Following a smattering of frontiersmen, explorers, and fur traders who moved through the area, early non-native settlers were predominantly farmers and tradesmen who settled here after the War of 1812 until the early 1830s. The construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which began when the first shovel of dirt was removed symbolically on July 4, 1836, caused tremendous changes in Lemont. With the sudden availability of jobs for canal workers, immigrants flocked to the area.
Before construction could begin, roads were needed to transport construction supplies. The first road to be laid out, between Chicago to Lockport, was Archer Avenue. It followed an Indian trail, developed from what probably was originally a deer path, and was named for Colonel William Archer, one of the canal commissioners. It cost $40,000 to build, and this created somewhat of a scandal at the time, since Colonel Archer was not only a canal commissioner, but had extensive property in Lockport and would clearly benefit personally from the road. It would seem that the patronage system in the area got an early start.
Be that as it may, the road was important not only to the canal, but to the settlers, who needed road transport to get their produce to market; they competed for land close to the crucial roadway, as completion of the waterway was still long off. As a result of proximity to Archer Avenue, Lemont farmers did quite well, due to the demand for food to supply the canal workers.
The canal was to run 96 miles, from the Chicago River at Bridgeport to the Illinois River at LaSalle. It was to be 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep, and drop a total of 140 feet from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River, requiring 17 locks and 4 aqueducts.
Surely you’re familiar with locks, but aqueducts? You probably know aqueducts carry water from one location to another. But did you ever think about what happens when a canal meets another body of water? A body that might carry its water off in an entirely different direction? The photo above shows a solution, in this case, a wooden aqueduct, or water bridge, that carried the I&M Canal over Aux Sable Creek east of Morris, Illinois. There were four like this along the I&M.
Towpaths were laid out along the sides of canals so that mules could pull barges the length of the canal. Towns were located at intervals the mules could traverse, as rest stops, with barns to change the animals, and perhaps a saloon or two. Initially not only merchandise and supplies rode down the canal, but also passenger travel via barges was popular, until railroads, developed alongside the same route, opened in 1853.
You can probably guess that, although the canal greatly affected transportation, those mules didn’t set any speed records. The average rate of travel was about three miles an hour, providing there was sufficient water in the canal and it wasn’t frozen. Passengers, tired of sitting for long periods, often got out to stretch their legs and walked along the towpaths with the mules. Others just relaxed from the long hard hours of everyday life and watched the peaceful scenery pass slowly before their eyes.