ILLINOIS STATE ARCHIVES
The Illinois and Michigan Canal, 1827–1911
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives
LETTER FROM C.L. DENMAN OF NEWARK, NEW JERSEY TO WILLIAM GOODING CONCERNING CONTRACT WORK
July 29, 1846
The years 1845 and 1846 were marked by acute labor shortages and severe flooding, both of which slowed the renewed effort to complete the canal. Along the route settlers were growing impatient with the slow progress being made. Many blamed the two subscriber trustees who seldom visited construction sites, devoted comparatively little time to the project, but were each compensated $5,000 annually. William H. Swift of Washington, D.C. and David Leavitt of New York City often were reviled by the locals but they continually were reelected by a majority of the loan's subscribers, most of whom resided in England and France. These foreign underwriters relied on Swift and Leavitt to act on their behalf. As president of the canal trustees, Swift was required to advertise canal work contracts in Illinois, New York City, and Boston newspapers.
Early U.S. canals mostly were private ventures of small scale. Many of the rivers in the East were difficult to navigate due to falls, rapids, or shallows. Short canals were dug to get around those obstacles. By 1816 the country had a total of about one hundred miles of canals. But only three of these were more than two miles in length and none were as long as thirty miles. The 350 mile Erie Canal stretching across the length of New York State had been a major departure. The tremendously successful Erie had cost nearly $7,000,000 when completed in 1825 but by 1834 that debt had been paid off completely from tolls collected. This massive state-funded improvement prompted a rash of ambitious projects. By 1840 the U.S. contained 3,326 miles of functioning canals.
The Morris Canal in New Jersey connected Newark to the Delaware River at Easton, Pennsylvania. From Easton the Lehigh Canal penetrated up to Whit Haven, a center in the rich anthracite coal mining region. The Lehigh fed coal to the Delaware where it could be shipped down to Philadelphia. With the Morris this valued fuel could be floated across the Delaware and then all the way across the State of New Jersey to Newark. These two particular canals were privately built.
Points to Consider
Why was C.L. Denman writing William Gooding?
Where was the Morris Canal located and what was its purpose?
How pervasive were canals in the U.S. in 1846? Where were they located?
Why would Denman and 100 or more men have been willing to travel all the way from New Jersey to Illinois in 1846?