A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
During the late summer of 1996, an unusually strong thunderstorm deposited more than 15 inches of rain on Chicago's southwestern suburbs within 24 hours and destroyed a dam across the DuPage River at Channahon that supplied a large section of the Illinois and Michigan (I&M) Canal with water. The unexpected result was the exposure of seven canal boat hulls within a section of canal known as the Morris Wide Water, a turning basin or wider section of the canal that allowed boats to pull over for others to pass, on the eastern edge of the community of Morris in Grundy County. This part of the canal is owned by the State of Illinois, Department of Natural Resources, which contracted our company, Fever River Research of Springfield, to conduct an archaeological study of these resources to determine their potential National Register of Historic Places eligibility.
The I&M Canal, which opened for navigation in the summer of 1848, connected the southern tip of Lake Michigan and the port city of Chicago with the upper Illinois River Valley, transforming the northern part of the state from a sparsely settled frontier district to a commercial, agricultural, and industrial region that supplied Chicago with a wide variety of commodities. Interest in building the canal began immediately after the War of 1812. The federal government granted the State of Illinois a 90-foot-wide corridor of land in 1822 for construction of this waterway, and the next year, a Canal Commission was created to oversee the design and construction of this internal improvement project. Funding and design of the canal proceeded slowly with the official ground breaking ceremonies held on July 4, 1836.
During the initial years of construction, settlement along the canal corridor was sparse, and contractors relied heavily on recruiting Irish immigrants for their work force. Many of the workers settled along the corridor, improving farms within the countryside and establishing businesses. But the financial panic and economic crash of 1837 was devastating, and by 1842 work on the canal had stopped. Although construction resumed shortly thereafter, the canal was not completed for another 11 years a cost of more than $6.4 million. Stretching 97 miles in length, the Illinois and Michigan Canal had a six-foot-deep channel, 60 feet wide at the top and 30 feet wide at the base, and required 15 locks, numerous aqueducts, and multiple feeder canals to operate. During the early years of navigation along the canal, packet boats, traveling at the rate of five to six miles per hour, transported passengers and small commodities, competing successfully with the overland stage and teamster service of the period. By the Civil War, most of the cargo carried along the canal was made up of bulk commodities such as grain, coal, stone, and lumber. These boats traveled at a slower rate of about three miles per hour.
The greatest tonnage hauled on the I&M Canal occurred in 1882. By the late 1880s, competition from railroads had taken its toll; tonnage hauled along the canal quickly declined. By the 1890s, most of the canal boats that had been in use were relocated to the Illinois River. Although several studies were conducted during the late nineteenth century to revitalize or expand the canal, they resulted in only limited improvements to the waterway, with a greater percentage of canal traffic relegated to pleasure boating and leisure activity. The Calumet-Sag Canal, which opened in 1906, cut through the I&M Canal, forcing traffic along its upper reaches to travel along the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal, which connected Chicago with Lockport and was initially designed to transport raw sewage from Chicago to the Mississippi River. By the late 1910s, canal boat traffic along the Illinois and Michigan Canal had all but ceased. It was officially closed in 1933 with the opening of the Illinois Waterway, a nine-foot channel maintained by a lock and dam system within the Illinois River.
Not a single canal boat has survived intact in Illinois, and little is known about their construction. The earliest canal boats in Illinois were brought over the Great Lakes from other areas such as the Erie Canal. By the late 1850s the majority of canal boats were being built at one of three boatyards located along the I&M Canal at Peru, Lockport, and Bridgeport (Chicago). Archival research indicates that the men responsible for constructing these watercraft had immigrated to Illinois from such areas as New York, Canada, and England, and probably were trained in traditional maritime construction techniques through an apprenticeship system of labor. Unfortunately, these traditional methods of construction generally relied on personal experience, which utilized few measured drawings. Except for photographs that detail the exterior of the canal boats, little or no information (such as scaled plans, patterns, or ledger books) has survived regarding interior details of construction or layout.
Our knowledge of canal boats along the I&M Canal was greatly increased with the discovery of the remains of the seven boats at the Morris Wide Water. They are generally about the same size, some 15 feet wide by 100 feet long. Canal boat size, which varies dramatically from region to region, is dependent predominately on the size of the locks along a canal. The boats at the Morris Wide Water had been constructed to fit exactly within the space allocated by the smallest lock along the canal corridor. The largest boat carried a cargo of 150 tons.
A wide range of local hardwoods, particularly white oak, was used for the construction of the hulls. Nonlocal wood, such as white pine, was used for the construction of the deck cabins. All of the boats were constructed using a plank keelson, a wide oak plank laid down the center of the boat from which the stern and bow posts were attached. From this plank keelson, the ribs were attached allowing the construction of the bottom and sides of the hull. The construction of the bow, stern, and rib framing was slightly different on each boat. Some of this variability appears to be related to the date when the boats were built. With the earlier boats, the bow post was carved from a curved section of oak with an adz to form the deadwood necessary to support the vertical post. Later vessels were constructed of multiple pieces of sawn lumber fastened together with large iron drift pins.
Another substantial difference in boat construction techniques was noted in the manner in which the side frames (or ribs) were attached to the floor frames. All boats used sawn-oak lumber for the ribs and floor frames. The joint where these two framing members met was strengthened with an additional piece of triangular wood called a futtock. Some boats only had a single futtock lying on one side of the frame, whereas others had two futtocks, one on each side. Similarly, some boats utilized only nails to join the futtock to the frame, while others used combinations of bolts and nails.
These variations in framing techniques may be related to idiosyncratic differences between craftsmen or the construction practices utilized at various boatyards. These differences may also reflect functional or quality differences between the boats. Those with multiple futtocks attached with multiple bolts were much stronger vessels capable of holding up to rougher use and heavier cargoes than those that had a single futtock nailed onto the frames. Whether these framing details reflect functional differences between grain boats and stone boats, for example, is unknown at the present time.
Information from our investigations has also hinted at the interior layout of these large vessels. Harness hardware and bottles (both glass and ceramic) were found in the bow sections, suggesting the stabling of horses or mules within the hold. Personal items, furniture remains, and cooking utensils found in the stern sections suggest residence by canaler families or boat hands.
The dam at Channahon has been rebuilt, this section of the canal has water in it, and the remains of the canal boats are again safely buried. The limited archaeological investigations conducted at the site have given us detailed insights into the construction and use of these watercraft, and have allowed us to determine that these submerged resources are indeed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
Floyd Mansberger is the Director of Fever River Research, a cultural resource management firm located in Springfield, Illinois, which specializes in historical archaeology. Christopher Stratton, the senior historical archaeologist with the firm, oversaw the excavation of the canal boats and produced the line drawings used in this article.