A letter from the PresidentBy David G. Barber
About the last canal to be built in the towpath era was the Illinois and Mississippi Canal, usually referred to as the Hennepin Canal. The canal connects the middle of the Illinois River at Great Bend, straight west 104 miles to the Mississippi River at Rock Island. The canal was built with its 33 concrete locks 35 feet x170 feet, which were much larger than those of the Illinois and Michigan Canal with which it connected. When the Illinois and Michigan Canal was replaced by the Illinois Waterway, the new waterway had even larger locks. Thus the Hennepin was always out of step. Having two canals in the same area with the same I & M initials probably didn't help either.
By 1954, the Corps of Engineers had decided that the Hennepin no longer met its commercial mission and moved to close the canal. Fortunately, the most drastic option of filling in the canal for its entire length was not adopted. Instead, the route was converted to a state park and became a long series of skinny ponds divided by non-working locks. In addition, three of the nine aqueducts were replaced by siphon culverts under the involved rivers. But the feeder and most of the route remain watered. In fact, about 40 miles of the feeder and summit level remain as a connected, watered level.
When one of our members recently asked about the possibility of restoration, he received the usual response of too high a cost. I'm sure that if any of us were asked to pay for a mile of interstate highway, we might also be blown away by the cost. But new highways keep getting built and older sections get rebuilt. That's because the expected value of the new or rebuilt road is much greater than the cost.
So, what would be the value to the local economy of restoring a route such as the Hennepin? How does that compare to the cost? What are the operating costs? Might these costs be reduced by constructing smaller locks beside or inside the original ones so that they could use less water and be operated by boaters instead of employees? What about the creation of a mid-west cruising ring (the canal plus the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers)? What would be the effect on tourism? Would this help the area's economy?
There is some concern about conflicting with fishing, but the fishermen use boats now. How does reconnecting the pools degrade that? Besides, east of a point halfway between Locks 6 and 5, the canal is now dry. Can't do much fishing in a dry canal. Anyone who has cruised an English canal knows that boating and fishing are very compatible. There, the pressure wave of passing boats is known to stimulate the fish.
I believe that the state park people have done a great job with the resources they have available. Our task is to help protect the canal by getting more people to have a reason to use and therefore conserve it. That will increase the resources available for the effort and the value of the result.
I believe that we need to consider our old canals as economic engines, just as they once were. Except, now the business is tourism, not transportation. If an economic case is made for restoration, the canals with be both used and preserved.
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