Model of Aux Sable Lock #9

The story of the Morris and Grundy County begins with the digging of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. In 1848 this was the water highway that connected the Great Lakes with the Gulf of Mexico. Before the I&M Canal, the only way you could get here was by flatboat on the Ohio River, by stage coach, or by covered wagon.

It was dug by hand by mostly Irish immigrants, 14 hours a day, 6 days a week, but good pay—between $20-30/month. It took 13 years to complete from Chicago to LaSalle.

The terrain was uneven. Sometimes the Canal had to run slightly uphill. So, locks like this one at Aux Sable had to be built. There were 17 locks, this is Lock #9.

Canal boats had to pass thru locks which raised or lowered the boat to the level of the water in the Canal. To move up the incline the boat enters at the lower level of the lock thru on open gate. This gate is then manually closed by the lock tender, behind the boat. A fill valve then opens, letting water into the lock until the boat is raised to the upper level. Then the upper gate is opened and the boat passes thru. It took 15 minutes for the water to fill, but the whole locking process took about an hour.

The lock tender had to be on call 24/7 to respond to the canal boat captain’s horn or shout, to lock his boat thru. The lock tender was employed by the Canal Commissioners and lived in a lock tender’s house nearby. He also had to maintain the lock, repair leaks, and sometimes sold food and drinks to boat passengers.

The packet boat was pulled by horses and went about 5 MPH. The packet boat was as big as a school bus.

Freight boats were pulled by mules because they were stronger than horses and made for a smoother ride. Freight boats carried up to 150 pounds of cargo. Mule drivers were usually teenage boys working a 6-hour shift. They slept on the boat on in a mule barn along the route. Wild Bill Hickok got his start on the tow path. He was born James Butler from LaSalle. James “Jimmy” got into a fight with a bully named Charles Hudson, and they both fell into the Canal. Jimmy thought he had killed Charles, so he changed his name and headed west where he became famous as a lawman and a gunslinger.

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