Before the arrival of the railroads and hard-surfaced roadways, the Illinois
River was the main artery by which agricultural products were sent to markets
and by which manufactured and processed goods were delivered to the people who
lived along its banks.
By 1831 Beardstown became an important trade center, with Havana to follow by
1840. Steamers and packet lines grew rapidly to fifty-nine boats on the Illinois by 1850.
Barges of Mussel Shells Photograph courtesy U. S. Bureau of Fisheries.
Introduction of Barges
The use of barges to carry commodities began as early as the 1840s. From the
1840s to the 1860s, loaded keelboats tied to the sides of steamboats served as
the first barges. From 1858 to 1867, the Illinois Packet Company used sixteen
steamboats and sixteen barges to export local agricultural products to Saint Louis
and Chicago and import building materials and machinery.
By 1865, shipping companies were tying flat-bottomed, shell-draft barges to the
steamboats. Their advantages were ease of loading, flexibility, rapid pick-up
and delivery, and the grain or coal did not have to be packed; it could be
piled directly on the deck. It was also very economical at $.04 per bushel.
However, river trade after 1860 consisted mostly of low-class freight, such as
sand and gravel, and local traffic from one Illinois river town to another. The
railroad had garnered most of the grain shipping. From 1887 to 1903, the rate
from Saint Louis to New Orleans was $.05 to $.09 per bushel cheaper than rail.
The Betty M, one of the pioneer vessels of the Meching barge line. Hillyer (BPM)
As barge numbers increased, steamboat design was changed to allow them to push
barges. The steamboat became taller and sleeker and had stronger engines
steered by multiple rudders. Five to six large barges could hold as much
product as one hundred rail cars. In 1869, Congress appropriated $84,000 for
navigational improvements to the Illinois. However, by 1893 the idea of dams
and locks was abandoned in favor of roads and rail. In 1900, the Chicago
Sanitary and Shipping Canal moved more water into the Illinois River. Still,
traffic decreased until reaching a low point of river traffic from 1920 to
1930 to just between 100,000 and 200,000 tons.
However, the Federal Control Act of 1918 created the Inland Waterways
Corporation, which brought new terminals for barges on the Mississippi and new
designs for barges and towboats. Diesel engines replaced steam. Barges could
carry one to two thousand tons each. Nine-foot-deep channels were dredged to
accommodate the increased size of vessels. The Illinois Waterways Project was
finished in 1939. Traffic gradually increased on the Illinois from 7 million tons in 1945 to 25.5 million tons in 1970.