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.

New Podcast from Loyola Grad

Everyone thinks differently, and some people think more differently than others – now and in the past. But how can we tell who? Join historian (and Loyola graduate) A.B. Lieberman as he dives into the world of neurohistorical analysis, combining science, culture, and history to search for those whose unusual states of mind went unrecognized in their time – and show us we aren’t alone today. Find it at neurohistory.podbean.com  or at the podcast service of your choice.

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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Conundrum Question: Fact vs. Fiction in the Historical Novel

Readers love historical novels. Fiction rounds out the details of history while helping us understand history’s wider ramifications. But, as Hannah Zuber noted here recently, “Historical fiction’s relationship with academic history has always been hotly contested.” This difficulty is discussed in my recent essay “A Critical Clarifier” where I said “assigning fictional actions to real persons from the past is, by definition, an exercise in inaccuracy.” How then can the novelist with a high regard for historical veracity minimize distorting the past?

Sometime around the turn of the 21st century, I happened upon a description of the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt by Giuseppe Zangara. This little-known event is seldom reported in histories of the 1930s, perhaps because Zangara missed his target with all five of his shots at Roosevelt. One of the bullets, however, struck Chicago’s mayor, Anton Cermak. And in Cermak’s life and later death lay a terrific real-life struggle yielding more than enough drama and excitement for a novel. I immediately knew I had to write this story of Chicago in 1933.

Still, decisions had to be made. How should I relate this in novel form without falsifying the very real experiences of the participants?

My essay had distinguished two types of historical novels, those that relate lives of famous historical characters, and those that focus on un-noteworthy people in the midst of historical events. Although both strive for what Simon Schama calls the “imaginative re-enactment,” the latter, which I named “Historical Context Fiction,” avoids at least some of the potential falsification pitfalls.

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I therefore chose to construct Illusions of Magic around the actions of fictional Chicago residents during the weeks that included the nineteen days between Anton Cermak’s wounding February 15th and his death on March 6, 1933. With Cermak’s struggle to live, the ensuing political intrigues, and the city’s extraordinary grieving over his death, I had a sturdy spine upon which to hang fictions involving adventure, love and compassion in the Windy City during the Great Depression.

Two questions remained to be decided: How much of the Cermak story should be included, and how should I go about integrating that history into the novel?

Following the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, Mayor Anton Cermak had arranged to meet with FDR in Miami, where the president-elect was vacationing. The mayor was hoping to obtain a promise of federal funding to help Chicago out of a severe financial shortfall brought on by the Great Depression. After all, when the tide finally turned during the Democratic National Convention in the summer of ‘32, it was Mayor Cermak who seized the microphone to announce the release of all of Illinois’ 58 delegate votes to Roosevelt, helping FDR gain more than the two-thirds majority required for nomination.

That fateful night of February 15, 1933, at Miami’s Bayfront Park, Cermak strode to the car from which Roosevelt had just concluded a brief speech. The large crowd that had gathered was still applauding as Cermak shook hands with the president-elect and they exchanged a few words. Shortly, five shots exploded from within the front rows of the crowd. People screamed. Someone cried, “Stop that man!”

Giuseppe Zangara, a small man with a troubled life, had fired a .32-caliber pistol, trying to kill Roosevelt. But the bullets missed. Along with three others, Anton Cermak was hit. Zangara was quickly subdued and carted off to jail. Roosevelt insisted on taking the wounded mayor to the hospital in his limousine.

The importance of this event cannot be minimized—the shooting risked the life of the president-elect at a crucial time in United States history (he would be inaugurated as president less than a month later).

Although the shooting was not local, the serious wounding of the mayor had a huge impact on Chicago. A poorly-understood fact surfaced in its aftermath: should the mayor die, no legal process existed for his replacement. Not only did this pose a practical difficulty, it gave rise to political machinations and intrigue such as the city had never before known. It saddled Chicago with monumental uncertainty and became the important historical focus for my novel.

At this point, a wide choice existed for uniting the Cermak story with my concept of a protagonist who takes on a dangerous quest, accidentally encounters a sweetheart after twenty years, but then discovers that caring can clash with familial bonds and the necessity for compassion.

I decided the most unobtrusive way to integrate the Cermak story was through the experiences of a major player in the fiction. Precinct captain Liver Jack Horn, although not the protagonist, is arguably a very important character. Early on, he lectures his sister on the importance of the city’s administration during the downturn:

There’s ‘most a million people who wants work, can’t find any. Some are so bad off they’re eating garbage. You remember last fall, down on Lower Wacker Drive? Remember all those men—musta been a hundred—sleeping under newspapers and cardboard boxes? Who d’you think’s leading the way to helping people out so they don’t end up there? It’s me and the City—what you call ‘the machine.’

Late in the book, Liver Jack witnesses the ceremony at the Bohemian National Cemetery:

There, in the carpeted and roped-off area, the mayor’s three daughters wept as they sat in the family’s space. Nearby were hundreds of Bohemian Odd Fellows arrayed in their red or blue ornate collars trimmed in gold, along with Knights Templar in uniform, and a group of children from the Bohemian Orphanage, each holding a white flower.

James Rada, an officer in the Lawndale Masonic Lodge, of which the mayor had been a member, was conducting ceremonies while most of his Lodge members stood in solemn attention. Liver Jack regularly cupped his hands over his face and blew on them to impart some warmth as he awaited the final ritual.

These glimpses suggest the novel’s historical component. Alongside but not sampled here is the story of Nick Zetner, stage magician. Short of work because of the poor economy and diminished vaudeville bookings, Nick reluctantly accepts the task of finding and returning stolen goods for a rich but sleazy banker. Yet this quest leads him to uncover, after a lapse of twenty years, a long-lost love that is subsequently rekindled.

The topic of this article is fact versus fiction in writing the historical novel. Through Liver Jack’s experience and discourse in Illusions of Magic, the reader relives the day-to-day political theater so characteristic of the times, details of the hospitalization and treatment of the mayor, and the great loss that Anton Cermak’s passing delivered to the city of Chicago 83 years ago. This slice of history proceeds in parallel with Nick’s story, combining fact with fiction in what I hope is an informative, as well as entertaining, amalgam.

J.B. Rivard is a local writer and illustrator and the author of the historical novel Illusions of Magic. More information about his work can be found at www.illusionsofmagic.com.

Chicago Open Archives

In the same spirit as Open House Chicago, Chicago Open Archives welcomes the public to tour over 30 cultural institutions around the city. Chicago Area Archivists hosts the event that runs from October 6 to October 8, 2016. Visitors have the opportunity to take part in behind the scenes tours and will have access to several places that are normally off limits to the public. Along with tours, visitors can engage with librarians, archivists, and museum curators. Other events include film screenings and exhibit talks.

Please note that in order to tour and/or participate in some of the events, preregistration may be required. Registration closes at midnight on October 4, 2016. There may be admission fees at some of the institutions. Check out the Chicago Open Archive website to learn more about the event and participating cultural institutions.

Ambidexterity and Ambition: The Tuskegee Model Legacy

Last year Fazila Kabahita and I decided to nominate the Ambidexter Industrial and Normal Institute in Springfield, Illinois, to the National Register of Historic Places as a part of our Historic Preservation course. Fazila and I learned that the Ambidexter Institute was modeled after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Deemed the “Tuskegee of the North,” Ambidexter was a private industrial school intended to teach trades and provide academic education to African American students. It received the name “Ambidexter” because its founder, Springfield clergyman G.H. McDaniel, believed that the students would have to be ‘ambidextrous,’ (in some sense-suggesting that they would have to be doubly as skilled as whites) using both their minds and their might, in order to make it in competition for employment with the white labor force. McDaniel intended to “accomplish for the negroes of the north what Booker T. Washington’s great school is doing for the colored people of the south.” He opened the school in 1901 with funding from prominent Springfield residents.[1] As we continue to work toward nominating the site through the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, I thought I’d share a little about the history of the school and similar institutions that followed the Tuskegee model.

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Stranger Than History: The Art of Historical Fiction

Conversations at the Newberry Library recently featured “Stranger than Fiction: Tasha Alexander and Susanna Calkins on the Art of Historical Fiction.” The two authors reflected on how their backgrounds as academically-trained historians prepared them for the world of fiction-writing. Alexander and Calkins addressed concerns relevant to writing historical fiction, like heeding the historical mindset of their characters, capturing the tone and rhythm of their characters’ dialogue, and knowing how to use their research effectively to tell captivating, enriching stories.

Maggie McClain, Kelly Schmidt, and Hannah Zuber attended the event. Below are their reactions to the conversation. A full recording of the conversation can be found here.

Writing historical fiction. It seems like an exhilarating, daunting, fulfilling process. I personally have never undertaken writing a book, but I’ve always enjoyed reading historical fiction. Really great writers transport you to a different time and place through their mastery of the written word. Composing a great story requires in-depth research and clear, concise writing. Historians are trained to do exactly that, so it is no wonder that some go into the profession of historical fiction writing.

Continue reading “Stranger Than History: The Art of Historical Fiction”

Camp Douglas Restoration Project: Urban Archaeology Builds Community while Unearthing History

Many people are familiar with Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp that held Union soldiers during the Civil War, but fewer know of Camp Douglas, a Union camp that held Confederate prisoners on Chicago’s South Side. Between October 8th and 14th, we—and others from Loyola, DePaul, and the community—worked as volunteer archaeologists on a dig with the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation, uncovering elements of Chicago’s Civil War past, and learning some basics about archaeology and the processes that go into a dig.

From 1861 to 1865, Camp Douglas occupied about 80 acres in what is now the Bronzeville community. Initially, Camp Douglas was a training ground for Union soldiers, and would later train enlisted African Americans. The camp was designed to be temporary, since the Union was confident the war wouldn’t last long. But by February 1862, Camp Douglas had become a prison camp for Confederate soldiers captured in battle, since the Union Army had nowhere else to put them. Camp Douglas became one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the nation and had the most Confederate deaths of any camp. Poor sanitation and overcrowding in makeshift wooden shelters spread disease among the prisoners, resulting in approximately 4,500 deaths (the prison housed roughly 30,000 prisoners through the course of the war).  Security was slack and escapes were frequent; an estimated 500 Confederate prisoners escaped during the camp’s operation. After the war Camp Douglas was quickly dissolved, and for the most part, forgotten.

Continue reading “Camp Douglas Restoration Project: Urban Archaeology Builds Community while Unearthing History”