty children and the independent hogs. I ought to state, however, that a little distance from the bank of the river, on the high bluffs, are some good farms, and several nice dwellings; my remarks must be considered as applying to the terminus of the canal.”

A few grogshops seem to be the only thriving businesses left in Peru in 1987. Some of the old riverfront buildings still line Water Street, but their solid brick facades are sullied by grime, their windows broken; most stand vacant. Besides the bars, fishing seems to be the main industry around here: men lounge on the far bank under trees, hoping for a bite.

Bud Kratz is sweeping the sidewalk in front of a three-story building that bears the legend “The Kratz Co.” He wears his 60- or 70-some years well, and doesn’t mind spending a few minutes to tell a passing stranger what his street once looked like, interrupting himself now and then to wave at passersby in cars and trucks. There’s not a lot of them, but Kratz seems to know every driver.

“This building here is 100-and-something years old–let’s see, it was built in 1857. It used to be a four-story hotel, and then it was a mattress factory.” He tells me he bought the place for $625 in 1948 and flipped the previous owner for $22 in back taxes.

“Over there,” he says, “where that vacant lot is, was a really modern bakery–conveyor belts and everything. Back when I was a kid, 65 years ago, there was some industry here. We lived up on the hill, but we weren’t allowed to come down to the river. Then as we got older we could come down here.”

He points to the far bank, where the anglers try their luck before an old house. “This is where the swing bridge used to be. That over there was the bridge keeper’s house. It was a big wooden swing bridge, and they used to let kids on to help swing it around. It was the only way to cross the river around here.”

He tells me to go to Maze Lumber, about half a block from his store, directly on the river. The Mazes, he says, have been in town as long as anybody. None of them are to be found in the spacious modern store this morning, but yard manager Don Leynaud leads me to a huge picture window in back, where he points out the channel that leads from the Illinois to the I&M. A few modern barges cluster around the channel opening, visible only as a gap in the wall of trees along the riverbank. In early spring in the 1850s, there would have been dozens of canal boats lined up, waiting for the ice to break up so they could make their first trip up to Chicago.

“Have you been down to Split Rock?” asks Leynaud. “That’s where they had a big battle. They brought Irish in to dig the canal, and two groups from different parts of the country met up and had a big shooting battle.”

Before I walk along the channel up to Split Rock, there is a visit I have to make: Leynaud tells me I should go see Roy Kurkowski, who was involved in the cleanup of the I&M from Utica to La Salle. So from the grimy waterfront I drive up the steep, wooded bluff and, just as in Buckingham’s day, find that there are some “nice dwellings” there, if no farms; Peru, in fact, looks like the quintessential American hometown. The streets are leafy, the houses tidy and painted with care and set back on well-tended lawns. Downtown, the churches and town hall bespeak a certain midwestern solidity.

A departing customer waves to me as I turn into the small parking lot before the Copy-All Service on Fifth Street. I find Kurkowski in his office; his annoyance at the intrusion quickly gives way to obvious enthusiasm for a pet project. I ask him about the cleanup. He explains that it began as a Rotary Club project in 1975: “When we started out people had vegetable gardens there [in the canal bed]. You couldn’t see Split Rock, there were so many trees around it. And this was not just light handwork. We were out there on weekends, after work . . .

“We’ve gotten the canal cleaned up, and we’ve got water in it. We feel we’ve been half-successful. We haven’t accomplished everything we set out to do, mainly because the state bureaucracy got in the way.” His complaint is directed at the Department of Conservation, which restored La Salle’s Lock 14, putting in new wooden gates. The gates don’t work, and to Kurkowski it is ridiculous that the Rotary Club volunteers accomplished far more with their free labor than the state did with taxpayers’ money. It is a classic example, says Kurkowski, of how bureaucrats work mainly to preserve their own jobs.

Rummaging through some papers, he pulls out a photo of an immaculate canal boat pulled by two mules, a scene from the Ohio & Erie Canal in Canal Fulton, Ohio, where boat rides have attracted tourists since the early 1970s. “That’s our ultimate goal,” he says, “to have rides for kids–the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, whatever–to show them ‘this is how it was.’ We could have rides start at Lock 14 and go up to Split Rock, then come back. . . . The area from here to Utica is the richest on the whole canal. We have the only lock with gates, Split Rock, and we’re near Starved Rock.” Wildlife and historic buildings abound too, he adds.

“Look, we have 13 percent unemployment in the area. If we had those tourists coming in, that would improve the job situation. We feel we’re sitting on a tremendous potential here. People are very free with their money when they’re on vacation.”

After our talk, I really want to see this Split Rock. I drive back down to Lock 14, park, and walk to the lock, almost in the shadow of the route 351 bridge. The nonfunctional lock gates are surprisingly large considering that lockkeepers worked such gates by hand. The downstream gates are chained shut to keep the current from pushing them open. Below them there is a wide basin, and beyond that the narrow channel that leads to Maze Lumber and the Illinois River, which I can just see in the distance.

A footbridge crosses the lock, and on its south side the gravel I&M trail leads off to the east. As I cross the bridge an elderly jogger finishes his run, barely panting.

“I like running here because it’s about 95 percent shade,” he says. “You ought to go down to Utica–they got that all fixed up now, all the way to Buffalo Rock. Have you seen Split Rock?”

I walk the few miles east on the trail, gradually leaving the noise of La Salle behind and entering what looks almost like pristine wilderness. The canal flows steady and slow; turtles sun themselves on logs, and snakes dart under cover as I approach. To my right is the floodplain of the Illinois; I pass a low-lying forest, then a wide, smooth lake alive with ducks. This is Split Rock Lake, which continues almost to Split Rock. The canal builders had to blast through a lone rock outcrop here, leaving behind two steep 50-foot bluffs with scant room between them for the canal, towpath, and railroad. I can’t think of a more apt spot for a battle between the two factions of sweltering “mud diggers.”

I walk back to the lock and sit on the concrete abutment that surrounds the small parking lot. Some young guys are hanging out next to their cars, drinking beer. I lean back and try to visualize the scene the way Roy Kurkowski pictures it: against the backdrop of trees and water, eager tourists are ferried up to Split Rock on canal boats of glistening farmhouse white with red and blue trim. Boys in period garb guide mules along the towpath, while women sell corn bread, lemonade, apple pie. Music from a marching band wafts in, mingling with the gentle rhythm of hooves on gravel.

Now the sun is going down, turning a fisherman by the basin below into a sharp silhouette. Birds are settling into the dark trees for the night. Even after shade has descended on the cars and the beer drinkers, on the fisherman and the old channel stopped up with modern barges, on the lock gates that don’t work and the highway bridge, on the now-quiet birds and the trees, I know that the fading rays of the sun are still slanting across the wide fields beyond the surrounding bluffs, illuminating the prairies of Illinois and Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska, the Great Plains clear across to the Rockies, a vast and fertile land.

I get into the car and drive north the few miles to I-80. The interstate slices straight across the landscape. There is little traffic, and I know I’ll be home in a couple hours.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.