Prior to the advent of railroads, the major mode of transportation was steamboats. As such; St. Louis – the “River city” – at the confluence of 3 rivers - Mississippi, Illinois & Missouri – was the most important trading centre in the Midwest. Trade route was mostly North-South – which implies that the surplus farm products from Midwest were gathered together at St. Louis and were shipped south through the Mississippi River to New Orleans, from there were taken by sea to the east or west coast.
One of the most important developments that changed the face of Chicago was construction of New York's Erie Canal [in 1825]. By about 1835, a large part of the products could now be transported east through the Great Lakes to the Erie Canal to the New York City. This diminished the trend of North-South transportation and established Chicago as an important center for West - East trading.
The Illinois & Michigan Canal, completed in 1848, connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River watershed along a longstanding Indian portage route. The 97-mile canal extended from the Chicago River near Lake Michigan to the Illinois River at Peru, Illinois.
The creation of this canal system further reoriented this trade to an east-west axis. It rapidly transformed Chicago from a small settlement to a critical transportation hub between the East and the developing Midwest. This in turn drew many land speculators and entrepreneurs to the area. This key water based transportation link in turn influenced the massive Railroad construction from Chicago to other parts of the country which just continued Chicago's explosive growth.
The newly opened Illinois and Michigan Canal, marked a turning point in trade and migration in the United States that persists to this day. Prior to the opening of the Canal, trade had moved from north to south. After the opening of the Canal trade and migration moved from south to north and from east to west. Chicago, the eastern terminus of the I&M Canal, became the transportation center through which most of this traffic flowed.
The Illinois and Michigan was the last major canal constructed in the United States. In the decades following its opening the railroad gained supremacy as the nation's mode of shipping and transportation. Passenger traffic ended on the canal soon after its opening. By the early twentieth century canal barges were primarily transporting waste material from Chicago. In 1933, following the channelization of the DesPlaines and Illinois Rivers, the I&M Canal ceased operations.
Reference: "Illinois and Michigan Canal", click here.
A very interesting read ...
"Illinois and Michigan Canal", click here.