Communities celebrate Illinois & Michigan Canal 30th anniversary
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org August 24, 2014 6:58PM
Doris Peterman, of the Lemont Historical Society, leads a caravan tour through Lemont's Heritage Quarries. | Susan DeMar Lafferty/Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 26, 2014 1:44PM
It was a day for reminiscing and rediscovering the history of their own communities as a group explored several historical sites along the Illinois & Michigan Canal this weekend to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its designation as a National Heritage Corridor.
Cari Szczesniak and her husband Roman, of Woodridge, have canoed and biked along the canal, but their love of history drove them to participate in the Canal Caravan — a two-day tour along the I&M Canal as the Canal Corridor Association launched a yearlong celebration commemorating the creation of the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor as the nation’s first such area.
Ana Koval, now Canal Corridor Association president, remembers when President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation on Aug. 24, 1984. The canal had been nearly forgotten — at one time Lemont even considered filling it in, Koval said.
But community leaders envisioned this as a historical, cultural and natural landscape, tying together all the communities along its 96-mile stretch from south Chicago to LaSalle/Peru.
“A lot has happened in those 30 years,” said Koval.
According to the National Park Service, the I&M corridor — now one of 49 heritage corridor areas in 32 states — features historic canal towns, nature preserves, state parks, museums and more than 80 miles of recreational trails, which collectively draw more than a million visitors annually.
The creation of this national heritage corridor brought together people who had a common mission and a common goal, Koval said.
“This (celebration) is a way to thank everyone who has come together over the last 30 years,” she said.
The corridor now shows off Lemont’s limestone churches and buildings, it old quarry sites, and the historic districts in Lemont and Lockport — where the former I&M Canal headquarters is now a museum.
Those in the weekend caravan got to know these sites more intimately and learned why it was important to hand dig the canal and blast through its limestone base back in the 1830s and why it has become equally important today to preserve and acknowledge its rich history.
Over the course of two days, 125 participants visited 15 sites from Lemont to LaSalle, signaling the beginning of the celebration and scratching the surface of the canal’s history.
“We have so many cool places, so many resources, so many cool stories to tell. We can’t do it all it two days,” said Koval.
“If you have a good grasp of this (canal) history, you have a good grasp of American history,” said the Rev. Thomas Koys, pastor at St. James Church and host at the first stop on the Saturday tour. “This little church makes me think of American history.”
St. James was built in 1853, on Archer Avenue in Lemont, using limestone from the nearby quarries. According to the church history, it took six years of “back-breaking work to haul enough stones to the top of the hill” where the church still stands, overlooking a 180-year-old cemetery.
The next stop, appropriately, was the Lemont Heritage Quarries and Lemont’s historic downtown, home to not only the I&M, but the Cal Sag Sanitary and Ship Canal and Des Plaines River.
“It was a devil to dig, but once it was dug, it was sturdy and permanent,” said Doris Peterman, of the Lemont Historical Society, who pointed out the still-intact limestone walls along the canal.
Thomas Tibble, of Joliet, said he never realized that the canal was dug by Irishmen — one of many interesting tidbits of history the group would glean on this tour.
Their daily wages were $1 or $1.25 and a ration of whiskey, said Peterman.
An exceptionally fine grade of dolomite limestone was mined in the Lemont quarries from 1850 to 1900, and was used in the construction of many buildings, including the Chicago Water Tower, Old Stone Church and the Chicago Stockyard gates. After the quarry business, underground springs created the lakes used today for recreational purposes.
“I learned how to swim here,” Peterman said.
“Back in the ’60s, I fished for crappies off the cliffs after high school,” Dave Koetz recalled as he walked along the canal path in Lemont.
In its heyday, it was the scene of labor strikes and riots, said Jerry Adelmann, who was involved in the effort to create the I&M National Heritage Corridor.
“The quarry history is pretty rich. There’s a lot of labor history here,” he said.
Joe Karcavich, of Lemont, would like to see boat tours up and down the canal to and from Chicago.
“Think of what it would do for the economy,” he said.
As Koval noted, the canal inspired a lot of people to do a lot of different things.
In Lockport, there is now the Lockport Gallery of the Illinois State Museum on 10th Street, where the current quilt exhibit tells the stories of women during the Civil War.
Just outside is the public landing area — which was the first place for boats on the canal to stop.
Along the path, visitors are attracted to an art display in the water, called Riverweaving, and can continue on to the I&M Canal headquarters, a home built in 1837 that now houses the Will County Historical Museum.
Inside is one of the most interesting discoveries of the day — a vault filled floor to ceiling with books, documents, letters, obituaries, maps and photos that tell the personal tales of lives in this canal town.
Other stops on the two-day tour included Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the Grundy Museum in Morris, a LaSalle Canal boat ride, the Hegeler-Carus Mansion in LaSalle and the LaSalle County Historical Museum in Utica.
“We live in the area and never see this,” Edith Tibble, of Joliet, said. “You have to be able to appreciate the stuff right around us.”