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Rebirth of I&M Canal Signals Birth of "Heritage Corridors": The I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor is the Prototype of the National Park Service`s Innovative Urban Parks Program 

12-09-2015 17:35

An overview of the historic preservation movement in the United States reveals a growing shift in concern from the preservation of individual structures and sites to that of large, multi-resource historic districts. Recently, this shift has become even more pronounced in the emergence of new, broader coalitions among historic preservationists, conservationists and other professionals who share an interest in protecting the distinctive features of our regional landscapes. Growing national interest in heritage parks and greenways reflects this evolution and parallels the National Register`s increased emphasis on developing historic context.

During the late 1960s the federal government began to consider alternatives to conventional national parks and acknowledged the need for recreational amenities near large metropolitan areas. Increasing urbanization, greater demands on limited public open space in metropolitan regions and high costs of real estate forced the federal government to explore new approaches to address the recreational need of urban America.

The first federally sponsored urban parks, such as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, involved the large-scale purchase of land. Because of the high cost of such a project, a strategy known as "greenline parks, " where public and private lands coexist under various management structures, became more popular. This approach attempts to protect significant cultural and natural landscapes from overdevelopment, while allowing these areas to express regional differences and maintain their economic vitality, much like the "national parks" of Great Britain and the "parcs naturels regionaux" of France.

Meanwhile, contemporary scholarly interest in historic landscapes, vernacular architecture and industrial and commercial archeology advanced the concept of the city as a "park" or open-air museum. Through interpretation, a city`s architecture, neighborhoods and public spaces can inform residents and visitors alike about America`s ethnic, labor and industrial heritage. Lowell, Mass., is probably the best known example of this heritage park phenomenon, where the entire city has been designated a "national historical park" with defined public and private responsibilities for preservation, education and economic revitalization. New York and Massachusetts have been leaders in establishing state-wide systems of heritage parks, which sometimes incorporate federal involvement, as at Lowell and Seneca Falls, N.Y.

The management plan is complex for greenline and heritage parks. It involves various levels of government and private interests and invariably relies on strong local leadership. The Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in northeastern Illinois is in the vanguard of this movement in the United States. In fact, in microcosm, the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor--the nation`s first---reflects several national trends in landscape preservation and renewal.

Constructed between 1836 and 1848, this historic waterway first bridged the continental divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainages.

Serving as a gateway to the West, the 96 mile-long canal was an impetus for the early growth and commercial development of Chicago and northeastern Illinois. Over 120 miles long and encompassing 42 separate communities and 19 Chicago neighborhoods, the I&M Canal corridor is an experiment in cooperative land management, resource protection, landscape interpretation and economic renewal. It has already served as the model for two other corridors, the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor in New England and the Delaware and Lehigh Valley Navigation Canal National Heritage Corridor in Pennsylvania.

In the early 1960s the state of Illinois conducted a study of the abandoned I&M Canal and surrounding property in order to assess its potential for generating state revenue. Local residents, who valued the canal as part of their heritage and as an unique recreational resource, protested the state`s plan to sell off canal lands and began a grassroots movement to save the historic waterway.

In 1963 Open Lands Project, a private, not-for-profit organization dedicated to conserving public open space in northeastern Illinois was formed. Assuming a leadership role in preserving the I&M Canal, Open Lands Project initiated a drive to establish the canal as a linear historical park and recreational trail. In 1974 this grassroots effort culminated with the designation of the I&M Canal State Trail, a 60-mile-long park that followed the canal and towpath from Joliet to LaSalle/Peru. The northern section of the waterway was omitted from the park, because, according to the state, it was so fragmented by modern-day industrial development that it could not accommodate a full length, continuous trail.

Although successful in its preservation of the canal`s lower reaches, the state park was traditional in its focus; the recreational and historical value of the canal was recognized without regard to its broader economic and community setting. Residents who lived along the canal`s upper reaches, which was generally more urbanized than the area between Joliet and LaSalle/Peru, approached Open Lands Project in hopes of preserving the entire waterway and adjacent natural areas. In response, Open Lands Project initiated its Des Plaines River Valley Program in 1980, which explored the natural and cultural resources of the lower Des Plaines River Valley, including the northern section of the I&M Canal. As an acknowledgment of the region`s rich cultural and economic dimensions, Open Lands Project began developing the concept of a nontraditional park, which would be anchored by the I&M Canal.

The role of the federal government in the corridor region dates to the 1930s when the Civilian Conservation Corps was active in canal restoration. In 1963 most of the I&M Canal was designated a National Historic Landmark. During the 1970s the National Park Service conducted various studies to explore the national significance of the canal region and the feasibility of possible federal management. No conclusions regarding federal responsibilities, however, were reached.

With supporters ranging from the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club to former Sen. Charles Percy and former U.S. Rep. Tom Corcoran, Open Lands Project encouraged the National Park Service in 1980 to develop a corridor plan. Its purpose would be two-fold: "The first is to provide a conceptual plan to protect and enhance the utilization of the abundant cultural and natural resources in the I&M Canal corridor while at the same time providing opportunity for economic development. The second is to develop alternative implementation strategies.... " Completed in 1981 with substantial local involvement, this plan identified 39 significant natural areas and over 200 historic sites and districts within the corridor.

This nine-month planning process involved consensus building among all parties interested in the corridor: community leaders, local government officials and residents. Perhaps most important to the project`s success was the participation of business leaders, many of whom at first had strongly opposed the concept. Specific goals, objectives and an action plan for a 10-year program were agreed upon, and a series of public meetings to present these findings was held in several canal communities. Three alternatives for implementation were outlined; only one called for federal involvement through the creation of a commission to coordinate development and through technical assistance from the National Park Service.

It was this limited federal option, rather than the state and local alternatives, that the Illinois congressional delegation, acting unanimously for the first time in recent memory, chose to pursue.

Throughout the process Open Lands Project officials argued, "Not only does the plan [the Illinois and Michigan Canal corridor program] seek to protect cultural and natural resources, it actively seeks to bring about economic revitalization of the region. It regards the landscape as a whole, an environment where the development of one resource cannot take place without affecting others. In the canal corridor, where the urban and industrial are inseparable from the natural and historic, preservation must be a renewal of the whole. "

When Sen. Percy and Rep. Corcoran introduced legislation into the U.S. Congress "to retain, enhance and interpret, for the benefit and inspiration of present and future generations, the cultural, historical, natural, recreational and economic resources [of the corridor], where feasible, consistent with industrial and economic growth," a totally new label was coined: "National Heritage Corridor."

Signed into law in Chicago on Aug. 24, 1984, by President Reagan, the corridor legislation imposed no new land-use controls, environmental codes or changes in management responsibility and jurisdiction. The most important benefit of the legislation, however, was the new national heritage corridor imprimatur it bestowed, which gave national recognition to the history and resources of the corridor region.

A 19-member federal commission was charged with acting as the leading public sector coordinator of the I&M corridor development. Its $250,000 annual budget funds a small staff, and its commissioners include representatives from preservation and conservation, business and industry and governmental agencies, including the director of the National Park Service. The commission is charged with developing an identity for the corridor through interpretation, signage and public education. It provides technical assistance in many areas, funds studies, contributes to revitalization projects involving historic preservation. The commission is also a focus for public discussion about issues affecting the corridor and the communities along it.

The Upper Illinois Valley Association is the leading private-sector organization working to coordinate the corridor`s diverse interests and implement the goals of the corridor legislation. An offshoot of Open Lands Project, the not-for-profit association was formed in 1982 to support the designation process and is now composed of business, industry and civic leaders from Chicago and the corridor area.

The association fulfills a key role by forging public/private partnerships and encouraging citizen participation in local renewal and preservation efforts. Recently, a comprehensive five-year plan was completed that divides the association`s work into three main efforts (1) economic revitalization of aging communities through historic preservation; (2) tourism based upon the region`s rich heritage and recreational resources; and (3) public education.

Two successful examples of the association`s efforts stand out. A 170-acre, nearly abandoned, former U.S. Steel site had become an eyesore to its neighbors in Joliet and an unpleasant reminder of the city`s previously high unemployment rate. A 1984 community conference sponsored by the Upper Illinois Valley Association, challenged local citizens, community groups, business and industry leaders, historians and redevelopment specialists to devise a plan for revitalization of this site.

One of the results was a key partnership between USR Realty Development Corporation (the real estate division of USX Corporation) and the National Trust for Historic Preservation`s Critical Issues Fund program. This partnership developed a reuse feasibility study and, eventually, a final plan for a "heritage business park" that recognized the site`s key historic structures and industrial archeology for marketing and interpretation purposes. The association has built upon the "heritage business park" concept to develop and launch a comprehensive industrial reuse strategy throughout the corridor.

The second project centers around the Gaylord Building, located along the canal in downtown Lockport. It is a prime example of the public/private partnerships the corridor designation is meant to foster. An 1838 canal warehouse, the Gaylord Building had been used for various purposes in the past but more recently had fallen into serious disrepair In 1983 the Upper Illinois Valley Association identified the structure as a potential anchor facility for the soon-to-be-designated corridor. With the leadership of Gaylord Donnelley, retired chairman of R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., and Barbara C. Donnelley, a trustee of the National Trust, the Gaylord Lockport CO. was formed to purchase and restore the building to its Civil War-era appearance.

Today, the Gaylord Building houses the acclaimed Public Landing restaurant, a gallery of the Illinois State Museum and a visitor center operated by the Illinois Department of Conservation. The facility has served as an anchor for tourism and as a catalyst for other revitalization projects in downtown Lockport, such as the 1850 Norton Building that is soon to be converted into a microbrewey, restaurant and retail shops.

Since the 1984 designation of the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, two others have been established by Congress in Pennsylvania and New England. Recent reports indicate that corridor momentum is growing; numerous other proposals are in various stages of planning throughout the country. For preservationists, this is a rare opportunity to extend traditional boundaries and broaden public awareness for the importance of cultural resources.

As the heritage corridor concept gains popularity, many questions remain unanswered. What is the appropriate role for the federal government? How can multiple themes be interpreted in an integrated manner? What strategy is best for dealing with such a complex management structure? These and other issues need to be addressed in the near future.

The national heritage corridor concept presents new challenges and opportunities for the preservation community. As evidenced by the I&M Canal corridor, broader coalitions and new partnerships are essential in order to preserve, interpret and enhance regional landscapes of national significance.

Publication Date: Fall 1989

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Author(s):Gerald W. Adelmann