Alot of people traveled the I&M canal and each had their story. In France we visited a vineyard ordered planted by Charlemagne 800, along the I&M Canal not even 200 years old, Abe Lincoln rode the gentle water pulled by a mule, and one of my favorites Wild Bill Hickock was there too. In fact, back then most of the mule drivers were young boys aged 14 – 17. Wild Bill, then just “James Butler” was there driving mules.
Today one boat remains for tours and a little ride.
We came by just as they were heading out, with a one horse, I mean mule-powered engine.
Well Wild Bill witnessed another mule-driver mistreating his animals and took exception. A fight, or “bug tussle” ensued and the two went into the water. Each came out thinking they had killed the other, and rather than face a hanging, the two separately headed West to Indian territories. Now that’s how to start an adventure. Of course Wild Bill’s ended with aces and eights, but that’s another story. We just waved to the boat and pedaled on.
Farther from the big city, you can see the impact of the economy and hard times and many times we ride between neglected trail and passing abandoned industry. Still there’s beauty on the trail.
One section of the trail was closed, so we entered and rode down to see for ourselves. We found a washed out bridge, but somebody had taken the warning signs and laid them down at a narrow section so we could use it as a footbridge across. Score one for disrespect for authority. Then since the trail was closed, the rangers didn’t do much clearing and we had a section of under the tree
or over the tree. Personally I enjoyed that section….
At the end, riding the I&M canal let us walk in the footsteps of people who helped build the country, some famous, some infamous, almost all of them with an adventurous spirit.
Farther from the city the canal trail is not so well maintained. One of the aqueducts has collapsed leaving the canal a “tadpole puddle”. Some places it’s full of sediment, and trees 30 feet high grow there or people mow the grass in the canal behind their homes like it’s a play-ground for their kids.
It’s hot, over 90 degrees ( 32 c ) and the trees give shade, but the large waterfowl are gone. We hear birds singing around us, but they are deep in the trees. At one section, the sticks ahead of us suddenly wriggle away, turns out they are snakes sunning.
This is like where I grew up, small town America – wave at everyone, don’t have to lock your doors. Kids smile and wave at us, and one family is playing with their pet goat. We meet a guy who has ridden many trails, over a thousand miles all with his two buds.
We pass Seneca, a little town where a brick making company is still going strong after starting in 1835. They sit right on the canal and I wonder how many of Chicago’s fine brick homes were build on bricks fired there. During the potato famine in Ireland over two million people died or left the country in a great diaspora. Many found their fortunes here, and many their ruin, for malaria and dysentery claimed a toll. The workers believed that whiskey would prevent malaria, and so held out to ensure that their weekly pay included a ration of whiskey.
It’s too hot for snow, but the cotton-wood seeds drift down like snow and later we pass a golden meadow.
We ended at mile 83 in Ottawa, the Indian word for trade, at the conflux of three rivers the French had been trading for furs since the 1600’s. Ottawa hosted one of the Lincoln presidential debates, but now is just a quiet place. When Illinois was nearly broke in the 1840’s they had to borrow 1.6 million from investors to finish the canal. What’s was a dollar worth in those days? The workers digging by the canal by hand received one dollar a week and their whiskey ration.
We were left to turn around and head back the 25 miles, once more moving through time and we returned to the car. One more ride ahead of us to get us to mile 96 and the end of the I&M canal.
We drove out to Joliet for the second leg of the I&M canal. Miles 31-58 are farther out, and the trail is less kept being mostly crushed limestone. You might see a section where a million cat-tails wave in the breeze, or stands of pampas grass tower above you.
The canal, dug by hand by immigrant labor is six feet deep and sixty feet wide for ninety-six miles. It opened up trade in dolomite, limestone, and later the areas became steel towns where immigrants from all backgrounds worked the mills. But building the canal had challenges, and here we can see an aqueduct built over flat land to allow the canal to traverse a river below it. Think of it, a canal six feet deep crossing a river, they did so multiple times to open the heartland to the rest of the world.
Three times deer jumped out in front of us within several yards. We saw mallards, geese and goslings, ( I thought one goose was coming after me when I came too close. ) There were Great blue herons, egrets and a cormorant graced us with his presence along with cardinals, blue jays and robins and finches galore. There were red-winged black birds, and I think females with a yellow spot on the neck, but I have to confirm that ( still looking ).
Of course I don’t stop for garage sales, but do stop for turtles. This ten pound snapper threatened to give me something in common with Nine Fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom. Isn’t he ( or she ) magnificent .
I made up a corny turtle joke – my sense of humor is odd, let me know if you want to hear it.
When we dropped in and out of the shade, the flower scents were strong and lovely. It might have been wild grapes, but some flower had the scent of a sweet grapes – not cloyingly strong – but a hint that made me think that as a perfume it would be irresistible. The I&M trail has been full of surprises.
It was a hot humid miserable, great fifty mile ride.