The need for an all-water trade route became obvious after Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The promise of great lands was confirmed by the reports brought back by Lewis and Clark in 1806, leading to a flood of migration to the west. An additional water route was required, and Congress commissioned a study for a canal to replace the portage. In 1818, Illinois was admitted to statehood. At that time the northern border of the state, originally intended to be near the south tip of Lake Michigan, was moved many miles north so that the entire potential route of the canal would be in a single jurisdiction.29

The report to Congress in 183330 is full of enthusiasm (and hyperbole); "There is not, perhaps, on the face of the globe, a place where such a mighty physical revolution could be produced with so little human labor."31 An Illinois and Michigan Canal was proposed, at an estimated cost of $4,299,43932, which later grew to a construction cost of $6.5 million.

Route of Illinois and Michigan Canal and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
The I & M Canal, as designed, was to run from the Chicago River at Bridgeport southwest over the continental divide and then parallel to the Des Plaines River, finally meeting the Illinois River at La Salle Peru, where the Illinois River became fully navigable. The total length was to be ninety-six miles. The general dimensions of the waterway were to be sixty feet wide by six feet deep. The locks were to be one hundred ten feet long by eighteen feet wide33. There were to be fifteen locks to accommodate the one hundred fifty foot drop34 from Bridgeport to La Salle. There were aqueducts to allow the canal to pass over the Fox River and over smaller streams. Locks allowed water-level crossing of other rivers.

To feed the canal and operate the locks, water was to be supplied from many of the rivers and streams along the route. Water was also to be pumped into the canal from the Chicago River, which induced a slight flow out of Lake Michigan in dry weather.35


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