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Outdated Hennepin a great escape

TAMPICO -- Plumb-bob straight, the tea-colored thread of water that defines the Hennepin Canal slips towards the horizon and out of the eye's view. It seems like an unending back drop of woods and water, broken only by the occasional bridge. Trees line each side and give the 100-plus-year-old corridor a sheltered feel.

Walk a quarter mile in either direction and the scenery only changes in its minutiae, perhaps an oak replaces an elm or the berry bush has turned from black to red rasberry. It can be almost unnerving, and spotting another, albeit infrequent, soul on the hardpack recreational path can almost be a relief.

Which is exactly what seperates the Hennepin from other area recreational paths, where time spent dodging fellow walkers, riders and even anglers can only add to the frustration path-goers are attempting escape.

Dispatch/Argus file photo

The Hennepin Canal is the place to go for those who want to get away but don't want to leave the Quad-Cities. The waterway, built more than 100 years ago, offers tranquil scenes, such as the one above, good fishing and recreational trails.

It's also what draws nearly 750,000 people to the canal each year. It is what draws Ed and Kelly Madlin of Polo to the 29-mile portion called the ``feeder'' canal, which runs straight south along Illinois 40 from the Sterling-Rock Falls area and supplies the main canal with water from the Rock River.

The main channel, which runs east and west, runs parallel to Interstate 80 for 75 miles, from the Illinois River on one end to the Mississippi on the other. The cycling duo have paused their weekend ride to watch a muskrat waddle through the thick grass fringing the canal bank.

``We try to come out every weekend,'' Mr. Madlin said. ``It's good for us because there's no hills, no traffic and almost no other people to worry about. We don't go far, just a couple miles out and back. Parking is never a problem. If a lot looks busy, you just keep going to the next one.''

A kingfisher slips through the air, ripping and razoring over the silent water. Its wingtips drag occasionally to provide a slight ripple in its indifferent surface. The black of the bird's silhoulette ghosts over the backdrop of trees and disappears. Moments later, another, or perhaps the same bird, takes its place.

The Hennepin Canal slips quietly through five counties, never being too far away for most visitors. Site superintendent Steve Moser, who works at the visitor's station two miles east of Sheffield, where the canal and the feeder meet, said that's why he believes the canal is as popular as it is.

``The people who visit can spread out -- even on busy days, you can go for a long time without seeing someone,'' Mr. Moser said. ``It allows people to get away without having to go too far away. It is accesible to folks who have a hard time getting around and offers something for everyone -- fishing, hiking, cross country sking, bike riding, bird watching, boating, canoeing.

``We are one of the most popular areas for snowmobiling in Illinois and draw people from as far away as Wisconsin and Michigan in really good years. It really is a diamond in the rough.''

The canal and banks are state-owned, and for 150 feet on each side, visitors will see only trees and fields, making it an excellent area to view native wildlife, according to Mr. Moser.

`The trees are mostly hardwood-oaks, hickory and maple,'' he said. ``Depending on the time of the year, there are bluebirds, flickers, woodpeckers, great blue heron. We even have bald eagles. Mink, muskrat, deer, beaver, mallards and Canada geese, pheasant, fox, coyote, skunk -- it's a pretty good representation of what kind of wildlife there is in the state.''

Fishermen use the canal frequently because they can pull good-size bass and catfish out of the Hennepin. The Department of Natural Resources regularly stocks the canal with bass, walleye, blue gill, crappie and catfish, according to Mr. Moser.

``I like the locks, sitting there and listening to the water run over them,'' Mr. Moser said. ``It is very relaxing. It's quiet enough, I can hear myself think.''

The channel has burbled its way from fiasco to fame, turning from an ill-timed attempt for wealth by the barge-full in its construction to providing residents a chance to slip out of the stream of the everyday and into the languid confines of the sleepy current.

Built in the 1890's, the Hennepin Canal was used as a passageway for coal from Spring Valley and salt from Chicago, but by the 1930s, it was used primarily for recreational traffic.

The men who planned the Hennepin 150 years ago were hoping the Hennepin would go the way of the I&M Canal and make the towns along it rich. The I&M detoured the unnavigable part of the Illinois River east of LaSalle-Peru and gave Chicago a direct route to the Mississippi. The supporters of the Hennepin proposed to shorten the way to the Mississippi by another 400 miles by running their new canal straight west.

However, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally started construction in 1890, small canals were already dying throughout the Midwest. The Hennepin was already outmoded by the time the first boat traveled it in 1907.

Although made obsolete by freight trains and other modes of transport, the canal did ship coal from central Illinois to Rock Island until the coal fields finally closed. In two years, Morton Salt Co. sent a total of 3,200 tons of salt from Chicago to Davenport. International Harvester used the canal to move steel and scrap iron to Moline in the 1930s.

The Corps did make back some of the original $7 million price to build and run the canal by selling ice permits, building ice houses and renting pasture along the right of way.

However, by 1940 the Hennepin was ready to give up its ghost.

It wasn't open to boat traffic until 1951. In 1970, it was placed under the supervision of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, according to Mr. Moser.

-- By Todd Welvaert (January 26, 1998)

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