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  Archeology of 19th Century Canal Boats  


Morris Wide Water,
Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail

Transportation corridors have always played a significant role in the settlement of Illinois -- whether during the prehistoric or historic period. In northern Illinois, the Illinois and Michigan 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 settlement of the northern region of the state. The construction of this commercial waterway helped transform the northern region of the state from a sparsely settled frontier district to a commercial, agricultural, and industrial region that supplied the port city of Chicago with a wide variety of commodities.

Interest in building a canal connecting these two waterways 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 not being accomplished until 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 Irish workers were later to settle along the corridor, improving farms within the many communities that sprang up along the corridor. In contrast, with the opening of the Erie Canal in New York State, many New England families settled along the corridor, bringing a strong Yankee culture to the region. By the late 1830s, settlement along the Canal had intensified and many small communities had begun to develop in the region.

The financial panic and economic crash of 1837 was devastating, and by 1842, construction had halted on the Canal. Although construction was restarted shortly thereafter, the Canal was not completed until 1848 at a cost of over 6.4 million dollars.

Stretching 97 miles in length, the Illinois and Michigan Canal maintained a 6-foot-deep channel, minimally 60 feet in width at the top (and 30' in width at its 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 5 to 6 miles per hour, transported passengers as well as a wide range of small commodities, competing successfully with the overland stage and teamster service typical of the period. By the Civil War period, and the introduction of the competing railroad system that paralleled the Canal, the majority of the cargo hauled along the Canal was bulk commodities such as grain, coal, stone, and lumber. These boats traveled at a slightly slower rate of approximately 3 miles per hour.

The greatest tonnage hauled on the Illinois and Michigan Canal occurred in 1882. By the late 1880s, the competition from the railroads had taken its toll and the tonnage hauled along the Canal quickly declined. By the 1890s, most of the canal boats that had been in use on the Canal had been relocated to duty along the Illinois River. Although several studies were conducted during the late nineteenth century to revitalize and/or expand the Canal, they ultimately resulted in limited improvements to the waterway with a greater percentage of the Canal traffic being relegated to pleasure boating and leisure activity. The opening of the Calumet-Sag Canal in 1906 cut through the Illinois and Michigan forcing canal boat traffic along the upper reaches of the I&M Canal 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, and the Canal was officially closed in 1933 with the opening of the Illinois Waterway - a 9 -foot channel maintained by a lock and dam system within the Illinois River.

The Morris Wide Water

The Morris Wide Water is a turning basin along the I&M Canal that is located on the eastern edge of the community of Morris in Grundy County. Turning basins are slightly wider sections of the canal that allowed the canal boats to pull over to the side and temporarily stop to allow other boats to pass.

During the late summer of 1996, an unusually extreme thunderstorm deposited over 15" of rainfall on Chicago's southwestern suburbs within a 24-hour period of time. A result of this torrential downpour was the destruction of a dam across the DuPage River at Channahon that supplied a large section of the Illinois and Michigan Canal with water. The unexpected result of the dewatering of this stretch of canal was the exposure of seven canal boat hulls within a section of canal known as the Morris Wide Water.

The Morris Canal Boats

Although once a common site along the canal, with hundreds of boats plying the waters between Chicago and LaSalle, not a single canal boat has survived to the present day in Illinois. As such, little is known about canal boat construction techniques in Illinois.

Although the earliest of canal boats were brought over the Great Lakes from other areas (such as the Erie Canal), by the late 1850s the majority of these massive structures were being built at one of three boat yards located along the Canal at Peru, Lockport, and Bridgeport (Chicago). Archival research indicates that the men responsible for constructing these water craft had immigrated to Illinois from such areas as New York State, 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 to no information (such as scaled plans, patters or ledger books) has survived regarding interior details of construction or spatial layout.

Our knowledge of canal boats along the I&M Canal was greatly increased with our recent study of the submerged resources at the Morris Wide Water. At this location, historical archaeological investigations have resulted in the detailed documentation of seven canal boats and have contributed to our understanding of the nineteenth-century maritime resources.

The canal boats at the Morris Wide Water were generally all about the same size. The preserved sections that we documented were approximately 15' to 100' long. Canal boat size, which varies dramatically from region to region, is dependent predominately on the size of the locks along canal. The canal boats at the Morris Wide Water had been constructed to fit exactly within the space allocated by the smallest lock along he canal corridor. The largest of the canal boats carried a cargo of 150 tons.

Although the Morris canal boats were remarkably similar in overall size, they varied dramatically in the techniques employed to construct these vessels. Some of the more significant information gathered by the archaeologists was related to how the boats had been constructed. As was expected, a wide range of local hardwoods (particularly white oak) was just for the construction of the boats hulls. In contrast, non-local wood such as white pine, was used for the construction of the deck cabins.

All the canal 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. Although the Morris canal boats were uniform in size, they exhibited great variability in their method of construction. Each boat examined exhibited a slightly different manner in constructing the bow, stern, and rib framing. Some of this variability appears to be related to the date when the boats were constructed. With the earlier boats, the bow post was fabricated by using an adz and carving the post from a curved section of oak tree utilizing the natural curvature of the tree to form the deadwood necessary to support the vertical post. In contrast, the latter vessels were constructed of multiple pieces of sawn lumber pinned 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. As with the bow and stern details, each boat exhibited a different manner of joinery. All boats used dimensional, 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 of the frame). Similarly, some boats utilized only nails to join the futtock to the frame, while others used various combinations of bolts and nails.

These variations in framing techniques may be related to idiosyncratic differences between craftsmen and/or the construction practices utilized at the various boatyards along the Canal. Similarly, these variations may also reflect functional and/or quality differences between the boats. The boats that had multiple futtocks attached with multiple boats were much better constructed vessels capable of holding up to rough use (and heavier cargoes) than those that had a single futtock nailed on o the frames. Whether these framing details reflect functional differences between grain boats and stone boats, for example, is unknown at the present time. Evidence from our investigations indicate that coal and stone were found in the hulls of these boats.

Our investigations also have given us insights into the interior layout of these large vessels. Harness hardware and bottles (both glass and ceramic) were found in the bow section, suggesting the stabling of horses and/or mules within the hold. Similarly, personal items, furniture remains, and cooking utensils found in the stern section suggest that this was the area inhabited by the "cannier family" and/or boat hands.

The archaeologists only excavated a small portion of these boats, and the hulls remain protected within the Morris Wide Water. This work, which was funded by the IDNR, was carried out by Fever River Research under the direction of Floyd Mansberger. This brochure was designed by Fever River Research.

Protection of Historic Sites

Almost a century ago, Congress passed the first of many laws protecting archaeological sites, both historic and prehistoric, on federal property. Today, in Illinois, these laws apply to all public land and, in specific circumstances, to private land as well. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency is responsible for the administration of these laws:

The Archaeological and Paleontological Resources Protection Act. This law became effective on January 1, 1989 and applies to all public lands in Illinois. The law contains criminal sanctions for those who disturb burial mounds, human remains, shipwrecks or other archaeological resources as well as fossils on public lands. This law requires a permit for legitimate scientific study. Under this act, objects found on public lands are sent to the Illinois State Museum, Research and Collections Center in Springfield.

Human Grave Protection Act. Effective August 11, 1989, this law forbids disturbance of human skeletal remains and grave markers in unregistered cemeteries, including isolated graves and burial mounds that are at least 100 years old. Younger graves and registered cemeteries are protected by another law. It is the intent of this law that "all human burials be accorded equal treatment and respect for human dignity, without reference to ethnic origins, cultural backgrounds or religious affiliations."

The Illinois State Agency Historic Resources Protection Act. Agencies of Illinois government are required to notify the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency of any undertaking that may adversely affect an archaeological property (historic or prehistoric). The Historic Preservation Agency may require survey and testing of resource areas. This law became effective January 1, 1990.

National Historic Preservation Act of 1996, as amended. This Federal stature authorizes the National Register of Historic places, establishes the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and, under Section 106, the Council's powers to review Federal undertakings that affect historic properties.

Protecting Archaeological Sites

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources owns and manages thousands of archaeological sites on land it oversees. These sites and the artifacts contained within them are protected from looting and vandalism by the Archaeological and Paleontological Resource Protection Act. It is illegal for anyone to either collect or engage in digging into an archaeological site on public lands. Although prohibited by law, the looting of sites on both public and private lands is a serious problem.

If you notice illicit digging at an archaeological site or witness someone collecting artifacts on a site at a state par, the Department of Natural Resources asks you to contact either the DNR Cultural Resource Coordinator at (217) 782-3715 or the local park superintendent so measures can be taken to protect the site. If the site is not on park land, please contact the Preservation Services Division, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency at (217) 785-4999.

*Images courtesy of Floyd Mansberger

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