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OUR VIEW: History repeats itself at the I&M Canal in Ottawa

The crowd assembles Sunday afternoon outside the old toll collector’s office in Ottawa for the ceremonial beginning of the project to rewater a section of the historic waterway. Earth moving equipment demonstrations were performed by military reservists, and local singer Steve Sharp provided music.
The crowd assembles Sunday afternoon outside the old toll collector’s office in Ottawa for the ceremonial beginning of the project to rewater a section of the historic waterway. Earth moving equipment demonstrations were performed by military reservists, and local singer Steve Sharp provided music.

Nearly 100 years before Sunday’s groundbreaking for Ottawa’s Illinois & Michigan Canal rewatering project — July 9, 1918, to be exact — there was another gathering at the same place.

Like Sunday’s event, the focus was on the future of the canal.

“Waterway ‘Fans’ Inspect I.M. Canal” was the headline on the newspaper story about their visit.

“A distinguished array of visitors dropped into Ottawa today,” said the story. “All are doers. They are men who have achieved success in commercial and industrial life and now they are giving their time and money to restoring to Illinois one of its greatest transportation facilities.

“They are boosting anything in the form of a waterway link between Ottawa and Chicago and on their visit today made a careful inspection of the work now being done on the aqueduct and at the dredging near Columbus Street in the I&M Canal.”

The 17 businessmen from Illinois and St. Louis were headed by Joy Sterling Morton, (1855 –1934) who is best known for founding Morton Salt and the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Morton, who relied on the canal to transport his salt, was “an ardent advocate of water transportation,” the story said. Also with them were two Army colonels in charge of the canal rehabilitation work budgeted at $150,000 ($2.5 million in 2018 dollars).

“They all seemed enthusiastic for the canal’s future,” the story said.

Now forward a century to Sunday, when a crowd assembled near Columbus Street to witness the start of the rebirth of a section of the canal to a waterway.

Many of those present were among the “doers” who have steadily advocated for the canal rewatering.

Of course, unlike the commercial use of the canal in 1918, today the focus is on community enhancement and tourism.

Ana Koval, president of the Canal Corridor Association, told Sunday’s crowd she believed the rewatering project would pay off.

“I believe that a rewatered canal has great potential to attract more visitors, and I believe that Ottawa will receive a great deal of publicity because of the rewatered canal,” she said. “I really do believe that this will be a good investment. It will be a good investment for Ottawa, for La Salle county and really for the whole National Heritage Corridor area.”

Like the businessmen of a century ago, those at Sunday’s groundbreaking — and many others, as well — see the rewatering project as a celebration of Ottawa’s founding as a canal town and the possibility to stretch its active tourism area north from downtown up to the historic canal.

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