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The Archaeology of 19th Century Canal Boats

Morris Wide Water, Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail

The Morris Wide Water

The Morris Wide Water is a turning basin along the I&M Canal that is located on the eastern edge of the community of Morris in Grundy County. Turning basins are slightly wider sections of the canal that allowed the canal boats to pull over to the side and temporarily stop to allow other boats to pass. During the late summer of 1996, an unusually extreme thunderstorm deposited over 15” of rainfall on Chicago’s southwestern suburbs within a 24-hour period of time. A result of this torrential downpour was the destruction of a dam across the DuPage River at Channahon that supplied a large section of the Illinois and Michigan Canal with water. The unexpected result of the dewatering of this stretch of canal was the exposure of seven canal boat hulls within a section of canal known as the Morris Wide Water.

The Morris Canal Boats

Although once a common site along the canal, with hundreds of boats plying the waters between Chicago and LaSalle, not a single canal boat has survived to the present day in Illinois. As such, little is known about canal boat construction techniques in Illinois. Although the earliest of canal boats were brought over the Great Lakes from other areas (such as the Erie Canal), by the late 1850s the majority of these massive structures were being built at one of three boat yards located along the Canal at Peru, Lockport, and Bridgeport (Chicago).

Archival research indicates that the men responsible for constructing these water craft had immigrated to Illinois from such areas as New York State, Canada, and England and probably were trained in traditional maritime construction techniques through an apprenticeship system of labor. Unfortunately, these traditional methods of construction generally relied on personal experience, which utilized few measured drawings. Except for photographs that detail the exterior of the canal boats, little to no information (such as scaled plans, patterns or ledger books) has survived regarding interior details of construction or spatial layout. Our knowledge of canal boats along the I&M Canal was greatly increased with our recent study of the submerged resources at the Morris Wide Water. At this location, historical archaeological investigations have resulted in the detailed documentation of seven canal boats and have contributed to our understanding of these nineteenth-century maritime resources.

The canal boats at the Morris Wide Water were generally all about the same size. The preserved sections that we documented were approximately 15’ wide by 100’ long. Canal boat size, which varies dramatically from region to region, is dependent predominately on the size of the locks along canal. The canal boats at the Morris Wide Water had been constructed to fit exactly within the space allocated by the smallest lock along the canal corridor. The largest of the canal boats carried a cargo of 150 tons.

Although the Morris canal boats were remarkably similar in overall size, they, varied dramatically in the techniques employed to construct these vessels. Some of the more significant information gathered by the archaeologists was that relating to how the boats had been constructed. As was expected, a wide range of local hardwoods (particularly white oak) was used for the construction of the boats hulls. In contrast, non-local wood such as white pine, was used for the construction of the deck cabins.

All the canal boats were constructed using a plank keelson (a wide oak plank laid down the center of the boat from which the stern and bow posts were attached). From this plank keelson, the ribs were attached allowing the construction of the bottom and sides of the hull. Although the Morris canal boats were uniform in size, they exhibited great variability in their method of construction. Each boat examined exhibited a slightly different manner in constructing the bow, stern, and rib framing. Some of this variability appears to be related to the date when the boats were constructed. With the earlier boats, the bow post was fabricated by using an adz and carving the post from a curved section of oak tree utilizing the natural curvature of the tree to form the deadwood necessary to support the vertical post. In contrast, the latter vessels were constructed of multiple pieces of sawn lumber pinned together with large iron drift pins.

Another substantial difference in boat construction techniques was noted in the manner in which the side frames (or ribs) were attached to the floor frames. As with the bow and stern details, each boat exhibited a different manner of joinery. All boats used dimensional, sawn-oak lumber for the ribs and floor frames. The joint where these two framing members met was strengthened with an additional piece of triangular wood called a futtock. Some boats only had a single futtock lying on one side of the frame, whereas others had two futtocks (one on each side of the frame). Similarly, some boats utilized only nails to join the futtock to the frame, while others used various combinations of bolts and nails.

These variations in framing techniques may be related to idiosyncratic differences between craftsmen and/or the construction practices utilized at the various boatyards along the Canal. Similarly, these variations may also reflect functional and/or quality differences between the boats. The boats that had multiple futtocks attached with multiple bolts were much better constructed vessels capable of holding up to rough use (and heavier cargoes) than those that had a single futtock nailed onto the frames. Whether these framing details reflect functional differences between grain boats and stone boats, for example, is unknown at the present time. Evidence from our investigations indicate that coal and stone were found in the hulls of these boats.

Our investigations also have given us insights into the interior layout of these large vessels. Harness hardware and bottles (both glass and ceramic) were found in the bow section, suggesting the stabling of horses and/or mules within the hold. Similarly, personal items, furniture remains, and cooking utensils found in the stern section suggest that this was the area inhabited by the “canaler family” and/or boat hands. The archaeologists only excavated a small portion of these boats, and the hulls remain protected within the Morris Wide Water. This work, which was funded by the IDNR , was carried out by Fever River Research under the direction of Floyd Mansberger. This brochure was designed by Fever River Research.