I&M Canal Boat Tour Review

Courtesy of the I&M Canal website ( https://iandmcanal.org/ ).

LaSalle, Illinois in 1848 was bigger than Chicago when the Illinois & Michigan Canal (I&M Canal) was completed, connecting the Illinois River to Lake Michigan. Water travel reigned as the fastest way to move people and goods across the United States. The canal gained importance for people’s livelihoods, politics and policy, the growth of Chicago, and travel. Today, a boat ride tour, pulled by a single mule down a small portion of the formerly active canal, physically connects you to the past. The tour guide stresses the canal’s crucial history during its reign and covers a significant portion of it. The tour’s setting and how it presents the canal’s history, pull it together to make it a unique experience. However, what the tour makes up in history and setting, it falls short on engaging the audience and encouraging visitors to explore the rest of the I&M Canal National Heritage Area (NHA).

A Taste of History: The Boat Ride

The start of the tour eases you into a laid back and nostalgic atmosphere for a time a visitor today would not have remembered. When you arrive in Lasalle, the café that holds the visitor center desk for the boat rides sits on the charming downtown avenue filled with businesses housed in brick buildings from an earlier era of the town. Just behind the café/visitor center and under a bridge is where The Volunteer, a 1840s packet boat replica, sits in the canal waiting for visitors to board. Larry the mule stands waiting nearby to be hooked to the boat and start his daily chore. Some tours offered on the canal have the crew dressed in period clothing.  The three-person crew starts the tour off by going into a little more detail about themselves, mules, and the boat. Once “The Volunteer” leaves its dock you are taken about a mile down the canal. The crew consists of a boat captain, a deckhand, and a mule tender—one who guides the boat, one who tells the history, and one who guides the mule along the shore, respectively. The deckhand is essentially your guide through history, starting from the beginning when Indigenous Peoples used the Illinois River and Lake Michigan to the present day that touches on the canal’s designation as a National Heritage Area. The only interaction you can have with the deckhand is halfway through the tour when the boat turns back and he opens the floor for a few questions. It gives people an option to just enjoy the boat ride and tune out any historical insight or to listen with attentiveness to every word.

The tour content focuses on how the canal affected politics, economy, and people through time, demonstrating exactly what the I&M Canal Heritage Area values. It takes you all the way from how plans to build the canal changed what we think of the Illinois landscape today to the restoration and preservation stories of the canal giving its story a triumphant ending as the first federally designated National Heritage Area in the United States.

At the end of the tour everyone disembarks, and visitors are encouraged to meet Larry the mule giving him attention and admiration. Some visitors choose to wander part of the canal on foot—a path built alongside it that goes for 90 miles out of its original 96-mile length—and read plaques and other signs to get a little more history.

Larry the Mule receiving pets and thanks after the boat ride. Photo credit: Ve’Amber D. Miller

Is There Something Missing?

Visitors experience the setting before anything else. Even when the crew is not dressed in period clothing, the atmosphere does a good job of introducing itself as a reflection of its earlier years. The tour relies on the setting and stays aware that visitors will immediately have questions about it on their mind by starting off with an explanation of the crew, mule, and boat.

Although, how the tour guide delivers information revealed one of the boat tour’s weaknesses.  Instead of relying on Audience Centered Experiences (ACE), the canal boat tour decides to stick with a more traditional lecturing approach. ACE has become an increasingly used element in National Park Service (NPS) tours and best described as a technique that encourages more dialogue with an audience in order to “guide mean-making experiences[1]. Despite the I&M Canal’s connection to the NPS, the tour decides to forgo the technique. Information is delivered via speakers installed on the boat creating a bit of distance between the guide and the audience. It again emphasizes how much the tour relies on its setting. The information becomes difficult to keep up with since there is only a small pause in the stream of details delivered.  

Furthermore, the tour’s expressed values lean towards a more rose-colored view of the time. It touches briefly on the mistreatment of workers, mentioning that during harder times workers were paid in scrip instead of cash who then struggled to make ends meet. A lot of current literature also takes a lighter, jubilant view of the canal and its history as well, focusing on most of the good it created. A solution may be found in special boat tours or other programs that focus on unexplored topics. If there is any turbulent history connected to the I&M Canal, it has been detailed very little.

Lastly, without the supplemental material—in particular, the I&M Canal National Heritage Area brochure—it is harder to understand the rest of the 96-mile canal and its associated sites without maps displayed anywhere else.  A few words about the other historic sites and tours along the I&M Canal while on the boat tour would have been beneficial to understanding the significance of the entire National Heritage Area but were missing despite being an easy addition.  

An Exceptional Experience

The I&M Canal Mule-Pulled Boat Ride strives to hit the mark on the principles that are part of the mission it and other associated historic sites share, but it does fall short in a few places. It does well to show the preservation of the history of the I&M Canal, using the replica packet boat and environment to its advantage. Yet the delivery of the history falls short when told through a more lecture style and impersonal method. The tour highlights the impact the I&M Canal had on the people and industry along it; the missing perspectives leave a hole, nonetheless. On top of the missing perspectives, the tour fails to mention other sites and tours to explore which hurts what could be an introduction to the greater region. Overall, the I&M Canal Mule-Pulled Boat Ride has its strengths, but improvements can be made to help it become an exceptional experience.

Ve’Amber D. Miller


[1] Foundations of 21st Century Interpretation, Ver. 2017 (Harpers Ferry: National Park Service, 2016),5.

The Joys of Research in Heaven’s Vault

heaven's vault rivers2

Heaven’s Vault is a recent PC game by Inkle (the studio behind 80 Days, an excellent interactive fiction adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days). In particular, it is a game deeply concerned with the past. But… not our past. The game places you in the role of Aliya Elasra, an archaeologist living in a very foreign world – or, more accurately, worlds. Her Nebula is a beautiful space populated with distant moons and the flowing waterways that connect them. She is accompanied by a ancient robot, and travels in a skyship that’s a thousand years old. But for a game with such a intriguing but fictional universe, it still manages to depict the process of historical thinking better than anything else I’ve ever played.

See, Heaven’s Vault is a game about knowledge and understanding. To proceed, it’s not a matter of overcoming enemies or physical obstacles, but piecing together information. The core puzzles in the game revolve around language: you explore environments to find ancient inscriptions, building a working dictionary to translate them as you go. This allows you to understand your finds and draw larger conclusions about what has happened in the past. And – as often in history – each question you answer only raises further questions in turn.

serpentscity

One major mechanism that allows all this to happen is the game’s timeline. As you discover things about the past, you automatically place markers that contextualize when they happened and how they relate to other events. But Heaven’s Vault has a particularly rich implementation of that simple concept. The notations and dates are tentative and theoretical – perhaps your first assumption is a particular site dates back thousands of years due to the stones used in a prominent statue. But then you come across an artifact whose design is much more modern, placing it as only a few hundred years old.

How can both make sense in the same context? Well, the discoveries are also realistically messy: maybe the reason you misdated the site is because it was actively used and developed over hundreds of years by different people itself. Historical eras are not hermetically sealed. Instead, the game naturally leads you to see the interactions of a fluid past, where one civilization may have built an object for one reason, only for a much later civilization to reclaim it to imbue with different meanings and context.

timeline

But perhaps the best part of all is the way that this timeline extends all the way to the present. On the same screen, you can begin with the fall of an empire two thousand years previous, then scroll forward to a formative event in your childhood, and finally all the way to that time you almost fell off a bridge five minutes ago. In this way the game subtly shows that everything is history, and that the player themselves are not a disconnected neutral observer. The mere process of doing your research and making discoveries is a historical action in and of itself.

I have to admit, I am not an archaeologist, and my areas of study are extremely modern, not ancient. I’m also only partway through the game… there is a whole mysterious plot going on in the game’s present day, and I’m not exactly sure where it’s leading. But there’s something extremely compelling in the core way that Heaven’s Vault understands history, and empowers the player to see research itself as a fulfilling pursuit.

I’ve always seen the process of ‘doing history’ as interesting and fun. For anyone who has trouble understanding that, I think I now know exactly where to point them.

ancient building.png

Seeing the Founding Space: Israel’s Independence Hall

Angela visited Israel in May 2018 on a Birthright Israel trip at a very contentious political moment for the country. In this post, she will analyze how Israelis interpreted the history of their Independence Hall and its degree of success as spaces for public history. All opinions belong solely to Angela.

The exterior of Independence Hall

When I visited Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, the white windowless exterior was unassuming. The enticing shops and sunny weather of Rothschild Ave seemed more entertaining than going indoors on a sunny afternoon – which I think was the preferred option of some of my traveling companions. However, I was very excited to see the museum. I wanted to observe how it represented its history almost 70 years later. As an American historian, I was curious to hear another country interpret its founding moments and documents. I’ll explain in this post what I learned, how it was presented, and what conclusions I came to afterwards.

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A+ for LGBTQ Organization: The Gerber/Hart Library

Last Friday, I pedaled my butt to 6500 N. Clark Street to visit the Gerber/Hart Library, Chicago’s premier LGBTQ research space. At first I wondered if I was at the right building, as construction equipment and workers occupied the ground level, but the second floor was attractive and very open for business. An exhibit on LGBT music and a community bulletin board/table, offering free materials such as The Windy City Times, greeted me before I even entered the library. Once inside, I received an enthusiastic welcome from the staff member who offered a tour of the library, exhibits, and even the archives and special collections. The space was bright and inviting, equally embracing its academic mission and community-development role.

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“Stagestruck City: Chicago’s Theater Tradition and the Birth of the Goodman”: A Review

The following review evaluates the latest exhibition on display at the Newberry Library. It is free and open to the public from 8:15 am – 7:30 pm on Tuesdays through Thursdays, and from 8:15 am – 5:00 pm on Fridays through Mondays.

adelphi

Chicago-area scholars are most assuredly acquainted with the diverse array of historical resources available at the Newberry Library. However, what would happen if pieces from their acclaimed collections found a way off the shelves and into a gallery space? The answer can be found in a new exhibition called “Stagestruck City.”

According to the first didactic panel visitors encounter upon entering the exhibit, the show’s story is about the venerable Goodman Theatre, Chicago’s oldest center for performing arts. It aims to explore “the theatre’s founding within the context of a remarkable heritage of live performance and popular amusement in the city.” This mention of “context” is critical for the exhibition as a whole, as one of its greatest strengths is delving into the intricacies of the Goodman’s founding while not overwhelming the audience with details about just one location. Indeed, the exhibition begins by examining theatres that reigned over the Second City’s entertainment industry decades before the Goodman was even conceived.

Col. Wood's MuseumThe first segment of gallery space succeeds in drawing in the visitor. The vibrant posters from places like the Adelphi Theatre and Col. Wood’s Museum (left) are mesmerizing examples of ephemera, and scanning through them could make readers feel like they themselves are late-nineteenth century theater buffs. Before 1871, contemporary plays could amusingly share the stage with more carnivalesque attractions such as the world’s largest lion! Everything changed, though, with the Great Chicago Fire. The conflagration consumed Chicago’s entertainment venues, providing an opportunity for more grandiose theatrical arenas to rise in their wake.

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“Motoring Through Edgewater”: A Review

The following review evaluates the newest exhibit at the Edgewater Historical Society, located at 5358 N. Ashland Avenue in Chicago. The museum is open to the public from 1-4pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

Housed in a decommissioned fire station turned historical society, “Motoring Through Edgewater” occupies most of the building’s first floor and is bordered by smaller, locally-oriented exhibits.  The historical society brims with a strong sense of local pride and history, and “Motoring Through Edgewater” reflects that energy.  At its best, the exhibit creatively uses archival materials to connect local history to broader stories of historical and contemporary significance. Although missing rich opportunities to utilize existing scholarship on gender and automobile culture, the exhibit nevertheless epitomizes the value of local history to foster enthusiasm about a community’s past.

IMG_4195The introductory panel represents the strength of the exhibit by connecting a national obsession with automobiles and automobile races to the emergence of Edgewater’s Northside Motor Row. Flanked by a mannequin dressed in the attire of an early woman driver, a chart showing the increase of automobiles in Chicago, and a colorful Oldsmobile advertisement, the panel provides an aesthetically exciting opening to the exhibit.  The advertisement contains the first of several references to Edgewater Beach Hotel, a landmark of local pride important enough to warrant its own exhibit in the entrance of the historical society.

IMG_4196Then, a bold, colorful Sanborn Map of Edgewater’s Motor Row (Broadway Avenue) dominates the southern wall.  Historical photographs, historical advertisements, and contemporary photographs surround the map, illustrating the changing urban landscape of Motor Row. The historical photographs demonstrate change over time, while the advertisements creatively fill in the gaps where no historical photographs remain of past buildings. The panel also introduces several founders of notable cab companies who started their business on Motor Row. Contemporary photographs display evidence of the past that remains along Broadway Avenue and the labels occasionally reference continuing preservation efforts.  This place-based panel jumps around chronologically, reproducing the effect of a contemporary city street with both an invisible and visible past.

The rest of the exhibit is arranged thematically, with section titles like “Off to the Races,” “See You at the Auto Salon,” “Women on the Road,” and “Edgewater on the Road.”  Adjacent panels on “The Parking Nuisance” and “License and Registration!” emerge as one of the strongest sections.  It connects artifacts from Edgewater to early city policies regarding parking and registration, while also referencing contemporary life in Chicago. A collection of license plates from each decade of the twentieth century also visually demonstrates change over time.

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People Power and Sacred Cows: More Thoughts on SELMA

I agree with much of what my colleague Devin Hunter has written, but am still struggling with my reactions to Selma. Something about it just didn’t entirely connect with me — which was unexpected. Reflecting back on my own discussions of the Movement in the classroom, I realized, Martin Luther King Jr. is far from my central focus. Although I do find it quite valuable to discuss his philosophy of non-violent resistance and the ways in which his tactics were implemented on the ground. Selma does some of this work as well, in fact it strikes a lot of the right chords, but still seems somewhat out of key — a bit too much swelling music here — too many contrived slow-motion shots there. But my main gripe isn’t about aesthetics. Much like the mainstream narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, the movie is just too focused on Dr. King.

David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King, Jr., in SELMA
David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., in SELMA

This may strike many as odd, because King is not a fixture on the silver screen. Perhaps thought of as a sacred cow, a man so mythologized in American culture as to appear daunting to directors, King, like Abraham Lincoln, has rarely received the full Hollywood treatment. And to her credit, like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), director Eva DuVernay’s film values depth over breadth and avoids some of the most problematic conventions of the biopic genre. Both focus, in procedural fashion, on a single historical event (albeit wrapped up with a series of others) in order to provide a window into the private as well as public lives of their respective central characters. Though even within these confines the thick veneer of hagiography associated with these figures presents enormous challenges for the filmmaker.

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Some Initial Thoughts on SELMA

I was lucky enough to catch a pre-wide release showing of Selma earlier this week, when colleague Anthony Di Lorenzo and I braved Arctic weather to trudge to the multiplex. Overall, with a few caveats, I found the movie an effective piece of history that should have a positive impact on the public memory of the Black Freedom Struggle. I have quite a few thoughts about the film—many half-formed—but here I’ll just stick to a few of the themes that struck me most:

  • The LBJ Depiction: fast and loose with many historical ‘facts,’ but the ends justify the means.
  • Keeping the Black in the Black Freedom Struggle: the ‘white savior’ theme is unavoidable—but challenged; the historians’ age-old dilemma between power and agency is here—but maybe only by accident.
  • Intra-movement Tensions: Valiant focus made possible by the above point, but SNCC is an unfortunate and ill-formed prop; consensus carries the day.
  • A Cast of Thousands vs. the Biopic: ‘Whoa it’s awesome that you have James Orange and Bayard Rustin in there.’/’Why aren’t you telling me more about Orange and Rustin?!’

Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) marching from Selma to Montgomery in the movie Selma. (Paramount)
Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) marching from Selma to Montgomery in the movie Selma. (Paramount)

Continue reading “Some Initial Thoughts on SELMA”