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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

Early September, 1673: Portaging toward Chicago

Editor's Note:

After leaving the Illinois village near modern Utica, Illinois, Marquette and Joliet followed the river's north branch, the Des Plaines, to a portage crossing into the Chicago River. Dablon's 1674 suggestion of a canal was eventually followed up. In the 19th century the old portage-trail and the two rivers became the route of the Chicago Drainage Canal, which extends from Chicago to Joliet.

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In early Sept., Marquette and Joliet reached the end of the Illinois River, where it comes within a short distance of the Chicago River in what today are the Chicago suburbs. The two streams come so close that as early as 1674 Fr. Claude Dablon suggested a canal could connect the two. The following text is from his notes on a 1674 interview with Joliet:


"The fourth remark concerns a very great and important advantage, which perhaps will hardly be believed. It is that we could go with facility to Florida in a bark [small sailing ship], and by very easy navigation. It would only be necessary to make a canal, by cutting through but half a league of prairie, to pass from the foot of the lake of the Illinois to the river Saint Louis [the Illinois].

"Here is the route that would be followed: the bark would be built on lake Erie, which is near lake Ontario, it would easily pass from lake Erie to lake Huron, whence it would enter lake Illinois [Lake Michigan]. At the end of that lake the canal or excavation of which I have spoken would be made, to gain a passage into the river Saint Louis, which falls into the Mississipi. The bark, when there, would easily sail to the gulf of Mexico. Fort Catarokouy, which Monsieur de Frontenac has had built on lake Ontario, would greatly promote that undertaking; for it would facilitate communication between Quebec and lake Erie, from which that fort is not very distant. And even, were it not for a waterfall separating lake Erie from lake Ontario, a bark built at Catarokouy could go to, Florida by the routes that I have just mentioned."

Another contemporary traveler, Fr. Louis Hennepin, disputed this idea:

"The Creek through which we went from the Lake of the Illinois, into the Divine River [the Des Plaines, the northern fork of Illinois River], is so shallow, and so much expos'd to the Storms, that no Ship can venture to get in, unless it be in a great Calm. Neither is the Country between the said Creek and the Divine River, fit for a Canal; for the Meadows between them are drown'd after any great Rain, and so a Canal will be immediately fill'd up with Sands: And besides, it is impossible to dig up the Ground, because of the Water, that Country being nothing but a Morass: But suppofing it were possible to cut the Canal, it wou'd be however useless; for the Divine River is not navigable for forty Leagues together; that is, from that Place to the Village of the Illinois, except for Canoes, who have hardly Water enough in Summer-time. Besides this Difficulty, there is a Fall near the Village."

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