Before railroads, the Illinois River was the only way to move goods

During 1800s, the natural habitats along the Illinois River helped spur fishing industries and had places for hunting.

The Illinois River was a habitat for bottom-feeding fish such as catfish, common carp and smallmouth buffalo as well as mussels. Their abundance led to a commercial fishing industry between Havana and Meredosia, southwest of Peoria, according to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield. Towns had their own markets that processed and shipped fish to large Midwestern and Eastern cities from the 1890s to the 1950s.

Sport hunters formed clubs and bought land along the Illinois River to start duck hunting resorts managed by locals, according to the state museum.

But the demand for a way to transport goods soon changed life along the river.

Reports in the 1830s said the river wasn't navigable in 70 to 80 places during the low-water months. Massive engineering projects began to change that, and the Illinois and Michigan Canal opened in 1848 between the Chicago River and the Illinois River near LaSalle, tying Chicago to the Illinois River and, eventually, the Mississippi.


The Illinois River in recent years is a popular spot to watch eagles, like this one near Utica.

The canal was instrumental in Chicago's growth," said Michael Wiant, the interim director for the Illinois State Museum. "There's a recognition there, navigability on the river would give vitality to the economy of Illinois."

Towns along the Illinois River, such as Naples, Grafton, Peoria and Beardstown, were among the earliest established communities in the region. Ottawa had deposits of silica sand that would be transported into Chicago for construction.

"You could begin to see the river as an artery that literally feeds the heart of the city," Wiant said.

Levees were built to keep the Illinois River in place and maintain a channel. That infrastructure decision also drained floodplains and backwater habitats, which led to those areas becoming land for row-crop agriculture.

"The river is largely, by the early part of the 20th century, engineered to handle that transportation issue," Wiant said. "But it comes at a price of not only the natural powerhouse of the backwater lakes; things like commercial fishing industries are affected negatively. It changes the character of the river profoundly."

Natural habitats for ducks, fish and mussels were destroyed and populations crashed, Wiant said. Eventually, wildlife refuges were established to give habitat to ducks to try to keep that population.

"To maintain navigation, you need stable water levels. To get stable water levels you need locks and dams. To keep the channel in place you need levees," Wiant said. "Levees then cut off the backwater lakes from the natural hydrology of the river, and while you're producing agricultural commodities, which are good things to be sure, the price you're paying is the natural habitats are deteriorated."

Using the Illinois River, as well as the Mississippi River, as economic engines for the transportation of goods continues today. In recent years, there has been an effort to increase the amount of commodities transported this way.

Steamboats on the Illinois River. courtesy of Illinois State Historical Library

America's Central Port has been awarded a $713,000 federal grant to help load containers on the Illinois River at Beardstown. The containers would be sent to Chicago or St. Louis to be loaded onto trains or continue down the Mississippi River on barges to New Orleans. That project is still in the planning stages.

Illinois grain starts its voyage on the river. Loaded barges make their way down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, where they grain is shipped around the world.

"There's an immense amount of grain that is transported along the river today," Wiant said. "The number of elevators, of grain-handling facilities, in Havana is stunning. They do an incredible amount of transportation of grain from that point."

According to the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, nearly $5 billion in annual revenue and 20,000 jobs are generated by commercial navigation on the Mississippi River.

In 2015, 35 million tons of goods moved on the Mississippi River through the St. Louis area, according to data provided by the St. Louis Regional Freightway, the authority for freight operations in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

The St. Louis Regional Freightway is promoting the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri as the "Ag Coast." Ports in the St. Louis area are the northernmost ice-free and lock-free access ports to and from the Gulf of Mexico.

• Joseph Bustos of the Belleville News-Democrat can be reached at Illinois 200 is produced as a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. Find previous stories at

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