(Editor’s note: This article was written with information supplied by Teresa Koltzenburg, who works in university relations for Western Illinois University.)
MACOMB, Ill. — It was 1874, Western Illinois University geography professor emeritus and author Donald “Bill” Griffin writes, when the Hennepin Canal concept reached enough national significance that a decision was made to build it as a federal waterway.
But almost 35 years would pass before the canal that flows through much of the Illinois Quad-City region was opened. And by the time it did, it was too late to be of much use in its intended commercial purpose.
Griffin gives a historical account of the waterway in his new book, “Voices of the Hennepin Canal: Promoters, Politicians, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
The book combines Griffin’s many years of research on the canal, using the “words of the people who were part of its history” from such sources as letters, newspaper articles and editorials, documented interviews, congressional debates, survey reports and more.
The canal, which opened in 1908, was built and operated until 1951 by the Corps of Engineers. Its concept, though, began in the 1830s. As a waterway, it has long been defunct, but it has been and continues to be utilized as a recreation area known as the Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park.
Griffin, who has also served as a member of the WIU Board of Trustees since 2006, points out, though, that the canal is important not only for its contribution to inland water transportation in the United States, but also for the technology used to build the 75-mile route connecting the Illinois River (upstream from the village of Hennepin) and the Mississippi River west of Milan.
“From a civil engineering standpoint, this was the first time in the United States that concrete was used in building navigation locks and dams. Engineers had done some work in Great Britain with concrete navigation structures, but the methodology used for the Hennepin Canal would lead to the locks built for the Panama Canal,” Griffin explained. “The canal, whose official initial name was the Illinois and Mississippi Canal, was the western link in a water route from the Upper Mississippi River to the Atlantic Seaboard.”
Roger Viadero, the director of the WIU Institute for Environmental Studies and a professor in the unversity’s biology department, was the volume editor for “Voices of the Hennepin Canal.”
“This collaborative effort came from the natural confluence of Professor Griffin’s 30-plus years of scholarship on the planning, construction and operation of the Hennepin Canal with my professional experience as a civil/environmental engineer,” Viadero explained. “The result is a book that bridges a broad range of disciplines from geography to water resource engineering, political science, history and economics.”
Viadero also designed the book’s front and back covers and noted that the design features a contemporary landscape photo as well as 1943 image of canal employees.
“My goal was to incorporate a visual representation of the historic ‘voices’ featured in the manuscript with the more enduring natural setting of the canal channel,” he said.
In addition to telling the story of the canal, Griffin’s book will help fund WIU Foundation scholarships. He said a percentage of the profits from book sales will go directly toward scholarships for students.