Canal comes back to life as recreational and historic landmark
The waters are quiet now. The locks are in disrepair. The mule-drawn barges have long since disappeared. Once a symbol of the Midwest's economic might, the Illinois and Michigan (I&M) Canal has languished over the decades. Now, however, there are signs of renewal.Skip to next paragraph
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Old canal towns are taking a second look at the waterway in their backyards. Federal legislation signed recently has sparked hopes of an economic revivals.
''Finally, it's going to happen,'' says Gerald Adelmann, standing outside the boarded-up Gaylord Building, which is slated for renovation next year. Originally a depot and mule barn during the construction of the I&M, the building is the first here in Lockport, Ill., to be renovated as a direct result of the federal legislation - legislation that Mr. Adelmann helped lobby for as executive director of the Upper Illinois Valley Association.
On Aug. 24 President Reagan signed into law a bill designating the I&M Canal and the land surrounding it as ''a national heritage corridor.'' The federal designation is a first, encompassing 120 miles of waterway, 18 Chicago neighborhoods, and 43 other northern Illinois communities.
The legislation brings together a number of interests and varying priorities. In some areas, the focus of development will be recreational, with bordering parks and perhaps boating facilities. In others, the canal is seen as a historical landmark. In still others, communities hope recreational and historical interest in the canal will bring in new businesses.
So far, there has been a remarkable degree of cooperation, despite the different priorities.
''The important thing is the recreational potential,'' says David Carr, guiding his white pickup truck along the gravel road next to the I&M. As the state's superintendent of the canal, he is in charge of clearing the I&M of trees and building new hiking and bicycling trails. A new state tax will boost his budget some $3.5 million over the next four years to rehabilitate the western, rural half of the canal and adjacent state parks.
''You have 40 years of neglect to catch up on,'' he says. An economic upswing will depend on tourists coming to the canal for its recreation and history.
Several miles east of Mr. Carr, the canal winds past the large US Steel mill in Joliet. In 1980 the company closed down half the mill, leaving Louis Walsh, Midwest project manager of the company's realty development division, to lease or sell off 87 acres adjacent to the I&M.
''This is a whole new sense of developing properties from a historical point of view,'' Walsh says. ''We felt since we have a historic site, we gain very little by razing it.'' He is looking for manufacturing or other companies willing to locate in some of the 1.1 million square feet of buildings.
Meanwhile, the Joliet Area Historical Society has opened a mini-museum, celebrating the area's rich industrial and transportation heritage. Many communities like Joliet grew up because of the increased traffic on the canal, which, in its 19th-century heyday, linked the Great Lakes with the Illinois River and eventually the Mississippi. In the 16 years after the canal opened in 1848, Chicago's population nearly quadrupled, to 75,000.