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In LaSalle, the Volunteer lets people travel in a replica of a 19th-century, mule-driven canal boat. See more photos in the gallery >>
When is a canoe like a time machine? When it’s used on a journey that spans five centuries. That’s the case as travelers track the route of the old Illinois and Michigan Canal, the 161-year-old inland waterway that was the brainchild of a 17th-century explorer—and that even today, whether traveled by auto, bicycle, boat, or on foot, still transports visitors to another realm: the past.
Begin your trip in the western suburbs at the Chicago Portage National Historical Site. A monumental Cor-Ten steel sculpture by Ferdinand Rebechini depicts Louis Jolliet, Père Jacques Marquette, and a Native American guide, who arrived at the portage in 1673. The visit prompted Jolliet to promote building a canal uniting the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River; his dream was realized in 1848 with the opening of the I&M Canal, an event that facilitated Chicago’s rise as a great Midwestern metropolis.
For motorists, the 75-mile-long Canal Corridor Driving Tour begins in Lemont and extends to LaSalle on the Illinois River; look for the blue and yellow road signs depicting a boy and a mule. Don’t miss the city of Lockport, which originated in 1837 as the canal’s headquarters. Check out the handsomely restored Gaylord Building, a onetime canal depot now used as a visitors’ center—its Public Landing Restaurant makes a good lunch stop—and the I&M Canal Museum, inside the former office and home of the canal superintendent.
Cyclists and hikers will prefer the 61-mile-long I&M Canal State Trail, which follows the canal’s old towpath, along which mules pulled the canal boats. The trail begins in Channahon State Park; canoeists can explore the 15 miles of open water between Channahon and Gebhard Woods State Park. For a glimpse of Illinois as it looked when Jolliet and Marquette first visited, make the short detour to the 2,537-acre Goose Lake Prairie State Park, which contains the largest prairie remnant in the state. Farther on, near Ottawa—where statues mark the first Lincoln-Douglas debate—Buffalo Rock State Park is home to Michael Helzer’s gigantic Effigy Tumuli, which evoke the region’s Native American mound builders.
The town of Utica is the gateway to Starved Rock State Park, which, with its lodge, cabins, and campgrounds, makes a good overnight stop; it also offers some insights into the final days of the state’s eponymous early inhabitants, the Illini. The next day, push on to LaSalle, whose Lock 14 is the only lock on the canal whose wooden gates have been restored. Don’t leave town without visiting the Hegeler Carus Mansion, a Second Empire mansion designed by William Boyington, the architect of Chicago’s Water Tower. Cap off your visit with a ride on the Volunteer, a replica of a 19th-century canal boat, powered (for part of the trip) by two mules named Larry and Mo.
While commemorating Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, let’s not forget his putative early love, Ann Rutledge. After she died in 1835, Rutledge was laid to rest in Old Concord Cemetery (a modern-day gravestone marks the site). Fifty-five years later, her remains—three pearl buttons, a buckle, and some wisps of hair—were dug up and buried again in Petersburg’s Oakland Cemetery, not far from the rebuilt frontier village of New Salem, where the couple may have courted.
THEY PLAY IN PEORIA The Cubs star Ryne Sandberg may have moved on, but baseball’s Midwest League Peoria Chiefs, the Class-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, still play at O’Brien Field (730 S.W. Jefferson Street; 309-680-4000). After Sandberg, the Chiefs’ manager for the last two seasons, won a promotion to the Tennessee Smokies (the Cubs’ Double-A team), Marty Pevey took over as manager. The team’s 2009 home season kicks off on April 9th when the Kane County Cougars travel to Peoria for a three-game series.