The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District, conducted a Lunch and Learn on the Hennepin Canal on October 21 to honor the 115th anniversary of its opening. It was led by Senior Geologist, Tim Flaherty who spent his own time throughout the years conducting research on this historically significant project.
The idea for the canal was developed in 1834 to connect the Illinois and Mississippi rivers to create a 419-mile navigation shortcut from Chicago to Rock Island. Construction was not authorized until the passing of the River and Harbor Act of 1890 and construction began in 1892 under the supervision of the Chicago District
The canal was deemed an engineering success due to the complete concrete construction which was a relatively new material in America at the time. This process was so well executed, it was then adopted for the completion of the Panama Canal after the Corps took over its construction from the French in 1904.
The Hennepin Canal was opened to commercial traffic in 1907 and despite the engineering achievement it brought in lower-than-expected traffic. “They built it, but they didn’t come,” said Flaherty. This was due to many factors such as increased railroad usage, the failing of a planned grain operation along the route plus the length of time to approve the construction.
“The nail in the coffin came in 1933 when we opened the Illinois Waterways. It had 600 by 110ft locks. That lock size is what is referred to as the Ohio River Standard and the canal was too small for the barges at the time,” said Flaherty.
Although the Chicago District designed and built the canal, in 1911 the Rock Island district was given operational control. By 1951 the canal was closed for navigational use but was restored and in 1970 the canal was gifted to the State of Illinois and is used today for recreational activities.
The canal was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in May 1978. In 2009 Hennepin Canal State Park attracted 1.25M visitors and continues to be used for recreational purposes where the old locks and buildings along the route can still be seen and admired. Flaherty said, “This is Chicago District history that should not be forgotten.”