Cycling the I & M Canal Trail.

"It takes four things to build a canal .. a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow and an Irishman".

We came across this quote at a small museum in Lockport, Illinois. Sadly, the death rate among the Irish workers was awful. Conditions were harsh and disease was rife. Unsurprisingly drunkenness was common.

The I & M (Illinois and Michigan) Canal ran 96 miles (154 km) from the Chicago River to the Illinois River, creating a water route from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Together with the Erie Canal it provided a trade and transportation corridor from New York to New Orleans. Begun in 1836 and completed in 1848 it led to the establishment of Chicago as the country's largest inland port. The era of canals heralded the beginning of North American interstate super-highways.

The I & M Canal Trail follows the towpath of what was once the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Teams of mules trudged the towpath pulling canal boats which weighed up to 150 tons when fully loaded, while horses pulled passenger 'packets'. The journey was slow and uncomfortable but a huge leap forward from stagecoach travel.

The only Toll Collector's cottage still standing is next to the canal at Ottawa.

A restored canal boat sitting in part of the canal which is now dry.

The I & M Canal Trail is flat and easy to cycle. Over several days we rode about 65 miles (105 kms). The temperature was in the high 80s F (30s C) making the cycling slower and harder work than we are used to.   Scenic interludes along the route as the path runs through towns such as Channahon, Marseilles and Ottawa punctuate long traverses through shaded woodland. Unfortunately much of the canal is dry and overgrown. Those sections which still have water make for much more interesting scenery. The prettiest section we found runs through Lockport but, as with all the towns we rode through, as soon as the urban area ended the path returned to relatively monotonous woodland.

A slight diversion along the river at Ottawa

The scenery was much prettier where the canal still had water.

Most of our cycling was through shaded woodland.

One problem with the trail is lack of signage on detours. More than once we found the trail blocked by road and bridge works and no information about how to detour around these. Just a heads-up to the curators of the trail  - a few maps or signs would have done wonders at these points.

We got around this obstacle without too much trouble.

While we were in Ottowa we got talking to the CEO of the I & M Canal Heritage Corridor and I promised I would give him a free plug. Click here for things to do in and around the I & M Canal. One thing particularly worth seeing in Ottawa are the town murals. You can pick up a pamphlet on them at the Visitors' Bureau.

Many US towns have murals. Ottawa's are worth seeing.

For the next post in this series click - here

For all my posts on this road trip click - here

2 July 2014

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