Chicago Parent

A Canal Runs Through It
Chicago Parent, September 2001

As the days get shorter and school begins, who doesn’t experience the wistful feeling of saying good-bye to summer? If you get the urge to stretch that summertime feeling just a bit longer, the tiny town of Lockport makes a perfect daytime getaway for kids of all ages.

Just 32 miles South of Chicago off of I-80 and Route 171, Lockport is rich in history and light on tourism. The drive out through cornfields, roadside vegetable stands and rambling old barns will make you think you’ve been picked up and dropped in the middle of the Wisconsin or Michigan.

Lockport was once the main town in a series of “canal towns” woven together geographically and historically by the 150-year old Illinois and Michigan Canal. Built between 1836 and 1848 largely by Irish immigrants fleeing the famine, the I&M Canal joined Lake Michigan with the Illinois River, forming the final link between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico through the heartland of America. The canal played an important part in westward expansion as well as the growth of Chicago.

Today, it’s hard to imagine that this unmoving and unimpressive but pretty little stream helped make Chicago the major city it is today. The quiet, tree-lined towpath along the canal serves as a hiking path and the town is full of historic buildings and museums making it an enjoyable trip for younger and older children alike.

We parked in a spacious public lot on 9th and State Street, beside the canal and in the center of historic Lockport. The walking path begins here and it’s a little over a mile to the first “lock”. After a 30 minute drive the kids were more than ready to scramble up and down the shallow banks of the canal while we relaxed on a bench under a shady tree.

Before you begin, stop by the Pioneer Settlement just a few hundred yards in the other direction. At first glance this recreation of an early white settlement seems like a charming, small town theme park. Closer inspection reveals this small cluster of log cabins and frame buildings to be genuine 19th century structures actually relocated from the surrounding area. The one room school house operated until 1953, and the jail moved from Mokena in the 1970s. Other buildings include a blacksmith shop, an authentic hand hewn walnut log cabin with the table set and decorated with genuine household artifacts, and a train depot originally from nearby Florence Township.

Peering through the windows, the dust and the musty smell added to its authenticity in an age of theme parks. The cluttered farm implements lying deserted in the corner and a dusty telegraph machine gave the impression that one day the whole town just up and left.

Just past the Settlement the historic Gaylord building built in 1838 houses a permanent exhibit explaining the canal’s history. Upstairs the “Hands on History” exhibit gives kids a chance to play on a model “lock” and catch a birds-eye view of the canal. All of the models were built by Lockport’s school children, and volunteers are on hand to explain the canal’s role and the machinations of the locks. The exhibit is open year round but you should call for hours (815) 838-4830.

While you’re there, pick up a map for a self guided walking tour through the town and admire the buildings. Although the canal has long since lost its function as a major trade route, Lockport’s main street maintains an air of importance. Lockport has a lovely Mid-America small town feel to it, complete with barbershops with striped poles that actually spin. Antique hunters will appreciate the small shops recently sprung up along State Street.

The I & M Canal Museum is just around the corner from the Gaylord Building. Built in the 1830s, this was the home and office of the canal commissioners. Volunteers are on hand to guide you through the restored Victorian era home and explain in great detail how people lived in the former Lockport. Artifacts include a baby cradle dating back to the 17th century. The Museum is also open year round (815) 838 5080

Everything is free, and the town’s unpretentiousness is refreshing. On October 7 the Pioneer Settlement will come to life on from noon- 5 pm during the Annual Will County Pioneer Crafts Festival. Call (815) 838-5080 for a schedule of “expert” tours or schedule a group tour for 12 or more. But you might want to forego the scheduled tourist events and simply enjoy the dusty days of lingering summer in small town America.