Hennepin Canal History

Have some history with your hike at Hennepin Canal State Park

Henry County’s jewel of a recreation area — the Hennepin Canal — was never meant to be a place for hiking, biking and boating. It was originally meant to serve as a shipping shortcut between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

Originally named the Illinois-Mississippi Canal, the Hennepin Canal is a historic and engineering landmark and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978. A former Erie Canal superintendent, Joseph Gales, and a land speculator named Dr. Augustus A. Langworthy originally conceived of the idea of the canal way back in the 1830s. Efforts to acquire federal funds began in 1845 but failed until Congress passed the River and Harbor Act of 1890, which authorized $500,000 for construction. Final construction costs ran to $7.4 million.

In November 1907, 17 years after authorization by Congress, the steamship Marion made the first official voyage the full length of the canal. But rail competition and out-dated locks meant the new canal was already obsolete. During the canal’s construction, the Corps of Engineers widened the locks on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, making them 10 and 20 feet wider than the canal locks.

The U.S. Corp of Engineers closed the canal to boat travel in 1951. After years of decline, the State of Illinois purchased the canal and made repairs. In 1970 the canal became the Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park.

Interesting Facts

  • Spanning nearly 100 miles, the canal is one of the nation’s longer parks. It continues to flow in its original banks with running water for its entire length. The canal has 32 of its original 33 locks. The canal crosses streams and rivers via nine aqueducts, six of which remain. In some instances, the canal water is piped below the waterway instead of using an aqueduct.
    • Lock tenders lived in special houses built for them, and each home was connected by an internal telephone system. Cement telephone poles and fence posts, many of which are still visible today, were made on-site near Wyanet.
  • The canal was the first in the U.S. to use Portland cement, which was later used in the construction of the Panama Canal. Earlier canals were made with stone cut facings.
  • Some of the locks on the canal are miter gates, a technology originally invented by Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Fourteen of the locks have Marshall gates, which are raised and lowered on a horizontal axis. Five of the locks have been restored to working condition, although they are not used. One of these is a Marshall gate lock. All of the gates from the remaining locks have been replaced with concrete walls, creating a series of waterfalls.
  • It required extensive engineering and the use of multiple locks to control the depth of water in the canal even as the land rose 196 feet.
  • The Hennepin originally had nine aqueducts – concrete troughs which carried the canal and its traffic across larger rivers and streams. Six of the aqueducts remain while the other three were replaced by pipes that carry the canal’s flow under the creek or river which the canal crosses.
  • In its early days, ice made from the canal’s frozen waters was sold during the winters to help cover the canal’s maintenance costs.
  • Construction of the Hennepin Canal served as a training ground for engineers that later worked on the Panama Canal. Both the Hennepin and Panama Canals used concrete lock chambers and both used a feeder canal from a man-made lake to water the canals because both needed water to flow ‘uphill.’