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Water they doing at the canal in Ottawa?

LaSalle News Tribune

Wednesday, May 16, 2018  |  Article  |  

Local Government (60) , Rivers (23) , Water

People walked and biked the Illinois and Michigan Canal in Ottawa this week, but Anna Mattes remembers the when the grassy depression was different.

It was a time when she was a school girl living on DeSoto Street in Ottawa, the U.S. was at war with the Axis powers and the canal held water.

Mattes remembers crossing U.S. 6, train tracks and the canal four times almost every day going to and from St. Columba.

“The memories that I have the canal, it still had water in it, but not much,” Mattes said. “I would like to see it brought back for recreation to give the kids something to do. They do too much inside. We need nature, but a lot of people have forgotten that.”

On her way to Mass or class, Mattes would carry a tin box containing breakfast — usually an egg and vanilla milk. On the way home, she’d use the empty box to catch minnows and tadpoles. In the winter, the canal was where Mattes would ice skate.

Ottawa city engineer Dave Noble said the canal will soon be a close match for Mattes’ memories, and with some appropriate weather, he expects ice skating to return to the canal this year.

A plan to re-water the canal in Ottawa could soon revert the canal into the water-holding recreation hub from yesteryear.

“My whole life it’s been a dry ditch, but it was a very vital part of town,” said Mayor Bob Eschbach. “We’re hoping it’s a place where people can teach their kids to canoe and kayak. It should be a perfect place for those sorts of things.”

On July 8, a groundbreaking is expected to start the extensive project, which will include earth work courtesy of the Army and Marines reserves and about four months of other work.

“I am delighted,” Mattes said. “I think it’s a good thing for the city of Ottawa.”

A man, a plan, a canal

Re-watering the canal has long been one of Eschbach’s goals, and it’s something he hopes to see accomplished before the end of his fifth and final term.

“I’ve wanted to do this ever since I was mayor, and that was 19 years ago,” Eschbach said. “We’ve been planning it for the last 19 years.”

He and Arnie Bandstra, president of the Ottawa Canal Association, said the canal played an important role in the history of Illinois and Ottawa.


Barbara Nelson of Ottawa jogs along the canal. The bed of the canal will be filled with water in October. 

Scott Anderson

“Obviously, it starts with the historical context — the importance of the canal to the early development of the state of Illinois, the city of Ottawa in particular, northern Illinois and Chicago.” Bandstra said. “The canal was really fully closed by 1933, when the Illinois River was made navigable, so even then, there was water in some parts of the canal.”

Returning it to some portion of its past glory is a motivating factor.

“A lot of it is just having a feel for what the canal really was,” Eschbach said.

Bandstra said currently, the plan is pending permitting from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources with a deadline of the first week of July.

The cutoff is because the U.S. Army and Marine Corps reserves engineering units are scheduled to come in the second week of July to do earth work.

“It’s about a month’s worth of work,” Eschbach said. “Then, in August, we plan to do all of the concrete work. There will be some concrete walls that will divide the water side from the path side underneath the bridges. We’ll be finishing up construction in September and hoping to have water in it by October.”

Plan specifics

The actual re-watering — pumping about 400 million gallons of water into the canal over the course of weeks — will be the last portion of the five-phase project.

“It’ll be one big swimming pool,” Noble said. “We’re pumping out of shallow aquifers that won‘t affect the city’s drinking water,”

The first portion of the project will be bringing the bottom of the canal close to the levels it was at when it last held water and then leveling it.

The trail will also be moved from the north of the canal to the south of the canal near the canal boat.

“That’s where the trail is the whole rest of the way,” Noble said.

That work will be done by Army and Marines reserves, Noble said.

“Every year, if you’re in the reserves, you’ve got to do your two weeks training, and you’ve got to go somewhere,” Noble said. “This is not just a construction project for them, it’s their training.”

In between, there are three phases that will be taking place at about the same time: Preparing a shallow well, doing concrete and storm sewer work, and water proofing.

“We have a liner material that we mix into the soil, and we compact it, so the soil becomes water tight,” Noble said.

What’s the status of the washout east of Utica?


The Illinois and Michigan Canal has been washed out at Clark's Run Creek about two miles east of Utica for about a decade. There are no current plans to fix the washout and the project is on hold, said the site’s superintendent. 

Meanwhile, nothing is imminent to reverse a trail closure east of Utica.

The situation remains the same for a washed-out culvert, said Dan Bell, site superintendent for Illinois and Michigan Canal, Buffalo Rock and Gebhard Woods for Illinois Department of Natural resources.

“It’s still closed,” Bell said. “There are no plans.

The replacement is still on hold.”