Construction on the canal began in 1836 although it was stopped for several years due to a state fiscal crisis. The Canal Commission had a grant of 284,000 acres of federal land which it sold at $1.25 per acre to finance the construction. Still money had to be borrowed from eastern U.S. and English investors to finish the canal.
The canal was 60 feet (20 meters) wide and six feet (2 meters) deep, with paths constructed along each edge to permit mules to be harnessed to tow barges along the canal. Towns were planned out along the path of the canal spaced at intervals corresponding to the length that the mules could haul the barges. It had fifteen locks and one aqueduct to cover the 140 foot (45 meter) height difference between the Illinois and Chicago Rivers. From 1848-1854 the canal was a popular passenger route but this ended with the opening of a railroad in 1854 parallel to the canal. The canal had its peak shipping year in 1882 and remained in use until after World War I. It was replaced by the Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1933 which remains in use.
In 1871, the direction of the Chicago River was reversed by the Army Corps of Engineers with the result that the river and much of Chicago's sewage flowed into the canal instead of into Lake Michigan.
Today much of the canal is a long, thin park with canoeing and a 61 mile (100 km) long hiking/biking trail (constructed on the alignment of the mule tow paths). It also includes museums and historical canal buildings. Towns along the path of the canal include Willow Springs, Lemont, Lockport, Joliet, Channahon, and Morris, Illinois.