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Hennepin Canal both ahead and behind its time

By Lydia Sage, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

From its inception in 1834, the Hennepin Canal and its feeder canal have played important roles in local history.

Click here for larger view.
Photo courtesy of Ronald Reagan Birthplace Museum, Tampico
The first boat passes through the Hennepin Canal near Hennepin about 100 years ago. It was about at this same spot that a boy who would grow up to be president, Ronald Reagan, first learned to swim.
It's unique construction methods were a proving ground for techniques used to build the Panama Canal, and former President Ronald Reagan learned to swim in the feeder branch near his boyhood home in Tampico.

The canal system was built between 1890 and 1907, but, according to historians, was obsolete almost before it opened as a plannned major waterway between the Illinois River in Bureau County and the Mississippi River in Rock Island.

The waterway, originally called the Illinois and Mississippi Canal, was to provide a "shortcut" from Chicago to the Mississippi, via its sister canal, the Illinois and Michigan Canal.

Although those plans didn't pan out, now the 96-mile-long Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park provides a recreational paradise for an estimated 750,000 visitors annually, according to parkway site superintendent Steve Moser.

The parkway's 400-acre visitors' center and recreation area is located near the intersection of Illinois 40 and U.S. 6, just off Interstate 80, which parallels the main east-west canal. The center includes hundreds of pictures and items which tell the story and provide a living history of the Hennepin.

The T-shaped waterway was designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after decades of debate about its value. It meanders through five counties -- Whiteside, Lee, Bureau, Henry and Rock Island.

Fed by water from the Rock River in Rock Falls by the 29-mile-long "feeder" canal, the Hennepin was open for free commercial navigation from 1907 until 1951, unless it was frozen during winter months.

It never acheived the predicted success, in part, because it was a different size than the Illinois and Michigan Canal, Mr. Moser said.

"Although it didn't pan out, it held the shipping prices down," Mr. Moser said, noting at the time, railroads offered the quickest and cheapest methods. By the time the Hennepin was constructed, rail rates had dropped and load capacities had increased, Mr. Moser said.

"In the 1830s, it was the local farmers that wanted a way to get their goods to market. The Hennepin would provide a shortcut for the businesses in the Quad-Cities to get their goods to Chicago," Mr. Moser said, noting no one realized technology would change so quickly as the Hennepin was being built.

However, Mr. Moser said, the approximately five-mile stretch of the main canal between Colona and Milan was successful in its early years, because it was finished in the late 1900s.

During the early construction phase, many local residents benefited financially by contracting to work, often using their own teams of horses and mules to pull earth scrapers that carved the waterway, Mr. Moser said.

"It provided a nice paycheck for many of the local people in nearby towns," he said.

Parkway site interpretive program coordinator Judi Jacksohn said a handful of small towns struck financial paydirt during those construction years when the work camps settled near the communities. Tampico, Wyanet, Sheffield and Geneseo were among those where businesses, boarding houses and individual families made extra money from the workers.

"In the 1900 census, the towns on the eastern end of the canal had a lot of taverns that disppeared and, by the 1910 census, were gone," Ms. Jacksohn said.

However, the hoped-for financial boom the communities anticipated after construction ended never materialized, she noted.

She said her research has revealed many interesting stories about the people and the era during construction.

One first-hand account she found tells of the hobo camps that followed the construction. "The hobos worked for a few days for some money and then went back to their `slothful' ways," the story went, she said. Ms. Jacksohn said she is eager to find as much history as possible for the programs she presents at the visitors' center or when she is invited to speak at schools or for groups.

The staff especially would like to hear from descendants of the Hennepin lockmasters and other employees who lived in the 52 houses that lined the canal during the years it was in use. Today, six of the original houses still stand along the parkway, Mr. Moser said.

During its life, the Hennepin always provided recreational uses for people from the surrounding communities, Mr. Moser said. "Some people even took their vacations there in the early years," he said.

The Corps also allowed ice businesses along the Hennepin during the era before electricity, when people still used blocks of ice to chill food in "iceboxes," he added. Grain elevators also sprung up along the Hennepin to serve local farmers.

By 1951, the Corps closed it to commercial navigation, but allowed recreational use to continue until the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (then the state department of conservation) took over the parkway when the state acquired it from the federal government in 1970, Mr. Moser said.

The 6,000-acre parkway is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its innovative construction methods that have withstood the tests of time, Mr. Moser said.

It was the first federal canal project in which concrete -- mixed on site -- was used without stone facings to build the 33 locks, nine aqueducts and other critical structures, Mr. Moser said.

As testiment to the innovative method, Mr. Moser said 32 of the locks are still visible and five are in working condition, though not in use. Only six of the aqueducts remain, but one which carries the Hennepin over the Green River south of the visitors' center provides tourists a remarkable view of nearly century-old technology ahead of its time.

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.