Larry may be semi-retired, but he still has to pull a boatload of tourists along the Illinois and Michigan Canal nearly daily from April to October. He doesn’t seem to mind.
The 26-year-old mule formerly worked much harder in the fields of Amish farmers, says boat captain Jake Krancic. “This is a vacation for him.”
Larry also gets lots of attention from passengers, who board the replica canal boat at LaSalle for an hour-long slow cruise. The boat goes less than five miles per hour so the up to 75 people aboard have plenty of time to snap photos and relax in the covered lower level or open-air upper deck.
The tour reverses after going under an old railroad bridge and viewing an aqueduct carrying the canal over the Little Vermillion River. Larry dutifully trudges back to the starting point.
Mules have good eyesight and higher stamina than other equines so they have long been used to tread the path beside the canal. A long rope connects the mule to the boat, which could weigh 65,000 pounds when loaded with people and cargo, according to Krancic.
Tenders walk beside the mules on a paved path that also serves walkers and bicyclists. Back in the day, most of the tenders were boys or young men and included a teenage Wild Bill Hickok. He was from nearby Troy Grove, where you can visit a memorial bust at his birthplace site.
Thanks to Krancic and other staff members, passengers learn their predecessors from another century spent 18 to 22 hours on their journeys from the Illinois River’s LaSalle basin to Chicago. At night, a curtain might be drawn down the middle of the cabin to separate women and men, and the bathroom consisted of a bucket that was dumped overboard.
Much of the northbound cargo came up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and consisted of cotton, tobacco, molasses, rice and rum from southern states. Boats going south carried lumber and some manufactured goods. Businesses and towns along the canal flourished, and some even credit Chicago’s growth to the canal.
Abraham Lincoln reportedly was a big canal supporter, and he, Mary and their boys rode the canal from Chicago to LaSalle. There they boarded a steamboat to Peoria and took a horse and buggy home to Springfield, according to one of the tour guides.
Railroads eventually replaced boats for most passengers, but canal boats continued to transport goods until 1933, when locks and dams on the Illinois River made it possible for boats to bypass the rapids. The canal dried up and became a bit of a dumping ground until the 1970s when the LaSalle Rotary Club cleaned up a section, pumped in water from the river and stocked the canal with fish.
The canal earned a National Historic Landmark designation in 1963 and became the first National Heritage Corridor authorized by Congress in 1984. Trips on the replica canal boat, built in Albany, New York, began 10 years ago.
You can learn more about the canal, pick up some souvenirs and catch a bite to eat at the Lock 16 Café and Visitor Center in a former harness shop in downtown LaSalle. Elsewhere in LaSalle is the 57-room Hegler Carus mansion, another National Historic Landmark. Twin city Peru offers the Westclox Museum, a free tribute to the world’s largest maker of key-wound clocks for more than 100 years.
But the I & M Canal remains the star attraction in the area. The canal’s only remaining toll house is in nearby Ottawa, restored and furnished to look like it did in 1848. A model lock on the grounds shows visitors how tenders raised and lowered boats. In return for their work, the lock tenders were given free cabins for their families but had to be available at all times.
You won’t see any lock tenders on your canal boat ride but instead enjoy the company of families, bus tours and school groups, according to Krancic. He was an experienced sailor when he took this job a year ago and says the variety of visitors makes it fun.
To schedule your trip on the canal, go to www.iandmcanal.org, or for information on other sites, go to www.enjoylasallecounty.com. LaSalle is 128 miles north of Springfield.
Mary Bohlen of Springfield enjoys exploring Illinois and writing about her travels for IT. She taught journalism at University of Illinois Springfield for 30 years.